Paul McGann is travelling through time once more, albeit without a TARDIS, as he discovers how the works of H.G. Wells, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde were shaped by fears of moral, social, and racial degeneration.
In the second episode Victorian Sensations, McGann, seated in Wells’ Time Machine, explores how the author’s prophecies of a future in which humanity has decayed and degenerated highlighted the fears and anxieties of the British Empire.
Paul learns how these fears were informed by new scientific theories based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, with Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton seeking to improve the genetic stock of the nation through a project he coined ‘Eugenics’. For Eugenicists, one way of keeping a ‘degenerate’ working class in check was prison – or increasingly by the 1890s, the Asylum. Paul travels to the abandoned Denbigh Mental Asylum in North Wales to find out just how many people were admitted due to ‘hereditary influence’ but also sexual transgression. Paul explains how questions of sex and gender also lie at the heart of a very different book, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which infused many of the decade’s chief preoccupations and growing fears of racial prejudice and immigration.
Another of the decade’s prominent scientific thinkers, Austrian physician Max Nordau, singles out Oscar Wilde as a chief corrupting influence in Britain’s moral degeneration – which leads to McGann enacting a scene from Wilde’s only novel, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and taking to the stage to give Wilde’s controversial speech after the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Victorian Sensations is a three-part BBC Arts programme, produced by Academy 7 Productions, and directed by Matthew Thomas. McGann leads its second episode, Decadence and Degeneration, which is due to air on BBC2 and BBC4 on Wednesday 29th May 2019, from 9pm.