Tuesday 21 November 2017

PROGRAMME OF THE WEEK: Christopher And His Kind

Tolerance: Douglas Booth as Heinz, left, and Matt Smith as Christopher
Tolerance: Douglas Booth as Heinz, left, and Matt Smith as Christopher Isherwood

Paul Whitington

Mainly thanks to its unashamedly intellectual satellite channel BBC4, the BBC has produced some outstanding literary-based dramas in the past few years.

Written by playwright Kevin Elyot, 'Christopher And His Kind' is inspired by the life of one of England's slightly neglected 20th-century novelists, Christopher Isherwood.

Tom Ford's acclaimed 2010 film 'A Single Man' was based on Isherwood's novel of the same name and his middle years as a high-profile expatriate in Los Angeles. But this drama goes back to his early years, in Cambridge and Berlin.

Isherwood's 'Berlin Stories' and quality novels such as 'A Single Man' won him wide acclaim in later life, but he had to work hard to establish himself as a writer, and a man.

He was born into a wealthy, upper-middle-class family in 1904, but young Christopher lost his father during the First World War, and thereafter was left in the care of his stern and oppressive mother.

Isherwood was gay, no easy business in 1920s England, and, after flunking his final exams at Cambridge, he drifted towards London's intellectual demi-monde.

In the mid-1920s he bumped into a young man he'd gone to school with called Wystan Auden. Like Isherwood, WH Auden was gay, and an aspiring author. The two became great supporters of each other's work, and would remain friends for the rest of their lives.

After travelling to Berlin with Auden in 1929, Isherwood found the permissive and tolerant atmosphere of the Weimar Republic to his liking, and stayed in Germany until Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

In a series of short stories he brilliantly captured the giddy ambiance of Weimar Germany, and made his name as a writer.

He moved to America with Auden in 1939, and found a home and -- eventually -- contentment in California, where he became a university professor and produced some of his finest work.

In 'Christopher And His Kind', which was partly filmed in northern Ireland, by the way, current 'Doctor Who' Matt Smith plays the young Isherwood, with Lindsay Duncan giving a memorable turn as his harridan of a mother.

To get away from both her influence and the starchy restrictions of English society, the young Isherwood flees to Germany on a whim. The infamous Berlin cabaret scene is in full swing when a young and wide-eyed Isherwood arrives in the city, unable to speak a word of German.

To Isherwood's reserved English sensibility, the city's thriving gay subculture is thrilling and intoxicating. But he soon finds himself heartbroken after the failure of a hopeless love affair, and so sets out on a process of self-discovery.

The drama's cast includes Imogen Poots as Jean Ross, an aspiring actress and singer who provided Isherwood with the inspiration for the Sally Bowles character of 'Cabaret' fame; Toby Jones as Gerald Hamilton, a peculiar man who provided the inspiration for the title character in the celebrated Isherwood novel 'Mr Norris Changes Trains'; Pip Carter as Auden, and Douglas Booth as Heinz, a street cleaner whom Isherwood fell in love with during his time in Berlin.

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