The early adult life of novelist Christopher Isherwood, friend and occasional lover of WH Auden, is chronicled here in 90-minute drama, Christopher and His Kind (Saturday, 9.30pm, BBC2). It’s a thrilling, insightful mirco-biography by playwright Kevin Elyot, based on Isherwood’s two-book novel, The Berlin Stories. But it could easily have stretched to three or four feature-length parts. Instead of skimming over his later decades there might have been a fuller recounting, plus a more in-depth probing of the protagonist, his cohorts and key themes.
Matt Smith who we’re used to seeing as the coquettish though sexless Doctor Who, has thrown himself at the lead part like a young actor desperate to prove his breadth, and it’s worked. Actually, he does his best work in the sex scenes. And Smith’s hauntingly hollow eyes and sunken cheeks have never seemed more appropriate than when he’s worrying about the Gestapo capturing his beautiful boyfriend Heinz, or watching eager young Nazis burn books and daub hateful graffiti on the windows of Jewish businesses. “Shame” he repeats indignantly, every bit the embarrassed upper class English gentleman.
Indeed, Isherwood was from good (if weird and emotionally broken) stock. His domineering mother, played by Lindsay Duncan, is a Great War widow and dotes on her eldest son. I’d like to have seen more of her younger boy--the squinty, sad Richard (Perry Millward), if for no other reason than to gawp at his unwieldy one-sided perm.
In Berlin, pretty, pouty Imogen Poots is Christopher’s best friend Jean Ross--an unlucky-in-love cabaret singer, though not a terribly good one. It’s impossible to know whether this is Poots’ failing, or if the role demanded that she sound like someone a depression era Simon Cowell would have sent packing. Still, she can work frosted green eye shadow and a feathered fascinator better than anyone is the business.
The rise of National Socialism in Berlin during Isherwood’s stay makes for a terrifying backdrop. Arguably, this era and setting have been worn-out dramatically so it’s hard – impossible even - to make a period piece that feels fresh. But by keeping the politics in the middle distance, picking an off-beat narrator and hazing the edges with free love and cigarette smoke, Christopher and His Kind achieves exactly that.