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Stephen Fry backs campaign to transform Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, into arts centre

Nick Duffy March 11, 2020
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

Campaigners are calling for the former Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, to be reopened as an arts centre dedicated to his memory.

The playwright and poet, who had a string of male lovers, was famously arrested and sent to Reading Gaol in 1895 for for gross indecency with men, under the UK’s historic anti-gay laws.

Wilde served two years behind bars in Reading Gaol, where he penned the work De Profundis.

His time in prison was the basis for his final ever work The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem that reflects on the harsh rhythms of his daily prison life.

Campaigners want to save Reading Gaol.

The disused Reading Gaol building in Berkshire has previously been re-opened for temporary exhibitions dedicated to Wilde – but campaigners are now hoping to find it a more permanent use.

Former QI host Stephen Fry is among those backing a campaign for the government to scrap plans to sell off the site, and instead transform it into a full-time arts centre.

A petition from Reading East MP Matt Rodda says: “Reading Gaol is an important national heritage site, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned and Henry I is believed to be buried nearby.

“We the undersigned want to see it preserved and enhanced to become an arts hub and to celebrate Reading’s heritage.

“We call on the Ministry of Justice to support this and not to sell it off to the highest bidder. This wonderful site should stay open to the public, it is too important to be redeveloped as luxury flats.”

Stephen Fry: ‘Living art can rise up from the place where Oscar Wilde and so many others suffered.’

Supporting the campaign, Stephen Fry quoted the Ballad of Reading Gaol line: “This too I know – and wise it were If each could know the same – that every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame.”

Fry added: “Flowers can grow out of manure, and if living art can rise up from the place where Oscar and so many others suffered then how perfect that will be, for Reading, for Britain and for us all.”

Stephen Fry, comedian, actor and writer
Stephen Fry, comedian, actor and writer (David Levenson/Getty Images)

The campaign has also been backed by novelist Julian Barnes, who told the BBC: “Turning a prison into an arts centre is the equivalent of beating swords into ploughshares. I fully support this ambitious and enterprising project.”

Rodda said: “I am absolutely delighted that the campaign to turn Reading Gaol into an arts and heritage site has been recognised by Stephen Fry and Julian Barnes.

“Their support comes at a crucial time for the future of the site.”

More: Matt Rodda, ministry of justice, Oscar Wilde, reading gaol, Stephen Fry

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