Feature

Releasing The Animals: bringing Isherwood's love life off the page

Katherine Bucknell edited The Animals, a collection of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy's love letters. She charts the journey to bringing them to life in a podcast starring Simon Callow and Alan Cumming

The story of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy can be very simply summed up by linking their names - Chris and Don - and drawing a heart around the union. But the reality of their collaboration in life and art was infinitely complex and challenging — two men in the straight 1950s, from different generations, different countries, different backgrounds.

Just as I completed the twenty-year task of editing the diaries in which Isherwood gives his introspective extrovert’s witty, wall-to-wall account of a unique and exemplary twentieth-century life, Don Bachardy completely surprised me with a typescript of their letters which told the story in another way. One point of view became two. Don’s voice, speaking for the first time, was a revelation — robust and assured, ruthlessly observant, frighteningly intelligent. In the letters, there were many other stories, too, of their Animal aliases, Dobbin and Kitty, of friends, lovers, and rivals equally celebrated for artistic achievements across writing, movie-making, painting, music, the stage.

I spent several years making the letters into a book - the intimate portrait of a lasting gay relationship nestled at the heart of twentieth-century cultural life. Told in their own words, and, I hope, made more accessible by many footnotes.

A friend, Joe Rodota, suggested making that book into a podcast. What a perfect way to deliver this story, I thought, the Animals speaking aloud!

Chrisopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy in the 2007 film Chris & Don. A Love Story

The 250 letters published in the book The Animals were written over fifteen years, 1956 to 1970. For the podcast, I chose about forty-five that could propel the story, and I mostly stuck to whole letters to keep it real. I also used about ten passages from Isherwood’s diaries. 

Early on, I knew there had to be bridging narrative; otherwise the many friends, both famous and anonymous, about whom Chris and Don spoke so casually and in such fascinating detail, would never come into focus. For every playwright, film star, or painter introduced, two or three had to be omitted. You can meet many more in the book and also in the four volumes of Chris’s diaries.

I decided to narrate the podcast myself because that reflected the truth. In a way, I was copying Chris, who is a narrator in his stories. Also, a woman narrator, I thought, might invite a mixed audience into this world of two men. 

I had heard Simon Callow read aloud a few pages of “Sally Bowles,” so I risked an email - would he read Christopher Isherwood’s letters on a podcast? He replied, “I’m yours.”

This was a project of love and collaboration from beginning to end. Alan Cumming, who has made the Emcee in Cabaret his signature dish, came to the recording studio straight off the Glasgow sleeper train. He showed us E.M. Forster tattooed inside his forearm: “Only connect.” Exactly what we were trying to do; after all, Forster was Isherwood’s literary master.

After I assembled the script - nine episodes of letters - I despaired. How would it end? I abandoned the project. A new friend asked me why - the distinguished stage director, Anthony Page. I had met him while editing the letters because Anthony himself is a character in Chris and Don’s story. In April, 1968, just as David Hockney had begun painting his famous double portrait of Chris and Don, Don had fallen in love with someone else. That someone was Anthony. The portrait was about to be exhibited for the first time in thirty years in Hockney’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It was time for this story to be more widely told.

That’s when I thought of the play - A Meeting by the River. Chris and Don adapted it together from Chris’s last novel of the same name, and they talked about it frequently in their letters. The play is set in a Hindu monastery beside the Ganges, and it reflects the struggle between two parts of Chris, the man who wanted to be a monk, with all the required discipline and austerity, and the man who wanted to succeed in the wider world. I asked Anthony if he would direct it for audio, reminding him that nearly fifty years ago, Chris and Don had hoped he would mount it at the Royal Court.

On rereading, Anthony thought that with the right casting, it would be brilliant.

The Isherwood Foundation had agreed to advance costs to make the podcast; the stars and our endlessly resourceful composer, Edmund Jolliffe, were donating their time because they believed in the story we were trying to tell. Luckily for the podcast, nobody could pass up the Isherwood-Bachardy play script or the opportunity to work with Anthony Page. 

Anthony persuaded Kyle Soller to do three long days rehearsing and recording the part of Oliver. Kyle rushed away to the tube at twilight so he could play a completely different part on stage at the National Theatre, Hedda Gabler’s husband.

Dominic West had just made a documentary film, West Meets East, about watching a school friend be ordained as a mahant in a sadhu cult in India. It seemed as if he already was the character Patrick. He stepped off his next flight from India straight into the play. 

What a feast it was to watch Anthony work with his longtime friend Penelope Wilton and the velvet-voiced Annabel Mullion, carving the hard feminine frame for the struggle between these two brothers. 

Two days before rehearsal and recording, we still did not have the guru – the key religious figure in the story. Robert Ashby, a retired Royal Shakespeare Company actor of Pakistani background literally rose from his sick bed to play the crucial scene - the spectral riches of his voice, ornamented by a real wheeze, offered a drama all their own.

Then, with everything recorded, all the sound files transferred and ready to be edited, a fire destroyed our post production studio. Enter another wonderful new friend, Tomer Run, a crony of our resilient and tenacious producer, Shani Erez. Travelling by tube with his equipment in a backpack, he did the editing in my basement and the mixing and mastering in his. 

I hope you will get a chance to listen to what we’ve done. It’s free on iTunes and other platforms. Or you can hear it on our website, theanimalspodcast.com (a gem by Xenobe Purvis), where you can also find out more about us.

More about the authors

The Animals

Christopher Isherwood (and others)

Christopher Isherwood was a celebrated English writer when he met the Californian teenager Don Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in 1952. They spent their first night together on Valentine’s Day 1953. Defying the conventions, the two men began living as an openly gay couple in an otherwise closeted Hollywood. The Animals provides a loving testimony of an extraordinary relationship that lasted until Chris’s death in 1986 – and survived affairs (on both sides) and a thirty-year-age-gap.

In romantic letters to one another, the couple created the private world of the Animals. Chris was Dobbin, a stubborn old workhorse; Don was the playful young white cat, Kitty. But Don needed to carve out his own identity – some of their longest sequences of letters were exchanged during his trips to London and New York, to pursue his career as an artist and to widen his emotional and sexual horizons.

Amidst the intimate domestic dramas, we learn of Isherwood’s continuing literary success –the royalty cheques from Cabaret, the acclaim for his pioneering novel A Single Man – and the bohemian whirl of Californian film suppers and beach life. Don, whose portraits of London theatreland were making his name, attends the world premiere of The Innocents with Truman Capote and afterwards dines with Deborah Kerr and the rest of the cast, spends weekends with Tennessee Williams, Cecil Beton, or the Earl and Countess of Harewood, and tours Egypt and Greece with a new love interest. But whatever happens in the outside world, Dobbin and Kitty always return to their ‘Basket’ and to each other. Candid, gossipy, exceptionally affectionate, The Animals is a unique interplay between two creative spirits, confident in their mutual devotion.

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