Isherwood and Auden, and the “Year of Books”

I wasn’t that impressed by “Christopher and His Kind“, the BBC adaptation of Isherwood’s memoir of his years sampling the decadent and permissive nightlife of Weimar Berlin. (This was a period that gave him the material for two novels and a play, and the play was later adapted into the musical/film “Cabaret”.) Matt Smith was excellent as Isherwood; he got the voice and the mannerisms exactly right. Toby Jones, an actor who would find it impossible to turn in anything less than a superb performance, was wonderfully sinister and sleazy as Gerald Hamilton, the original of Mr Norris in Isherwood’s 1935 novel “Mr Norris Changes Trains”. Imogen Poots (that’s her real name … ) brought both fragility and toughness to the role of the free-spirited cabaret singer Jean Ross, and the only false note in the casting was struck by Pip Carter as WH Auden, who captured the poet’s acerbity well, but none of his kindness. A missed chance to explore a person of inestimable importance in Isherwood’s life, as Isherwood was in Auden’s. (I only started reading Auden about a year ago, but no writer has meant as much to me so quickly. I was nervous to see how he was going to be portrayed. )

The cast couldn’t completely save what was a serviceable enough dramatisation, but the frequent lapses into farce (was there really oompah music during one of the sex scenes? Or did I imagine it?) made the whole thing descend into panto at times. Also, this period is so culturally familiar, and has been worked over so many times, by Isherwood himself, by Kander and Ebb, by Hollywood, that the BBC could as well have made an adaptation of “Mr Norris Changes Trains”, or “Goodbye to Berlin” – much of it is interchangeable. This isn’t a criticism in itself, but a more original take on Isherwood and (especially) Auden would have been welcome. Still, as another instalment in the BBC’s “Year of Books”, this was at least a bold attempt at doing something different. I’ve only ever read “Mr Norris” by Isherwood, and have promised myself that I will have to read more by him. If drama like this turns the audience towards the writer’s works, then it has more than done its job.

Next weekend on the BBC is a two-part adaptation of DH Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love”. By taking Lawrence’s two, linked novels as one, it might be possible to do something bold and original with the adaptation in a way that wasn’t really achieved with “Christopher and His Kind”. Typically though, it’s being hidden away on BBC4. I wonder if Matt Smith (AKA “The Doctor”) hadn’t been playing Isherwood, would it still have found a home on mainstream BBC2?


One thought on “Isherwood and Auden, and the “Year of Books”

  1. ISMs Press

    Love the review. I haven’t watched Christopher and His Kind yet, and know nothing about Isherwood’s voice or mannerisms and I haven’t read a single thing by Auden (shame on me!). I so want to be impressed with it but in truth I expect to be disappointed. Like you say, the era has been dramatized so many times I’m not sure how the BBC can come up with something new.


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