Entertainment & Arts

Author Isherwood inspires Dr Who star Matt Smith

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Media captionWatch: Matt Smith talks about Christopher Isherwood

The story of novelist Christopher Isherwood, one of the 20th Century's most influential writers, is being told in a new TV drama starring Dr Who's Matt Smith.

The drama is adapted from Isherwood's autobiographical novel Christopher and his Kind, which covers the author's time in pre-World War II Berlin.

It will give a glimpse into the life of an author who was friends with WH Auden and whose works included The Berlin Stories, which inspired the musical Cabaret, and A Single Man, which was adapted into a film starring Colin Firth.

"He's primarily so fascinating because he's a brilliant writer," says Smith.

"But not only that, he's a brilliant writer who was gay in a certain era of Britain, where it was difficult to be gay. And I suppose his journey is just very interesting."

It was a journey that took Isherwood to Berlin in the 1930s, where he was able to embrace his homosexuality in a way that was almost impossible in Britain. Exploring this part of the character was a very different experience for the actor best known for Dr Who.

Image caption Isherwood (left) was friends with WH Auden (right)

"There was a lot of naked acting took place. Kissing of boys and things," remembers Smith.

"I like challenging the perception of who I am as an actor, without wishing to sound too self important by saying that. I don't know if playing someone who's gay does that. I don't know if having sex on screen with a man does that. It was a part of the story. [So] you've got to step up to the plate and play it."

At the same time, political changes were taking place in the city, with an equally strong impact on Isherwood. "Going to Berlin really opened his eyes," says Smith.

"It wasn't only a sexual awakening for him. But very much a political one, when you read his novels, particularly The Berlin diaries and Christopher and his Kind - they're so informed with his time in Berlin.

"His identity changes. His perspective. His values. And this manages to encapsulate that, I hope. And I think it captures a period that is very interesting, the burgeoning presence of Nazism and things like that are dramatic. Harrowing, but dramatic."

Berlin is a city that Smith has visited, and which he says he finds fascinating because of its complex history. "What I find remarkable about Berlin is that a place that has been through the most ardent periods of fascism that we know, probably is one of the most liberal places I've ever been," he says.

Image caption Douglas Booth (left) plays Heinz Neddermeyer, who Isherwood meets and falls in love with

"It's a wonderful place, a wonderful city. And I think Christopher really felt the spirit of it and the spirit of the people."

As part of his research, Smith also met Don Bachardy, who was Isherwood's partner until the author's death in 1986. He also studied footage of the writer to try and capture his mannerisms.

"Once you start to get into the nuts and bolts of the man, he's very interesting," says Smith. "The way he holds himself, even the way he talks. He's got quite a clipped, different voice. All those things as an actor are quite interesting as they all tell a story, I guess."

With interest in Isherwood and his work rising in recent years, Smith hopes this dramatisation of his life will further increase the public's appetite for his writing.

"I really hope it pushes people towards his literature. Because his literature is brilliant. He's just a wonderful prose writer, he really is. Christopher and his Kind is wonderful. The Berlin Stories are great. And A Single Man.

"I can't urge people enough to go out and read his stuff."

Christopher and his Kind is on BBC Two at 2130 GMT on Saturday.

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