From the first time I saw Christopher and His Kind, I loved it. Maybe it was Matt Smith, Lindsay Duncan, or the wonderful hedonism that we all should simply indulge in every once and while. Does it really matter? According to The Telegraph‘s review:
I wonder if the club scene regularly documented in ITV2’s reality show The Only Way Is Essex will ever be remembered with the same reverence accorded to the Berlin cabaret scene recorded by the novelist Christopher Isherwood. He portrayed a hedonistic subculture with a cast of chancers, exhibitionists and wannabes, and a taboo-breaking attitude to sex that would have positively vajazzled polite British society of the time.
Christopher and His Kind (Saturday, BBC Two) dramatised the collision between that subculture and the ideology that led to its extinction: Nazism. It was based on Isherwood’s memoir of his time in Berlin in the early 1930s, with Doctor Who’s Matt Smith playing Isherwood. One of his first tasks was to embody the novelist’s distinctively mannered speech, to “set the record straight” about his reasons for being in the city. “I could say I went because of what was happening politically,” he said. “But in fact I went because of the boys.”
Isherwood followed his friend, the poet WH Auden (Pip Carter), to Berlin, where he discovered the unrepressed spirit of sexual freedom in a cellar bar called the Cosy Corner. There he was warned by Auden that the rent boys who frequented the club were “nearly all rampant hetters”, the meaning of which – for anyone not familiar with this short form for heterosexual – he went on to make extremely clear.
There were sex scenes, rampantly unheterosexual ones, of course, which weren’t particularly salacious but probably deserved an award for loudest on-screen paroxysms to be heard in a while. There was a bit of S&M as well but it didn’t look much fun. The piquancy was mostly in the script, with Carter giving Auden the delivery his deadpan one-liners deserved. “I do loathe the sea,” he said, at one point. “It’s so wet and sloppy.”
Carter wasn’t the only heavyweight character actor on show. Lindsay Duncan, whom many viewers will remember for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in the drama about her final days as Prime Minister, took on the role of Isherwood’s controlling mother Kathleen, delivering a brittle, icy chill every time she reminded Christopher of just what she had gone through to bring him into the world. Toby Jones, who played Swifty Lazar in the film Frost/Nixon, had been recruited to play Gerald Hamilton, the shady businessman with an S&M fetish, who had been the study for Isherwood’s Mr Norris. He lost a little of his charm and became seedier. In fact, there was no great thing made of the retrospective glamour that has been accorded the era.
Of course, what the makers of Christopher and His Kind wanted to avoid was being compared with Cabaret (BBC Two, tonight), the 1972 film that took Isherwood’s Berlin and turned it into a musical, not least because Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles sucked every available mote of starlight into her kohl black eyes, black suspenders and top hat to create one of cinema’s most show-stealing performances.
Christopher and His Kind didn’t have Minnelli or indeed Sally Bowles, but it had the real-life person who had inspired her, Isherwood’s friend Jean Ross, who was played by Imogen Poots. Minnelli’s Sally Bowles had been a star. Poots didn’t want her Jean Ross to be too good a singer. If the real Jean had been that good, Poots has said, she wouldn’t have been wasting her time hanging around with Isherwood in the cabarets of the Weimar Republic, she would have been on her way, perhaps, to the life she dreamed of in Hollywood.
She made Ross convincingly fragile beneath layers of attitude. “Oh, Mummy would nearly die if she knew what an old whore I am,” she declaimed. Her cabaret scenes, performing numbers such as I Don’t Know to Whom I Belong, felt emotionally revealing, but as she carefully bummed another note in imitation of the real Jean Ross, you could almost hear the ghost of Bob Fosse. “Shall we try that again? This time with a little less historical veracity.”
It meant that Smith – cast, it has to be said, against type as the dainty Isherwood – stayed centre stage. He gave the writer great warmth and presence, and captured a little of the naivety of a young man faced with difficult choices. Ought he to be writing for a publication run by Oswald Mosley? How would he protect his street-sweeper lover Heinz (Douglas Booth) if he left Berlin? “We must stand by our kind Christopher,” a Jewish department store owner told him, “whatever the cost.”
Christopher and His Kind showed a deft touch with its themes and lots of cinematic flair. It also wasn’t afraid to spear the narcissism of its main character: “The only cause you really care about, Christopher, is yourself,” Auden told his friend at the end. “But you’ve turned it into an art form.”