London: Oscar Wilde described it as his “numbered tomb” – the prison cell where he spent two years after being jailed for gross indecency. And when he was released in 1897, he turned his “pitiless” misery and the execution of a fellow inmate into one of his greatest works, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Now Hollywood stars are pleading with the Government to save the disused prison for the nation after ministers tried to sell it off to developers.
Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Fry – who portrayed Wilde on screen – are among those who want the Grade-II listed building to be turned into an arts hub where the plays of Wilde, among others, could be performed. They fear that if the Ministry of Justice, its owner, sells it to the highest bidder, the building will be turned into flats, and Wilde’s cell, as well as the building where he spent his days in hard labour, will never be open to the public.
Dame Judi said: “It is vitally important that Reading Gaol, a place of such culture, be used in a way that pays tribute to its artistic history, namely, to become a cultural and artistic centre. It would be a great gift, not only to Reading, as a town and growing population centre of the South, but also to the UK and the world as a whole.”