Victoria Sensations: Decadence and Degeneration

Confirmed for BBC Two on 29 May at 9pm to 10pm

Ep 2/3

Wednesday 29 May



In the second episode of the series, actor Paul McGann - long fascinated by the art and culture of the decade - discovers how the works of H.G. Wells, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde were shaped by fears of moral, social and racial degeneration.

Well-known as the Eighth Doctor in Doctor Who, Paul again travels through time, now seated in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, to see 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 finds out 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.

Another of the decade’s prominent scientific thinkers, Austrian physician Max Nordau, declares that it is art and culture itself and its practitioners - Aesthetes and Decadents - causing Britain’s moral degeneration, singling out Oscar Wilde as the chief corrupting influence.

Dressing in Wilde’s attire, 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,  Paul explains how Wilde sought to subvert traditional Victorian values.

He also hears from Stephen Calloway about how Aubrey Beardsley - the most decadent artist of the period - scandalised society in much the same way as Wilde, through his erotic drawings. Paul also learns about a group of female writers known collectively as 'The New Woman', who in more than one hundred novels portrayed a radical new idea of femininity, one which challenged the conventions of marriage and motherhood.

Whilst Oscar Wilde had made a very public show of defiance, Paul uncovers another leading and gay writer of the period, John Addington Symonds, who together with the prominent physician Havelock Ellis sought to produce a scientific survey of homosexuality - the groundbreaking book Sexual Inversion. 

Paul explains how questions of sex and gender also lie at the heart of a very different book, published in the same year - Bram Stoker’s Dracula - which infused many of the decade’s chief preoccupations and growing fears of racial prejudice and immigration.

Paul also learns about West Indian Celestine Edwards, who took a brave stand against Imperial rule. Edwards became the first black editor in Britain and his pioneering work would be continued by fellow West Indian, Henry Sylvester Williams, who formed the African Association in 1897.

Victorian Sensations (3 x 60) is a BBC Arts programme for BBC Four, produced by Academy 7 Productions. Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor, BBC Arts. Producer/Director, Matthew Thomas. Executive Producers, Sebastian Barfield for Academy 7 Productions and John Das.