Dirk Bogarde: The reluctant matinee idol

Dirk Bogarde: The reluctant matinee idol
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This is an exclusive feature from the now sold-out Issue 2 of Yours Retro. For more nostalgia, check out the latest Retro at www.greatmagazines.co.uk

A deeply private man, Dirk Bogarde found fame a burden and hid both his sexuality and his darker side

A consummate actor both on and off screen, Dirk Bogarde was an enigma even to those who knew him best. A man of enormous charm and warmth, he could be bitingly acerbic. He loved acting, but hated an audience; and fiercely protective of his privacy, he recoiled from the fervent fan worship that went with being ‘the idol of the Odeons’.

Becoming one of the Rank Organisation’s stable of glamorous young stars in the Fifties gave Dirk the break into films that he wanted, but as his Doctor in the House co-star Kenneth More observed, his look of bland youthful innocence was deceptive. He had, after all, served as an army officer for six years in the war.

Born in London in 1921, Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde grew up to be successful not only as an actor, but also as an artist and a writer. Throughout his life he remained an elusive character – one that even his biographer, John Coldstream, found difficult to pin down.

Helena Bonham Carter was one of Dirk’s many friends who testified to his unpredictable nature: “When you went to meet him you asked yourself, ‘Now, are you going to be in a happy mood; are you going to be loving? Or are you going to be angry, dark and bitter?’”

Dirk was notoriously secretive about his sexuality. In interviews he repeatedly denied he was homosexual and in all seven volumes of his autobiography, he describes Tony Forwood, his devoted partner for more than 40 years, merely as his business manager.

Dick in Victim (1961) alongside Sylvia Sims

Dick in Victim (1961) alongside Sylvia Sims

When challenged about this blurring of the facts, Dirk insisted that there was a difference between evasion and lying, and that the truth had always been there for those who were able to read between the lines. The same could be said of his film career, in which he took on many roles that were implicitly, if not openly, gay.

In Victim in 1961 (six years before homosexuality was decriminalised) he starred as a gay man who has to confess to his wife that he is being blackmailed. At a time when any suggestion that an actor might be gay could ruin his career, this was a brave move.

Did you know...? Dirk had a good singing voice, but possibly shouldn’t have been persuaded to record his favourite songs on an LP, Lyrics for Lovers. When David Jacobs played it on his radio show years later, the BBC received more enquiries about it than any other song in the show’s history. As a result, David had to play it… again and again!

An intelligent man, Dirk liked to be adventurous in his choice of film roles and was fussy about the directors he worked with. After leaving Rank, he chose to make art-house films, working with directors such as Joseph Losey (Accident and The Servant) and Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice).

Film critics saw in him a subtly erotic menace often associated with another British actor, James Mason. By the time he portrayed a sadistic former Nazi in The Night Porter (1974), Dirk may well have reflected that he had come a long way since playing the disarmingly shy Dr Simon Sparrow.

Always a perfectionist, Dirk gave his best to every role he took on and by the early Seventies he was ready, if not to retire, at least to take a long rest from acting.

He and Tony settled in Provence where they found a beautiful old farmhouse, Le Haut Clermont, to restore. They lived there for 19 happy years, during which time they adopted a succession of dogs, cats and other pets and Dirk indulged his love of gardening.

Dick in Doctor at Large (1957) alongside Shirley Eaton

Dick in Doctor at Large (1957) alongside Shirley Eaton

During this time, Dirk also discovered that he had a talent for writing, despite being hopeless at spelling and punctuation. Encouraged by Norah Smallwood of the publisher Chatto and Windus, he installed himself in the converted olive store with a typewriter and produced his first bestseller. A Postillion Struck by Lightning was an idyllic account of growing up on the Sussex Downs with his sister Elizabeth and their adored nanny, Lally.

Dirk and Tony’s time in France came to a reluctant end when Tony’s poor health forced them to return to London, where he died in 1988. Dirk moved to a flat in Cadogan Gardens. He described his life there in his last volume of autobiography, A Short Walk from Harrods, but his heart remained firmly in Provence. He wrote movingly to the then owners of Le Haut Clermont, ‘If one still night, when the moon is high, you think you see a shadow moving among the olives just below the little terrace, or sitting under the big olive over the pond, say “Bon Soir.” It will be me.’

After his death in May 1999, Dirk’s ashes were scattered under his beloved olive trees.