Christopher Transfigured: Kevin Elyot adapts Christopher and His Kind

Thomas Manson and George Meredith are playwrights with a particular interest in history and the archive. In 2019 they undertook a residency at the Theatre Collection to explore questions surrounding adaptation and the creative potential of the archive, which culminated in two creative writing workshops. This first blog charts their response to findings in the Kevin Elyot Archive

Christopher Transfigured:
Kevin Elyot adapts Christopher and His Kind

I wish I could remember what impression Jean Ross – the real-life original of Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin – made on Christopher when they first met. But I can’t. Art has transfigured life and other people’s art has transfigured Christopher’s art. What remains with me from those years is almost entirely Sally.
(Christopher and His Kind, p.51)

Kevin Elyot’s archive is full of adaptations, from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and many adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. In fact, these adaptations comprise a significant part of his writing output, and while Kevin may be best remembered for his more prominent theatre successes, these works must be considered an important part of his oeuvre. Of all the adaptations in his archive, none is more fascinating – or more comprehensive – than his work on Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind, which was broadcast on the BBC in 2011. The collection traces his process from initial plans all the way through to his correspondence about the DVD release, and these materials offer a unique insight into what is clearly a vital part of a professional writer’s trade. They also highlight the complexities involved in bringing such a well-known personality to the screen.

In any adaptation there are two voices at work: the voice of the original author and the voice of the adapter. But in Christopher and His Kind there are a multitude of competing voices. There’s Isherwood and Elyot, of course, but also a cacophony of others. It is a story that has been so well told by so many people, that any re-telling has to compete with the raucous sounds of Kander and Ebb and Minelli and Fosse and Cabaret and I Am Camera and every other author and historian and filmmaker who has ever journeyed back to 1930s Berlin. And then there’s all the other noise of a film production – the producers and directors and designers and commissioning editors who bombarded Kevin with suggestions and changes and cutbacks. In truth, the dominant sensation when delving through the Christopher and His Kind collection is one of overwhelming noise. It’s a wonder Kevin could hear himself think.

Grappling with Isherwood

It starts quiet. At the heart of it all is Kevin’s copy of Isherwood’s book. All 339 pages are annotated. Dense handwriting is crammed into the margins; spidery sentences in the paragraph cracks. Sometimes it is a reaction, or a date, or a summarising word. Often it’s just ‘USE’, underlined twice, or ‘PERHAPS USE’, or – least certain of all – ‘USE?’ Kevin Elyot’s adaptation is all here, taking shape between the paperback covers of Isherwood’s memoir – and it’s like the two writers are in dialogue across the chasm of the decades.

Written in 1976, Christopher and His Kind is Isherwood’s autobiographical account of the notorious years he spent amidst the rise of National Socialism. And as well as presenting a compelling narrative in its own right, the book provides a manual for the thorny process of adaptation. Here Isherwood’s creative peregrinations are as important as his real ones. We are introduced to ideas for novels, plays and stories both published and unpublished, characters are discussed alongside their inspiration, real and fictive narratives diverge and meet, often until the boundaries become almost imperceptible.

Isherwood grasps his story with both hands. He is his own appointed biographer, calling upon and monopolizing the literary works and diaries of others to discuss his own tribulations. In doing so, he perpetuates the myth of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, a life lived as much in the collective imagination as it was in reality. As Isherwood’s immediate use of the third person ensures, the Christopher of 1930s Berlin is not the Christopher of 1970s California.

Isherwood depicts his younger self as a man only too concerned with his public image. And whilst a more transparent, openly resurgent homosexual narrative drives the book – rectifying a previously vigilant approach to homosexuality within his fiction – the blurring of the real and the fictive remains key. On a ship headed for Hong Kong, Isherwood and Wystan Auden are bored senseless by an English rubber planter named White, who strolls the ship’s deck offering them lines for their literary endeavours (‘Their lips met in one long kiss.’) White, however, is swiftly redeemed: ‘Wystan and Christopher are now no longer bored by White. He fascinated them, because he had turned into a Maugham character.’ (p.222) For Isherwood, fiction always bleeds into the real; it is, after all, what keeps its heart pumping.

Kevin’s challenge was to unpick these sutures of mediation, to find a thread in the knot of voices and characters, to capture a man whose image, like that of Jean Ross or Sally Bowles, has only grown more elusive in this work of supposed candour. It is fitting that Isherwood should come to be defined by the opening lines of his Berlin novel, Goodbye to Berlin:

 

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed. (p.243)

 

Within these lines that propelled Isherwood into a writing career characterized by a sharp camera-eye, it is the quietly conflicting, mischievous use of the word ‘fixed’ which proves most evocative. It is at once a confession and an acceptance. Isherwood is unashamedly prone to the art of embellishment; but every adaptation, every depiction of the past, is at the mercy of its curator.

The cost of production

Or curators, for a TV adaptation takes in many other voices. Alongside the annotated memoir in Kevin Elyot’s archive there are boxes and boxes full of bundles of paper. Notes. Drafts. Schedules. An email from the production company cutting his 3-hour film to 2. A reminder of the project’s budget constraints. A push from the BBC to include more context (‘we think it’s really worth turning the spotlight slightly more onto the politics of interwar Germany’). Shooting scripts with big red lines through them. Line drawings on storyboards (a cartoon Christopher backs away from a Nazi). Piles and piles of DVD rushes (Matt Smith finds his mark, his collar is adjusted by an offscreen hand). Marketing material. A glossy copy of the Radio Times (THE NAKED DOCTOR – MATT SMITH GETS SEXY). Correspondence about the unfortunate positioning of the Certificate 15 logo on the Irish DVD release – squarely between Matt Smith’s legs. Isherwood’s book is dwarfed by it all – literally. And Kevin’s notes within it seem fragile and inconsequential in the face of the gargantuan machine of TV production.

It’s a testament to the realities of adaptation. The writer’s passion matters little when it comes to the cold facts and figures of budgets and schedules. To see Kevin’s adaptation progress from first draft to screen is to witness both a fruition and an impoverishment. His words are spoken and his scenes are actualised but at the expense of a number of other ideas. In the margins of a long email of suggested cuts and revisions to an early draft, Kevin writes ‘NO! Why does everyone feel the need to cross the I’s and dot the T’s? Why should everything be spelled out?’ In the final version the cuts and revisions have been made. I’s must be dotted. T’s must be crossed. And where is Christopher in all this? The man so endlessly transfigured by life and art is transfigured again. Mediations upon mediations.

In all of Kevin’s notes and correspondence there is a sense, although never explicitly articulated, that he is somewhat disappointed with the final product (despite the large stack of congratulatory letters and positive reviews). As if he never quite caught what he wanted, as if the real Christopher somehow eluded him. It is hardly surprising. Isherwood is inherently elusive, more myth than history, a man obscured by a multitude of successive representations, not least his own. A TV adaptation of his life can only ever be a camera turned on a camera, filming into the void.

Among the chaos of Christopher and His Kind, Kevin finds solace in a brass dolphin clock stand Christopher is given by his Berlin landlady when visiting Germany after the war. In Kevin’s adaptation, the older Christopher stoops over his typewriter, glancing every now and then at the clock in the dolphin’s tail, remembering his years in Berlin. In the book Christopher asks: ‘What becomes of such things? How could they ever be destroyed?…It stands ticking away on my desk, as good as new, whilst I write these words. (p.103). The dolphin clock stand has not only survived a Berlin turned to rubble, but an adaptation process which sees time and people destroyed and remoulded. It is fitting that this object, mentioned only once in Christopher’s book, should become such an important motif in Kevin’s adaptation.

Works cited

Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind. 1977. Magnum Books, 1978.
Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Novels. 1992. Vintage, 1999.

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