Dirk Bogarde's secrets and lies

In his screen career he played many roles - hoodlum, academic, bandit, barrister, butler. In his public life he moved from teenage heart-throb to art-house icon to man of letters. But in private who really was Dirk Bogarde and why did he conceal so much of his past? On the eve of a BBC biography, Philip Hoare examines the actor's images and the reality
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The Independent Culture

In 1986, shortly before Russell Harty arrived to interview him in his south of France retreat, Dirk Bogarde made a bonfire in his idyllic garden, its lawned terraces overlooking the exquisite Provençal view which he and his manager, Anthony Forwood, had enjoyed for 16 years. Into the fire, the actor tipped the evidence of his life: his wartime journals and letters, his papers and the rest of his intimate correspondence. Everything, in fact, that might contradict the carefully assembled self-portrait that Bogarde had created in seven volumes of autobiography and a sequence of progressively more extraordinary film performances. It was, as he would admit, "the action of a man covering up".

BBC2's Arena: the Private Dirk Bogarde, which screens on Boxing Day as the centrepiece of the channel's "Dirk Bogarde Night", opens with this conflagration, and a deft piece of editing by Sean MacKenzie in which images emerge out of the flames to contradict that careful portrait: Bogarde in white swimming trunks on summer lawns, or in domestic scenes with the ever-present figure of a tall, blond man grinning at the camera. The truth is that Bogarde, a man whose career relied on the very currency of image, had made a fatal mistake when feeding the flames. He had not consigned to them the years of home movies taken by Anthony Forwood, nor the photographs that provide the stills for this alternative biopic. Fifteen years later, and two years after Bogarde's death, this potent evidence has been uncovered, with extraordinarily immediate and deadly effect – as if Forwood's 16mm camera were, as Adam Low says, "a bit like a gun"; one aesthetically targeted at his partner's portrait.

Bogarde's fame depended intimately on his image, and his adept manipulation of it. And yet, it used him as much as he used it. To the movie-going public, he first became a face as a juvenile delinquent in The Blue Lamp (1950); all tooled up like a Soho version of Dickie Attenborough's Pinkie in Brighton Rock, shooting the avuncular policeman Jack "Dixon of Dock Green" Warner. This still-shocking act fixed him in the public imagination, and his chiselled handsomeness was quickly sucked into the pop culture of the post-war era. Rank, capitalising on what Bogarde – in apparent self-deprecation – called his "little boy looking for God" looks, groomed him as a nascent teen star. All Brylcreem and liquid eyes, he was less Cliff Richard's wayward elder brother than an English proto-Presley.

Mobbed by teenage girls who were tantalized by magazine articles about the unmarried "availability" of their hero, Bogarde became a household name in the Doctor in the House series, a clean-cut Englishman playing the fall guy. The darkness was to come, yet even then he cultivated an air of mystery, giving the lie to that sense of availability and undercutting the commodification. "I had to go along with it," he said later, "I was selling the product – and the product was me."

For Bogarde, this auction culminated in The Singer Not the Song (1960), in which he played a sadistic, amoral, sexually ambiguous Mexican bandit, clad in black leather. He was a cowboy Edward Scissorhands, the very essence of post-war pop camp, and almost a Warhol screenprint of himself. Directed by Roy Baker, who made the first series of The Avengers, the film attempted, in the words of the BBC documentary's author Nicholas Shakespeare, to "challenge Hollywood at its own game". And yet, at the same time, it more than hinted at what was to come: one critic wrote that the film was "as startling as a muffled scream from the unconscious".

Tellingly, the film that followed it was Victim (1961): Bogarde as a married barrister, all knotted tie and defensive, arched right eyebrow, being "rented" (as the phrase was in Wilde's time) over his subvert homosexuality. It was an extraordinarily brave performance (many fellow actors turned down parts in the film, fearing contamination in pre-Woolfenden days), yet like those photographs and home movies that did not go into the fire, it seems as though Bogarde was almost unaware of its power. It looked as if he were playing with the image of himself; partly revealing, partly concealing.

Thereafter, the image he presented to the world would be an increasingly complex one – it must have severely confused the teenage readers of Mirabelle and its like. Bogarde was still the leading man in romantic movies (with an attendant and unconvincing "love affair" with French actress Capucine) and yet, at the same time, the darling of the new wave in Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), King and Country (1964) and Accident (1967). As The Servant's subversive butler, Bogarde used his fame to reach out and test its limits, and perhaps those of his position. His performance was full of "latent violence and social climbing," as his co-star James Fox says in the Arena film.

Such films mirrored Bogarde's search for identity and social position. They underlined the notion of a middle-class boy aspiring to aristocratic pretensions, surrounding himself with the appurtenances of grand country house living. "There was a time when he suggested I really ought to call him 'sir'," says his younger brother Gareth. He could play both master and servant, and that balance of power gave his performances their edge.

His neurotic masculinity chimed with the era. "Saint one minute, sinner the next," says Michael York, his co-star in the Pinter-scripted Accident. Alerted to his talents by Accident, as it were, European directors fixed on this sense of schizophrenia. They provided Bogarde with a get-out clause at a time when, as he admitted in his first volume of memoirs, A Postillion Struck By Lightning, his popularity was waning in England. "By 1966," he wrote, "I was splendidly on the skids."

In Europe – a natural home for the son of a Belgian artist, though Bogarde pretended to be Dutch – Bogarde could reinvent himself entirely. It was as much the reason for his self-exile as any other: to establish not only a new creative practice, but a new persona entirely.

It also gave poignancy to his most remarkable performance, in Visconti's Death in Venice (1970), as von Aschenbach, the fatally ill composer fixated on a young boy. It was not, as Bogarde insisted, a homosexual part. That would be like going back on old work, he said, referring to Victim. No, it was a question of the search for beauty, and perhaps even his own youthful, beautiful self. It was also the Bogarde image at its apogee or its nadir, depending on which lens you use: deconstructing before the viewer's eyes, just as Aschenbach's make-up is carefully applied by a Venetian cosmetician before it slowly runs in rivers of dyed sweat ("lusting and dying", as Gore Vidal says in the documentary), as the unattainable object of beauty teases out his observer's mortality.

"Dirk was dark," says Vidal, "it was a physical darkness." It was also a darkness that drew on the sense of recent evil: as an army officer in the war, Bogarde had witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. He brought the memory to his performance in The Night Porter (1973), as a hotel porter (a servant again) confronted with his past as a Nazi officer by his victim, Charlotte Rampling. "It's about bondage and slavery," she says, "obsessive possession." In one sequence, Bogarde's Nazi officer takes a movie camera into a room of naked concentration camp inmates, an "assistant" holding up a floodlight. The scene is a dark obverse to those sunny glimpses of domestic glamour in the Home Counties or Provence – the private life Bogarde had built for himself, and behind which he could retreat.

As John Coldstream, who is currently writing Bogarde's biography, notes: "He was very unsure of himself – he kept his 'lives' in compartments. He may have published seven volumes of autobiography, but it seems to me there is still much to say." This "third career" as a memoirist seemed to underline Bogarde's need to place himself in the world; as if to convince himself that he was of worth, that what he did was worthy. For all the hauteur of his screen performances – the booted First World War officer of King and Country; the mockney-voiced butler in The Servant; the dying, decadent and pathetic Aschenbach – there is a nervousness to Bogarde's film presence that always seems to have its source in some deep-buried experience from his own past.

It remains a strange fact that a man of "obsessional privacy", as he claimed, should publish no less than seven volumes (versions?) of his life story. And, too, that the bonfire did not consume the real evidence: the photographs, and the films. The embers were still smouldering when, a few weeks later, Russell Harty arrived. In his interview, Bogarde invited Harty – dared him, perhaps – to delve deeper, only to be met with the statement, delivered from under the arch of that much-filmed eyebrow: "I'm still in the shell and you haven't cracked it yet, honey."

On Boxing Day at 9pm, BBC 2 will broadcast an Arena special on Dirk Bogarde. Throughout the day they will also show three of his films, 'Ill Met by Moonlight', 'Doctor at Sea' and 'The Night Porter'