DATE July 9, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Don Bachardy on his life, Christopher Isherwood,
and his career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Apparently few people took the relationship seriously when the esteemed writer
Christopher Isherwood became involved with Don Bachardy, who was still a
teenager, about 30 years younger than Isherwood, but the relationship lasted
over 30 years, until Isherwood's death in 1986. Their story is the subject of
the new documentary "Chris & Don." Don Bachardy is my guest.
His life with Christopher Isherwood reveals something of what it was like to
be openly gay in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. Isherwood was a British
writer who became an American citizen in 1946. He's best known for his short
story collection "The Berlin Stories," based on his experiences living in
Berlin just before World War II. The Broadway show and movie musical
"Cabaret" were adapted from those stories. So were the play and film "I Am a
Camera." Isherwood also co-wrote several screenplays, including "Rage in
Heaven" and "The Loved One."
With Isherwood's encouragement, Don Bachardy became a portrait painter. His
work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the
Smithsonian, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Don Bachardy, welcome to FRESH AIR. It must have been a real emotional
experience for you being in this documentary, immersing yourself in an earlier
part of your life and your relationship with the late Christopher Isherwood.
Mr. DON BACHARDY: Yes, it was and it still is. Every time I see it, I can't
help be moved by it. That early footage of Chris and me seems very touching
to me now.
GROSS: You're so young.
Mr. BACHARDY: Yes. Indeed I was.
GROSS: When you...
Mr. BACHARDY: And looked even younger than I was.
GROSS: Right. How old were you when you first met...
Mr. BACHARDY: Eighteen.
GROSS: Eighteen. So...
Mr. BACHARDY: And that same year I went with Chris to New York for the first
time, and a serious rumor went around town that Christopher had brought a
12-year-old with him from California; and people believed it, and I looked the
GROSS: OK. And so you were 18 when you started seeing each other, and he was
30 years older. Did you think of yourself as gay at that point? Had you had
gay relationships before it? Were you certain of your sexual orientation?
Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, I was certain. I'd had a few encounters, but I was still
relatively green in my experience. But I certainly knew without a doubt that
I was queer.
GROSS: What was your first reaction to the 30-year age difference between you
and Christopher Isherwood? Did that seem like a lot to you? Did he seem way
older than you?
Mr. BACHARDY: He was actually a year older than my father, but he didn't
seem so. He seemed ages younger. And he seemed really out of the category
anybody that I might consider for a sexual relationship, but he was so boyish
in his look and so witty and charming, and I felt at ease with him almost
immediately. And it wasn't until many years later that I realized that, in
many respects, Chris was much younger than I. He was much more curious. He
was still capable of being awed by his experience, like a young man, and that
was really quite sobering for me to realize.
GROSS: What were some of the difficulties of being in a relationship when you
were young, still a teenager and unformed, and your partner was an older,
established writer with a circle of friends and colleagues, many of them
celebrities? Did it make you insecure at all? Did you have an identity
Mr. BACHARDY: Social situations were sometimes difficult, but then Chris was
always there to shore me up, and I felt his support; he never let me flounder.
And the fact that I was in his company meant that I didn't have to worry about
making conversation, because he was a wonderful conversationalist. And that
allowed me to drink in everybody that I met; and that was very exciting
because often they were the very movie stars that I'd idolized since I was a
GROSS: Because you were so much younger, did some of his friends think that
you were just a toy for him?
Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, yes. I looked like a toy boy. And while I enjoyed their
interest in me for my looks, yes, of course, all young people want to be taken
seriously as mature personalities. So, but, I was quite pleased to be admired
physically; but as I got older I wanted more, and that was good because it
made me think seriously about how I could make something of myself.
GROSS: One of the interviewees in the movie "Chris & Don" says about you, `It
was if Chris had cloned himself,' because you'd picked up some of his
mannerisms and some of his British accent. Were you aware of that at the
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I gradually realized that I was--and still am--an
unconscious mimic, that I instinctively took on the sounds of people I was
around with a lot, and that happened very early with Chris. Within a year, I
believe, I was already beginning to sound a bit like him, but I wasn't aware
of it and got a big shock when I first heard my voice recorded. And there
were several people in the room, and I looked around and said, `I don't sound
like that, do I?' And they all agreed, `Yes. Yes. That sounds exactly like
you.' And I was horrified because I knew that people who'd known me before I
knew Chris would think I had become wildly affected. But since I couldn't
hear it myself, there was little I could do about it.
GROSS: Do you think he saw things in you that he didn't yet see in yourself?
Mr. BACHARDY: Yes. I know he did. And he tried to help me to see them and
to believe in myself. Like many young people, I was lacking in confidence. I
was shy. While my mother was extremely shy, and I think I'd been mimicking
her for years. And my instinctive mimicry, it was only years later that I
realized that that was a very important aspect of my work as an artist. I
always drew pictures of people and only people, and I began to realize that I
was mimicking them, my idols, when I was working with them.
GROSS: Well, I...
Mr. BACHARDY: Because I had the wonderful experience of being able to draw
from life many of these people I'd drawn from magazine pictures when I was a
GROSS: Christopher Isherwood sent you to art school when he realized that you
had talent, and you loved art school and you developed into, you know, a
painter and sketch artist doing, you know, portraits of people. Did it change
your relationship with Christopher Isherwood when you became an artist in your
Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, it was very important change from my point of view because
I'd found my vocation. And once I got to art school, I worked at it day and
night. I went all day long and I was often back for the evening class, and it
was of great importance to me to establish my own identity. And I knew that I
had to do that if the relationship between us was to be preserved.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Bachardy, and the new movie
"Chris & Don" is about his 33-year relationship with the writer Christopher
You were both always out as a couple, I mean, you never pretended that you
were heterosexual. You showed up at parties together. What was it like to be
out in Hollywood--and Christopher Isherwood was writing for Hollywood--what
was it like to be out in Hollywood in the '50s and '60s before Stonewall,
before the gay liberation movement?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I suppose, without realizing it, we were pioneers. But
we had really very little choice. First of all, Chris was a distinguished
writer who was fairly well known to be homosexual, so anybody that he appeared
with frequently was assumed--espeically if he were youthful and
presentable--was presumed to be a boyfriend. And we weren't going to pretend
that we weren't living together, so it would have been unnatural for Chris to
leave me at home, and he wouldn't dream of doing that anyway because he was an
above-board personality. He wasn't about to cringe just because he was
engaged in a relationship that was frowned on by society. He was, in his
heart, a genuine rebel.
GROSS: You and Christopher Isherwood were friends with the actor Tony
Perkins, and my understanding is that he was trying hard not to be gay. He
was married, had a child. Was he in therapy trying to, you know, like
overcome gayness? And did you watch him go through difficult periods?
Mr. BACHARDY: Oh, I think he spent years on therapy and hoping that he could
transform himself into a heterosexual. Thank goodness that was never a
problem for either Chris or me. And, in fact, everything that I value in my
life has come to me through my queerness, and I've had an extremely lucky
life. So we understood Perkins and sympathized with him, but that was
certainly not a feeling that we suffered from. We both, Chris and I, were
very, very pleased to be queer.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Don Bachardy. The new
documentary "Chris & Don: a Love Story" is about the 33-year relationship
that Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had with each other. Let's take a
short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Don Bachardy. He's the subject of the new documentary
"Chris & Don: A Love Story," at least he's half the subject. The
documentary's about his more and 30 year relationship with the writer
You had dreamed of being a Hollywood actor when you were a child, and then
spent as much time in movie theaters as possible when you were growing up.
And then, when you met a lot of Hollywood actors, initially through
Christopher Isherwood, what was it like to you to see the people in person who
you'd only see on screen before?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, it was a visual feast, and I gobbled them up visually.
And Chris, of course, once I became an artist, went out of his way to meet
movie actors because he was setting them up for a request from me to do a
sitting with them. And I was so lucky that many of them agreed, and I soon
put together quite a considerable collection of portraits of Hollywood people,
but also of very famous writers, composers and painters, too.
GROSS: The movie "Cabaret" and the Broadway show "Cabaret" are both based on
a short story that Christopher Isherwood wrote based on somebody who he met in
the 1930s, when he was living in Berlin. And in the movie--you say that
Isherwood didn't really like the show that much because Liza Minelli was such
a terrific singer in "Cabaret" and the character of Sally Bowles is supposed
to be a real amateur, so it was hard to square those two things. But what did
you both think of the whole idea of turning the short story about Sally Bowles
into a musical?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, it's so easy to lose the character of Sally Bowles
because as soon as she's played by a very talented professional actress and
singer, as Liza Minelli is, you lose an essential quality of Sally Bowles
because she was nothing if she wasn't an amateur. And Liza Minelli would have
been the toast of Europe belting those songs out. How could she possibly also
be little no-talent Sally Bowles, however charming she is? And of course
Chris couldn't help being aware of that. Before he saw the movie, he actually
thought Liza Minelli might be very good casting. We'd seen her in two films,
"The Sterile Cuckoo" and "Junie Moon," and she was clearly very talented. He
thought she might be just wonderful. But as soon as she comes on belting
those songs, he said, `She's not Sally Bowles.'
GROSS: You went through a period in your relationship with Christopher
Isherwood--and this is described in the documentary about your relationship,
"Chris & Don"--you went through a period when you insisted that you needed to
see other men, that Isherwood had a period of his life before he met you and
he had other relationships, and you needed to go through that period, too. So
how did you both deal with jealousy and possessiveness? Was that--was that
easy or difficult to...
Mr. BACHARDY: Very difficult, but--because it required the maximum of tact
and consideration and delicacy. And always I felt the responsibility--and I
know Chris did, too--to whomever we were seeing on the side, to always make it
clear to the other that he was and always would be number one. If one keeps
that in mind, I do think one could do miracle turns around jealousy and
resentment. But I myself was always very careful to let Chris know there was
no question that anybody would ever mean to me what he did.
GROSS: Does that mean that you talked to each other about other people you
Mr. BACHARDY: No. We never did. And we didn't want to know. It was better
not to know. What mattered was not who we were with when we were apart, but
what we were like together when we worked together. And that's where all of
the important negotiations are made. And we were always so happy to spend an
evening together, and we always made the other know that that was the case.
GROSS: When Christopher...
Mr. BACHARDY: I know it sounds kind of Never-Neverland, but somehow we
managed it and, well, we both had to be very sensitive.
GROSS: When Christopher Isherwood was dying of prostate cancer, you took care
of him. You also sketched him. You did a series of, I think it was pen and
ink drawings, on his deathbed. Why did you want to spend those last few days
of his life at his side drawing him?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, I always intended to look after him and keep him home,
keep him out of a hospital. That was his idea of a horrible death, a death in
a hospital. So for many, many years that was my intention. And then when he
got sick and began to fail, we were often in the house alone together. And,
yes, there were things I did for him, but what about the rest of my day? So I
canceled all my sittings. The last six months of his life, I only worked with
him; and I worked with him almost every day and often did as many as a dozen
drawings a day--fast ones, slow ones, the best I could manage.
GROSS: Did that kind of provide a structure for you both to be together and
yet not have to talk?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, exactly. And, you see, when I work with anybody, as I
was speaking earlier, the mimicry, the identification with my sitter that is
instinctive and a very necessary part of my working technique, I was
identifying with Chris, even after 33 years. And I was with him more
intensely than I could be doing anything else. And so it began to seem like
dying was something that we were doing together. I was with him. I was
looking into his eyes and feeling him as well as looking at him. And that was
so important to me. There was no other way I could have been so intimate with
him, and that was wonderful for me. I think it was hard work for him, and he
was often in discomfort and moaning...
GROSS: Hard work for him in the sense that you wanted him to stay still in a
pose so that you could draw him?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, there were--he got into situations where, of course, he
couldn't be still, and then he would go in and out of consciousness. But
always I was there. I was there in a way that was much more intense than if
I'd just stood by the bed looking at him. I was copying him, so I was with
him the whole time.
GROSS: Don Bachardy will be back in the second half of the show. The story
of his relationship with Christopher Isherwood is the subject of the new
documentary "Chris & Don." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Don Bachardy. His
relationship with the writer Christopher Isherwood is the subject of the new
documentary "Chris & Don." When they fell in love, Isherwood was in his late
40s, Bachardy was 18. They were together more than 30 years, until Isherwood
died of prostate cancer in 1986 at the age of 83. Bachardy is a portrait
painter. When we left off, we were talking about the last days of Isherwood's
life, when Bachardy remained at his bedside painting portraits of him.
In some of the sketches that you did of him when he was dying, he looks like
he's in pain. And I was wondering if you let him...
Mr. BACHARDY: He was.
GROSS: Yeah, I was wondering if you let him see those drawings or if you
wanted to protect him from looking at how pained he appeared to be. I mean,
obviously he knew he was in pain, but sometimes it's not helpful to see how
you look when you feel that way.
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, you see, it's my habit to have my--ask my sitters to
sign and date my pictures of them because I feel the way I work is a perfect
collaboration, and the better my sitter is, the stiller, the more concentrated
my sitter, the better the work I do is likely to turn out. And when I began
to concentrate only on Chris those last six months, he signed and dated the
pictures I did for the first three or four months and then he got beyond it.
He couldn't sign and date anymore.
So one day he was in bed and I'd done six or seven pictures, and they were all
black acrylic, and the paint was still wet. So I'd spread some of the
pictures on the bed and some of them on the floor, and I was used by that time
to his not being able to sign and date the pictures. So I hadn't even
suggested it. And in fact as I was picking up the pictures, being sure that
they were dry, holding them up to the light, I thought he was asleep. And
when I got the pictures together and was on my way out of the bedroom with
them under my arm, he said to me from his bed, `I like the ones of him dying.'
And that absolutely threw me. I thought, my goodness, he's with me still.
He's still urging me on, praising me for drawings of him dying. Now, I don't
know, I've never heard of anybody else capable of that kind of consideration
in the state that he was in.
GROSS: After he died you spent the rest of the day painting pictures of his
Mr. BACHARDY: Yes, indeed.
GROSS: Why did you want to do that?
Mr. BACHARDY: He once described my attitude to drawing and painting people,
saying the people always had to be live sitters and that he wouldn't be the
least bit interested in drawing a corpse. Well, he was absolutely right, with
one exception. I would draw him in any state. And indeed he died on a
Saturday morning around 11, and I wasn't sure I could bring myself to do it,
but I did start drawing him around 1:00. And I worked all through the
afternoon and early evening. And I'd done 11 drawings, and I was about to do
a 12th when his doctor arrived at 8:00 that night. And I was relieved when
she arrived because already his corpse seemed to have so little to do with
Chris. It had changed so completely that I was relieved not to have to do
that 12th drawing. And also I didn't want his doctor to think I was--I
scrambled to put the drawings away so she wouldn't see. Otherwise I thought
she'd think it was so ghoulish of me.
GROSS: Had the body started to turn, and did the doctor think it was strange
Mr. BACHARDY: It had just stopped being Chris. In spite of his
characteristic, undeniable eyebrows, his nose, and his eyes were still open,
but those eyes that had always flashed such energy, such sparkle, were just
glassy, dead, glazed eyes.
GROSS: Marriage wasn't close to being legal for gay people when you and
Christopher Isherwood were a couple. But if--correct me if I'm wrong
here--he, I think this is when he was sick, he adopted you so that you could
make medical and legal decisions on his behalf because that was your only way
of having some kind of legal relationship that would be recognized for things
like medical decisions. How strange was that that he had to like adopt you in
order for you to have a legal family connection to you?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, even though I was determined to keep him home when he
got sick, there was a chance that he would have to go into hospital for some
reason or other, and we were both worried that I wouldn't be given access.
That was the only reason we adopted each other.
GROSS: Did it work?
Mr. BACHARDY: But you know...
GROSS: Was it recognized in the way that you wanted it to be? Did it
accomplish what you needed it to accomplish?
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, it didn't really come into it. He did have to spend a
few days in hospital during those last six months. And I just had a cot put
in the room and I slept beside his bed. But it didn't really enter into it.
I never got anyone saying, `You can't go into his room.' But I know Chris
would have cheered when gays were given the right to marry. We would both
have considered that a huge triumph. But it wouldn't have changed our
attitude. We both of us agreed early on that any kind of legalization of our
relationship was just not necessary for either of us.
GROSS: I was reading an article from 1997 in The Harvard Gay and Lesbian
Review. And in that 1997 article about you, it described you as having a
partner who was 26 years younger than you, an age difference that was similar
to the difference between you and Christopher Isherwood, and you were quoted
as saying, "I couldn't find anybody to replace Chris, so I thought I'd try and
find somebody who could play my role. So now I'm playing Chris." Are you
still in that relationship?
Mr. BACHARDY: No, it lasted for 10 years. And many of those 10 years were
blissful years for me. And the young man moved into the house more than a
year and a half after Chris died. You see, I'd learned so much with Chris, I
was just longing to share it with somebody else. And, yes, he was 26 years
younger than I. And so I got this extraordinary experience of playing Chris'
role with a much younger man. And it was so illuminating, of all of my years
with Chris, and I was so often saying to myself when my young friend and
I--he's asked me not to name him, that's why I'm being coy about his name--but
when he and I would have quarrels or disagreements or when we'd come together
blissfully, I was always saying, addressing Chris in my mind, saying, `Oh,
that's what that situation was about, that's how you were feeling. Now I
understand.' And that was just--I believe it's called epiphany. Well, if
that's what it's called, epiphany is great.
GROSS: Are you in a relationship now?
Mr. BACHARDY: I'm, for the first time in my life, having a very satisfactory
relationship with somebody my own age. We were born the same year, 1934. And
he's actually three months my junior. And he was somebody that I met on one
of my trips to New York more than 40 years ago. And, of course, I was always
frank with the people I had sex with in those years. And how could I not be?
Because Chris was well known, and I, as his friend, I couldn't not be frank.
So when the job that I was doing in New York was over, I came back to
California and I never saw this friend again until about three and a half,
four years ago. I had a show at the Huntington and he went to see it and
wrote me a letter telling me how much he'd enjoyed it. So I wrote him back
and said, `Why don't you come and sit for me again?' I'd done drawings of him
more than 40 years before, both portraits and nudes. And he did come to sit
And he rung the buzzer up at the gate and I went out the house, and down the
stairs came this man of my own age. Now, that was quite a surprise. And then
I thought, `Well, what do you suppose he's seeing?' He's seeing a man of his
age, too. It was a charming reunion. And we did several sittings together,
and now we spend a lot of time together and very much enjoy each other's
company. So that's a pretty good development, from my point of view.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BACHARDY: Well, thank you.
GROSS: That was Don Bachardy. The story of his relationship with Christopher
Isherwood is the subject of the new documentary "Chris & Don."
Coming up, we listen back to an interview with the science fiction writer
Thomas Disch. He died Friday. He was best known for his children's book "The
Brave Little Toaster." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Thomas Disch, recorded in 1988, talks about his books
and being a science fiction writer
TERRY GROSS, host:
The writer Thomas Disch shot and killed himself Friday after a series of
devastating events, including a fire in his apartment, a flood in his home and
the death of his longtime partner. He also faced chronic health problems.
Thomas Disch wrote science fiction for adults and children, as well as poetry
and critical essays. In his New York Times obituary he was described as
writing dark themes, disturbing plots and corrosive social commentary that
made him a leader of what was called the new wave of science fiction.
Disch was best known for his children's book "The Brave Little Toaster." The
heros were five loyal, dependable small appliances. I spoke with him in 1988
after the publication of his sequel "The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars."
In this story Earth is threatened by an invasion of angry appliances who were
exiled to Mars, victims of planned obsolescence. The Brave Little Toaster and
his friends journey into outer space to stop the invasion. Disch was
surprised when I asked him why he gave his appliances personalities.
Mr. THOMAS DISCH: I think everybody, especially towards their toaster,
regards them as personal. I mean, electricity is like blood. It's a living
fluid. And it's hard not to think of appliances as having independent
existences because they do things, they make noises. Radios talk to us.
Toasters are kind to us. They reflect our faces. Sit down in the morning, if
you live by yourself, and the first positive relationship of your day is going
to be with your toaster.
GROSS: When my appliances have personalities, the personality's usually
rebellious. When I think of my appliances as having personalities, it's
always because they're out sick or they're rebelling against me.
Mr. DISCH: Uh-huh.
GROSS: I went through a period where the TV was broken, the toaster oven was
broken, my cassette deck was broken, and there was something wrong with my
Mr. DISCH: The reason this may be happening to you is because you don't pay
attention to them when they're serving you without complaint. And, you know,
if you dealt with a person that way, no wonder they'd start breaking down,
getting sick. You know, it's psychosomatic.
GROSS: I'm interested in why you started writing children's books.
Mr. DISCH: Well, the first one was "The Brave Little Toaster," and it was
written as a children's book. I wrote it just because I thought it was a
beautiful idea. And I've written a few things in that vein since, some story
poems. And I've had stories that I wrote as science fiction stories and
fantasies that were adapted for children's TV programs.
There's a certain vein--false innocence is not the right word because that
suggests that it's false, and it isn't; it's quite sincere--the point is that
there's a certain attitude that makes a story a children's story. And it's
basically The Brave Little Toaster's attitude that everything is basically
nice in the world and that you only have to smile and other people will get
along with you, and...
GROSS: Now, that attitude is more or less precisely the opposite attitude
that you've taken in most of your science fiction books.
Mr. DISCH: Well, it's the opposite attitude to most adult literature. I
mean, life is more complicated than that, but I think that it's a reasonable
attitude to inculcate in children. I mean, a large part of the world will
work on that assumption just fine. But it's probably not suitable for, you
know, for long stretches of being a serious grown-up, right? If you look at
the day's newspapers and try to think of how many of the problems there could
be solved by that attitude, probably not many, you know.
GROSS: You know, in 1970 you suggested that science fiction was a branch of
children's literature. And I want to know what you meant by that.
Mr. DISCH: A large part of science fiction, that's still true. The "Star
Wars" and "Star Trek" series, their popularity has been with children and
young teenagers. And, of course, "The Brave Little Toaster" story itself,
insofar as it became easily and quickly the most popular thing I'd ever done,
sort of bears out what I said because I wrote it as a children's book, but
when it first appeared as a science fiction story it was very, very well
received among people who might have had more difficulty with what you could
say my serious science fiction.
There's a saying in the field, `the golden age of science fiction is 12.'
That's the age you start reading it.
Mr. DISCH: No matter what year that was, that is your golden age of science
fiction because you can only enjoy your first kiss once, right? It was...
GROSS: Well, do you feel that that inhibits you as a writer, that somehow you
want to be addressing adults but you suspect you're addressing 12-year-olds?
Mr. DISCH: Well, it hasn't been a problem for me because when I want to
address adults, I do. There has been, as a result, pretty much of my
generation of SF writers starting in the middle '60s--Ursula Le Guin, Norman
Spinrad, me, Sam Delany--a lot of us decided that we would write science
fiction for grown-ups, and we did. And now there is--it's no longer a
controversial undertaking. Of course, the problem that made it controversial
is that an awful lot of the adult readers of science fiction, then and now, of
the simpler minded sort of science fiction, didn't like to have it pointed out
that their reading tastes weren't entirely adult. And so we got called names.
I think the one that I always got was nihilist. And so I've spent 20 years
subsequent to that insisting that I'm not a nihilist. You know, I'm not.
GROSS: Well, on the other hand, you have said that `science fiction is a
virtual treasury of ways of standing conventional wisdom on its head.' Does
that idea appeal to you?
Mr. DISCH: Yeah, sure. That's why even though it's been awkward sometimes
to be labeled as a science fiction writer--because most people do associate it
with the simple-minded Flash Gordon sort of thing--I continue to want to write
it because you can just do things with science fiction, especially satire,
that you can't do any way else. You can't write "1984," for instance, and set
it in the present. The special effects, the special intellectual effects that
can be created in science fiction don't exist in realistic fiction. And so if
that's what you want to do, there's no other way.
GROSS: Thomas Disch recorded in 1988. He took his life Friday. He was 68.
Coming up, John Powers reviews the latest DVD collection of the British TV
detective series "Rebus." It's based on the novels by the best-selling
Scottish writer Ian Rankin. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: John Powers on the DVD collection of the British detective
series "Rebus" based on the works of Ian Rankin
TERRY GROSS, host:
Ever since "Mystery" first aired on PBS, Americans have had a long fondness
for British television shows about crime. One of the most popular British
series is "Rebus," based on the novels by the Scottish writer Ian Rankin about
an Edinburgh detective inspector. Acorn Media has just brought out a new
four-disc set of "Rebus" stories which originally aired in the US on BBC
America. Our critic at large John Powers says the show has a distinctive
Mr. JOHN POWERS: Back in the mid-'90s I was going to Edinburgh for work. So
I asked a well-traveled friend if he could recommend any good guidebooks.
`Guidebooks?' he said. `If you want to know about Edinburgh, read Ian
Rankin.' I did, and he was right. Rankin's novels do for Edinburgh what
Raymond Chandler once did for LA. They open up the city and give it an
identity in the popular imagination.
These days Rankin is the United Kingdom's best-selling crime writer. The
godfather of so-called Tartan noir. And his hero, the flawed but dogged
Detective Inspector John Rebus, has become an international literary brand.
He's also the star of a hugely popular British TV series called "Rebus." The
last season is just out on DVD, the best three episodes adapted from Rankin's
novels. And it doesn't take long to see that it's far richer and far more
socially observant than American hits like "CSI" or "Law & Order."
Consider the episode titled "The First Stone," which begins with the discovery
of two nude corpses in a car on lover's lane. One victim's a married woman,
the other a high profile minister in the Church of Scotland. The case falls
to Rebus, played by veteran Scottish actor Ken Stott, and his still green
sidekick Siobhan Clarke. That's Claire Price. Their investigation soon gets
them mixed up with scheming church bigwigs, a controversial radio talk show
host, a retired cop who insists he's being poisoned, and, of course,
inevitably, more murder.
Through it all Rebus is, well, Rebus, as tactful as a grizzly bear who's
caught scent of your picnic basket. Here he and Siobhan talk to the murdered
woman's husband, a motorbike-ready mechanic who swears he was nowhere near the
scene of the crime.
(Soundbite from "Rebus")
Ms. CLAIRE PRICE: (As Siobhan Clarke) So the night she died you had a fight,
she drove off, you followed again.
Mr. LORCAN CRANITCH: (As Tommy) I told you. We had a fight, she walked out,
I had a bit of a drink. I never saw her again.
Mr. KEN STOTT: (As John Rebus) Thing is, the night of the murder we've got
CCTV coverage, and there was a bike just like that, right behind Iris's car.
We're having it enhanced, and I'm willing to bet it was you.
Mr. CRANITCH: (As Tommy) It wasn't me. Lost the keys. I haven't been on it
Mr. STOTT: (As John Rebus) Come on, Tommy! You lost it. You couldn't bear
the idea of them both together. You lost it. Tell me the truth. Let's
Mr. CRANITCH: (As Tommy) All right. I followed them, but I never touched
them. I swear to God.
Mr. STOTT: (As John Rebus) Ooh. Right now I think that's the last person
you should be swearing to. Get your coat.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. POWERS: Although Rebus' personal life isn't developed as impressively on
TV as it is in the novels, the episodes don't build as in, say, "The Wire."
The show does boost a terrific performance by Stott, a canny, rumpled crowd
pleaser who has a spud of a nose and smokes his cigarette like a man on life
support. Sly enough to find the charm in what's often merely exasperating,
Stott captured the riddle that is Rebus, a born maverick whose obsessive
impatience as a cop--he's forever defying his superiors--only accentuates his
personal failings. He fouls up his love life, falls for women he shouldn't
and behaves selfishly towards Siobhan. He fuels such shortcomings with booze,
self pity and gulps of single-malt self righteousness that would be
unpalatable if he wasn't nearly always right.
And then there's Edinburgh. Like nearly all hugely successful crime locales,
be it Henning Mankell's Swedish boondocks or Alexander McCall Smith's
Botswana, the "Rebus" cycle is suffused with a mental atmosphere, a potently
mythical sense of place. It's long been the power of mystery stories that
they're so mobile. They feature detectives who explore the whole of society
from the corridors of power to the meanest of streets. Doing his job, Rebus
shuttles between chichi art galleries and massage parlors offering more than
massages. He deals with international tycoons and cops so crooked that them
seem like refugees from a James Ellroy novel.
Through his investigations, we come to see Edinburgh as a dank, tough, yet
often breathtaking city. It's one caught between its resplendent past as the
Athens of Britain and a modern metropolis plagued by crime, weaseling
bureaucrats and preening big shots who still treat the city as a private
fiefdom. It's a city of vast, enduring melancholy where people--rich and
poor--are forever seeking some form of release. When somebody pours you a
scotch in Rebus's world, it's never a wee dram; it's enough to stun a horse.
In a way, we're drawn to mystery stories for much the same reason--escape from
daily reality, consolation for the fact that our lives don't work out as
neatly as mysteries, and camaraderie with a hero who comes to feel like a
reliable friend. In fact, one great secret of the modern crime novel is that
much of the time it's not ultimately about crime. It's about isolation, about
loneliness, which is what makes John Rebus such a sympathetic figure.
Brilliant at solving the most arcane of murders, he's baffled by something
that sound quite ordinary: how to stop feeling so terribly alone.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the latest set of
"Rebus" mysteries on DVD.
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