The Animals: Simon Callow and Alan Cumming bring the story of 'the gay first couple' to life

It’s easy to get lost in the joyful, spiky love story of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, whose love letters from vintage Hollywood underpin a great new podcast

Listen to one episode of The Animals (iTunes) and the chances are you will be rooting for Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, who Armistead Maupin once described as “the gay first couple”. The novelist and the painter met when Don was 18 (Christopher was 30 years older). Openly gay in 50s Hollywood, their more romantic moments were detailed in the 250 letters they wrote to each other between 1956 and 1970, which unleashed their animal personas: Isherwood was a stubborn old workhorse and Bachardy a high-maintenance, skittish kitten.

The letters are a joy, combining cheeky humour with romance. “I miss rides through London on old Dobbin, especially in the snow yesterday, and think a lot about him, sleeping in a strange stable, eating cold oats out of an ill-fitting feedbag and having no cat fur to keep him warm,” reads Alan Cumming, effortlessly bringing Don to life with a coquettish flourish. He jokes about being an abandoned kitten, while Simon Callow as Christopher is more anxious, wondering what his younger lover is doing.

It’s so easy to get lost in their love story, which could happily survive without narrator Katherine Bucknell, although she adds context. Letting the love letters speak for themselves is far better. There’s a delicious taste of the circles the couple were mixing in at the time: Bachardy describes the excitement of being taken to the opera at Covent Garden when he studied in London and there are tales of visiting Gore Vidal and watching Bette Davis in a Tennessee Williams play with the playwright.

Sadness creeps in when Callow spits out a more spiky letter in the second episode. “Something bad has happened,” he says, as Isherwood comes close to uncovering Bachardy’s affair with a man nearer his age. The betrayed Isherwood accepts his partner’s explanation about his whereabouts, believing “a totally unnecessary elaborate lie”. Further cracks appear after a much-anticipated Christmas spent in New York and Isherwood finds himself overcome with emotion: “So goodbye to one of the nastiest, most miserable phases of my life. Right now he is nerve-strung almost to screaming point and it is misery to be with him.”

There’s more rocky romance to come, as well as two episodes dedicated to a play by Isherwood and Bachardy starring Dominic West, so stay tuned.

If you like this, try … You Must Remember This.

Contributor

Hannah Verdier

The GuardianTramp

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