BBC Radio 7, 11-13 November 2009
A satire of Victorian melodrama, a comedy of manners focusing on the
clash of values between British tradition and American pragmatism, and a sentimental celebration of the power of love, The
Canterville Ghost is a real melange of a tale. Perhaps wisely, this reading by impressionist-turned-straight actor Alistair
McGowan did not try to impose any unity on the tale. McGowan began by contrasting the machinations of the ghost Sir Simon
Canterville with the rank indifference of the Otis family, who had bought Canterville Hall and determined to turn it into
a modern-day Xanadu (pace William Randolph Hearst), complete with all mod cons. The ghost's presence for them was merely
an irritation - or an excuse for the two youngest Otis twins to devise a series of practical jokes designed to inconvenience
the ghost. These included setting booby-traps, stretching pieces of twine across the corridor in the hope of tripping him
up, or impersonating ghosts themselves. Sir Simon's attempts to frighten the boys became more and more frenzied; he adopted
a variety of disguises (each announced with due ceremony, as a presenter of Victorian melodrama might have done), but none
of them had the slightest effect. Worn out with frustration, Sir Simon retired defeated to his eyrie, where he encountered
Virginia, the Otis's daughter.
It was at this point that the story's tone radically changed, as the ghost admitted
that he was desperately hoping to die, but could not do so as he believed that God would no longer look favourably on him.
Virginia convinced him otherwise; the two of them prayed together and Sir Simon was at last guaranteed his wish. McGowan's
tone at this point became paternal, almost as if he were telling a bedtime story with a moral to it for the benefit of his
offspring. In Victorian times this kind of tale might have been popular; but it seemed to me that Wilde had deliberately
blunted his own satiric purpose in pursuit of a happy ending.
Nonetheless The Canterville Ghost provided an entertaining diversion, and
proved once again that Wilde remains the master of the telling epigram.