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This Week on British TV: "Doctor Who's" Matt Smith Plays a Gay Writer, Makes Love to Caspar

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 25, 2011 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 25, 2011 |

Hi everyone. OK, I’ve only got two programmes this week as one of them, “Comic Relief”, took up about 144 hours. It was agony. OK, on to the programmes!

Christopher and His Kind

448_christopher.jpgSo, Matt Smith of “Doctor Who” fame got jiggy with a certain young man named Caspar on Saturday. Oh yes. It was - well, how shall I put it? Vigorous, shall we say. Turns out Matt Smith is quite the lover!

Oh kids, kids, kids! Before you go getting all outraged or hot under the collar, let me say right off the bat that I did not personally get down on the good foot and do the bad thing with Matt Smith on Saturday night — no, t’was merely a character called Caspar, playing the lover of Christopher Isherwood in “Christopher and His Kind,” in which Smith played the titular chappie! Still, it was a bit weird to watch; I’ve never met another Caspar in my entire life, and have only ever heard of about four others, mostly with the dreadfully vulgar ‘er’ ending like the kindly phantasm. So when Smith-as-Isherwood fell for, and then energetically boffed, the Caspar in the programme on Saturday, I have to say it felt a little strange — all the sex noises and so on. It’s so weird, in fact, that I feel like a terrible, tragic fan-fic writer just describing the events in the show. Like if I were to say, for instance, “Matt Smith and Caspar go to the lake, where Matt Smith ogles Caspar in his tiny trunks as he performs press-ups on the jetty under the hot summer’s sun. Later, Matt Smith and Caspar have a fierce and sexy argument as Matt Smith catches Caspar red-handed looking devastating in a Nazi uniform.” Oh OK, that went wrong.

ANYWAY, sorry, back to the programme. Which was quite good, you know. Smith plays Isherwood during his Berlin years, in an adaptation of his Berlin diaries published many years after Goodbye To Berlin made him famous. In this more straight-up take on Isherwood’s stay in Berlin during the rise of Nazism, we see the young writer arrive in the city as a wide-eyed, almost innocent onlooker, intent on meeting and doing some German boys. We also see his friendships develop, with various students and housemates in the wonky German rooms where he stays. Finally, we see the beginnings of political stirrings in the writer, as Nazism grips the country and he attempts to help with the evasion of his young boyfriend Heinz (his former lover has by now departed the scene, for it turns out that Caspar is merely a heartless, beautiful, amazing lay). Oh, man. See how easy it is to slip up?

The whole programme was quite classily done, although I thought the shot selection and editing were a little lazy at times; there was a lot of talking to the camera with backs turned to other characters, and people lit up by the light of windows. In summary, it was a fairly mild, middle-brow production with reliably spiffing performances by almost everyone, with special mention to Lindsay Duncan as Isherwood’s starchy mother, the stupidly pretty Douglas Booth as the young and vulnerable Heinz, and Imogen Poots in a lovely turn as Jean Ross (the original Sally Bowles), nailing her character’s innocent charm and faux-worldly airs, while imbuing her with a depth that has been missing before.

“Christopher and His Kind,” I think, was trying to make what would have been a very interesting point about the homosexual experience throughout history, and about the part played by writers in particular. Are gay people genuinely engaged with society or are they always marginalized, forever on the outside looking in? And if so, how does the gay artist become politically engaged? Can an artist actually ever be political, be involved, when to be involved means to drop arms/books and fight? These were questions that I was dying for the programme to probe, but which it only skirted over.

The problem with the programme is down to its treatment of the Isherwood character, and you sensed Matt Smith stuck with how to characterize him as a result. The programme failed to hold Isherwood to account for moving to America and for his lack of denunciation of Nazism at the time. There was a moment when he was about to join Oswald Moseley’s newspaper, which highlighted his egotism and lack of insight at the time, and another point when Auden observes that Isherwood is an observer of his times rather than an actor, but I think this did not go far enough in addressing Isherwood’s privilege and passivity. Matt Smith, likewise, is far too engaging and active a comedian to give a proper interpretation of Isherwood’s catty, louche sit-back-and-watch style. Instead, those deep eyes dart about wildly and he preens himself, with a very high and posh voice serving as a substitute for superciliousness. I don’t mean that Isherwood should have been played as a villain or a bore, as I’m sure he was charming and endearing and intelligent as anything — but there are layers of ambiguity to him, and to his anthropological take on Berlin, that the programme did not quite address.

comicrelief2011.jpgComic Relief 2011Matt Smith popped up on TV the night before that in another tweed suit as a star attraction on “Comic Relief.” OK, so this is the tricky one. I want to be honest and critique “Comic Relief” properly as a piece of television, but there is also no escaping the fact that it is a truly good thing that raises much-needed moolah and awareness for some very deserving causes, and that the televisual quality is bound to take a knock when trying to appeal to people’s wallets and stir hearts and not offend anyone. So I want to say straight away that I understand that comedians will turn in their worst sketches, because they’re pressed for time and because they want to do something that is universally pleasing; and let me say furthermore that I also understand that the evening’s success depends heavily on celebrity glitz, which I also understand does not sit well with the misery of famine, poverty and oppression, but that it is clearly a sad necessity to get people to part with their dough.

Right. So “Comic Relief” does great work. They raised 317 gatrifflion pounds this year, which is brilliant. OK? Is that absolutely clear to everyone? Good. Because hoo mama, is it ever bad. It makes for terrible, miserable, woeful television, year after year, and is a spectacle to be endured rather than celebrated. The thing lasts about three weeks, with celebrities setting themselves cash-raising challenges in the run-up to the live telecast, and then the whole programme takes up about six hours of Friday prime-time. It’s MAMMOTH. And yet, over the course of the entire sorry saga, you should count yourself exceptionally lucky if you chuckled over three times. I watched the whole damn thing and I would like to list the moments that were tolerable:

1. Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, calling out “Comic Relief” for all its faults and having a go at Richard Curtis.

2. Amy Pond getting replicated and flirting with herself. Quite how the act of arousing fanboys across the land was supposed to help fight poverty, though, I’m not certain. You need a free hand to phone in and pledge some money, you know.

3. Kim Cattrall and Jennifer Saunders utterly caning their imitations of Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith in the “Downton Abbey” spoof. The rest of the sketch was kind of hit-and-miss, with some nice bits (including the Earl introducing his second, frumpier daughter as “Daughter Number 2” and all the lines reflecting on the heavy-handedness of class and period characterisation) and some clunkier moments, such as all the behind-the-scenes crap that you’d expect from a Saunders send-up.

That’s all I’ve got. Seriously. I’m sorry, but the whole thing was so wretched. I found it really puerile and pathetic as well, with some really low-level scatology going on (hello, cast of “The Inbetweeners” and your embarrassing sketch!) and a tragic new fad amongst the presenters for alluding to people by their characters’ names — i.e., “we’ll be catching up with Smithy later on!” Er, you mean, James Corden is going to be playing his lame character from “Gavin & Stacey” again. Dude isn’t an institution, you know, and we’re not babies who can’t understand the difference between fact and invention. Dear lord.

The celebs who got sent to Africa and on various charitable excursions elsewhere did well, but the biggest asset in the corporation’s game was David Tennant in Africa. I know these moments are supposed to be emotionally manipulative, coaxing tears and emotion and money out of a pacified and be-comedied crowd — and Tennant did a super job, choking over his gorgeously accented words and saving his beautiful manly tears for the very end of his report. Very shortly afterwards, presenters reported that all their lines were blocked. Oh wait, I forgot to list a funny moment up there: Dermot O’Leary, presenting, saying: “Go on, phone in. You saw what it did to David!” I loved how brazenly that comment revealed the whole thing to hinge on the celebrity input. They ought to put a cash limit on Tennant’s tears, next year, and say to people, “David Tennant will literally not stop crying until we’ve reached 70 million pounds!” and see how that goes down.

For the rest of it, I think there ought to be challenges to appeal to horrible misanthropes like me, not just sunny types who are happy to see comedy heroes fall over and walk tightropes etc to raise cash. I paid money this year, but kind of reluctantly. Next year, instead of setting Chris Moyles a challenge to stay on air for 24 hours to see how much money he can raise, why not set him a challenge to stay off air for 48 hours? I’d pay good money for that. Or let Annie Lennox write an interminable song and threaten to play the whole thing if she doesn’t get 90 million; I’d cough up a month’s salary before she’d played a note on her dreadful grand piano. Seriously, did you hear her song? Worst thing I’ve ever heard. It went like this:

Poor child, with no dreams in your eyes

Poor child, with falling down skies

Pour child, with chocolate-less goodbyes

Poor child, with petrol-selling lies

(Oooh oooh oooh oooooh)

Oh save the children from terrible slavery

Save the children from, you know, like, depravery

Save them with Western tears and bravery

This utopia is my (Annie Lennox’s) wishful reverie!

(Aaah aaah aaah aaah)

Sing it to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain,” except slowed down by three fifths. Of course, I made that up in roughly under a minute — but it would be nineteen times better than Annie Lennox’s actual song that she sang in public, on the night. Look it up, it’s called ‘Universal Child’. Play it. Then stop it after seventeen seconds and give twenty quid to Comic Relief. Lenny Henry loves you. Good night!

Caspar Salmon now has an email address for you to write to with suggestions of progs to review and stuff: it’s [email protected] Don’t neglect the comments box though, please, or I’ll look really unpopular on the main page.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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