Christopher and His Kind

Have just watched this gem on BBC iplayer. A brave move for Matt Smith, the current Dr Who, and one which, in my humble opinion, really shows off his talents as an actor. The decadence Isherwood saw during his visit to Berlin, the rise of Nazi Germany, the highs and lows, his sexual encounters and unlikely friendships are all given frank portrayal in his writings and make for a compelling drama, all done with the usual BBC aplomb.

I feel I owe folk like Isherwood a debt. It is from people like him that the histories emerge that writers like myself can use to make our historical m/m novels accurate and thus represent what it was to be gay at this time with integrity. In terms of what it meant to be a gay man in the mid-twentieth century Isherwood makes no bones about it, illustrating a social history that would otherwise have been lost. He came from a certain level of society which gave him the money to do things and go places others might find themselves prohibited from. He was well educated, although failed at Cambridge, much to his mother’s disappointment. He seems to have lacked the stability that might have been engendered by a father figure as his father was killed in action during the First World War, a fact his mother never seems to have let her son forget.

It is as if he stumbled through those Berlin encounters, throwing himself into it like a kid in a candy store. His long term friend and occasional lover, W H Auden (who it seems would have loved him more if Isherwood had let him), accused him of being selfish and loving people only on his terms. That could quite be true, if the drama was correct, but it seems Isherwood was neither ready to settle for a long term relationship when Auden first asked him to stay, nor was he prepared to give totally of himself. It looks as though he was let down and lied to so much that he, like Jean Ross (the real-life inspiration behind the character of Sally Bowles of Cabaret fame) whom he met in Berlin, took a long time to find love again. Reading between the lines and understanding that I know very little about Isherwood, other than this drama, I can see a lonely person, at odds with an overbearing mother and breaking out to be what he knew he was, gay in a world where religion rejected him, politics didn’t stand up to scrutiny and the law was against ‘his kind’. As a young man, he seemed capable of being a good friend, of caring about the people in his life, but ultimately finding they didn’t need him. I am looking forward to reading more about him, of finding out more about this gay writer whose work was the inspiration behind the film, Cabaret.

The drama was compelling, poignant and funny, with some well chosen and flawlessly ironic (most likely unintentional) lines; for instance, his mother’s quip about “wouldn’t it be so much nicer to be a doctor as well?” in light of Matt Smith’s current role. I really enjoyed watching it, it has inspired me to read his work, to find out more about the man. I had no idea that he had collaborated with Auden on Dog Beneath the Skin, a work I remember reading at school. We studied twentieth century verse, from the likes of Auden, Sassoon, Owen and Larkin, for our O Level syllabus. It’s a small world. Auden was born in my home city of York, in the house a few doors down from the registry office where I was married, seventeen years ago.

So, thank you, BBC, for another good drama. Christopher lived through an era of massive social change – Berlin of the Thirties, America in the Fifites and Sixties. He saw it with a writer’s eye, and imagination, and a writer’s skill. Thus we are able to live those eras through his eyes. What greater immortality?

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