Obituaries: Sir Dirk Bogarde

LIKE GARBO before him, Dirk Bogarde mysteriously exceeded the sum of his parts. Many of his 63 films were forever banal, while others initially thrilling and controversial were tamed or stultified by time. In a career spanning almost 60 years he willingly switched disguise, but neither wigs nor breeches, the officer's khaki nor the doctor's white coat, could long conceal his limitations of range. When he offered subtlety and suggestiveness instead of versatility those limitations appeared almost a virtue; but with the failure of that exchange in the mid-1970s his acting became almost intolerably arch and repetitive.

Yet he could never be dismissed - and his stature involved something more than the fact that to critics and colleagues he suggested stylish professionalism, or that in 1955 and 1957 his popularity made him Britain's principal box-office attraction, or that he rejected formulaic heroism in Hollywood and Pinewood to redeem himself in the European cinema he found more inquisitive.

Dirk Bogarde was a major figure because, wherever they were made, his finest films are all somehow about him. He was a great self- portraitist and the screen persona he fashioned, a stylisation of his private being, not only dominated its surroundings but spoke subliminally and powerfully to British audiences about the tensions of the time, about the connivances and cruel respectabilities of England in the Fifties and Sixties.

By the time he renounced acting for writing his numerous renditions of acquiescers, outsiders, self-doubters and repressors of secrets constituted a poetic enquiry into the dramas of pragmatic dishonesty and subterranean emotion and had made Bogarde emblematic, a man who might have been born to play exiles from happiness.

Indeed when he took to writing in his fifties Derek Jules Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde's first impulse, in A Postillion Struck By Lightning, was to depict his childhood as a lost paradise, only later conceding that despite its contentment he had learnt before adolescence "every lesson needed to get through adult life, from courage, to control, to determination and deceit".

His Scottish mother, Margaret Niven, daughter of Forrest Niven, actor and painter, was compelled by her husband to abandon acting, despite her Haymarket appearance in Bunty Pulls The Strings and despite an invitation from Hollywood to join the Lasky Players. Her regret was lifelong and she looked to alcohol for the mitigation three children could not always provide. Besides, her half-Dutch husband, art editor of The Times, worked too hard; soon Dirk and sister Elizabeth sought amusement in nursery theatricals.

While still a schoolboy, and perhaps with encouragement from his actress godmother Yvonne Arnaud, Dirk appeared in an amateur production of Alf's Button and every summer, when the family retreated to a cottage in Sussex, he and his sister animated the enchanted countryside with make-believe.

Innocence, inevitably, was doomed. A new-born brother Gareth usurped attention and Dirk, installed at the Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, was bullied into chronic self-doubt. Further patchy schooling in London culminated in a course of commercial art at Chelsea Polytechnic, where he was taught by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland (who later found his features too anodyne to merit portraiture).

Despite Ulric's hopes that his son would pursue a career in art or diplomacy Dirk wanted to act: in 1939 he was an extra in the George Formby comedy Come On, George and months later, when he made his West End debut in J.B. Priestley's Cornelius, The Stage praised his "sulky true-to-life office boy".

Engagement to the actress Annie Deans quickly failed and following conscription into Ensa he was called to war at Catterick army camp. He proved an inept signaller, but eventually became a major in Intelligence; he was in Normandy for D-Day, was decorated, and demobbed in Singapore. Distinction notwithstanding, military life taught advanced disenchantment: off-duty war paintings (some of which now belong to the Imperial War Museum) helped channel distress but many experiences registered anguish too great for anything but later flippancy. As for witnessing the liberation of Belsen, "We never spoke of it again to anyone".

He returned to civilian life without much hope or many credentials, yet within two years he had anglicised his name, acquired a first agent, won Noel Coward's admiration for his proletarian murderer in Power Without Glory at the New Lindsay Theatre and appeared in a television adaptation of Rope, playing the first of many homosexuals.

Coward urged that the beginner's destiny lay on stage but events swiftly confounded him. Wessex Films offered Bogarde a part in Esther Waters (1947); then with Stewart Granger's defection the leading role was thrust upon him; then J. Arthur Rank, which distributed Wessex Films, proffered a contract, despite anxieties about its new recruit's skinny neck, uneven leg length and asymmetrical head.

His 14 years with Rank proved a glamorous apprenticeship. Beginning in 1947 on pounds 30 a week, he emerged a decade later as Britain's principal star: each film gained him about pounds 10,000, his off-set publicity involved the land-owning accessories of dogs, Bentleys and big houses and Rank appointed the actresses he dated.

Of the 36 films he made with the studio few merited his or his audience's attention: The Blue Lamp (1949), paean to the British bobby, made his name; Doctor in the House (1954), based on Richard Gordon's novels about medical students, his fortune; and Victim (1961) his reputation, as an actor prepared to venture his popularity in a film which at the dawn of the Sixties appeared almost self-destructively controversial and conscientious. Nevertheless he learnt the technicalities of filming and understood why whole sets rose around his gentler left profile. He developed a confidant intimacy with the camera and enriched every film he made with his exotic prettiness, his thoroughness and his tense, truculent style.

After Victim, which confronted homosexuality as a certainty and exposed the evils of its illegality, there was no returning to studio fantasias. Bogarde left Rank in 1961, and for the next 17 years devoted himself freelance to the films which brought him international fame, films which taxed his sensitivity of interpretation and showed him willing, in his forties and fifties, to address the controversial preoccupations of a youthful and liberal age.

The social allegory of Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963) may now seem dated but Bogarde's performance (which won him his first British Film Academy Award) retains its stealthy menace. Death in Venice (1971, directed by Luchino Visconti) has its longueurs but Bogarde's Von Aschenbach remains a virtuoso rendition of almost wordless yearning. For all its flamboyance, The Night Porter (1973) is a determined investigation, structured around Bogarde's Max, into the passions of sado-masochism.

Yet as his European prestige grew so, despite the direction of Losey, Visconti, Resnais and Fassbinder, did his mannerisms; and his celebrated facial inflexions, which began as disclaimers of involvement and passion, developed into an unwitting but almost declamatory spinsterishness.

In any case, he was retreating - from England and from film. Along with Anthony Forwood, the former husband of Glynis Johns who became his manager and lifelong companion, he restored a 15th-century farmhouse near Grasse and recreated the paradise of distant Sussex; and in 1977 he began his successful career as an autobiographer and novelist with Postillion, his first volume of memoirs.

He was retreating also from people. He had never cultivated the common touch, never welcomed fame's intrusions into privacy; and unscheduled digressions in later interviews revealed with what asperity he manned his fortress. But he was an illusionist by trade and he outmanoeuvred curiosity with dexterity.

His best-selling autobiographies won him a reputation for self- revelation when in fact they camouflage: Postillion (which merits survival) beautifully evokes his childhood, indeed is generous with its harmless secrets and sins; but the sequels, which could have explained the mature Bogarde's inner workings and should have given some account of Tony Forwood, the most important figure in his life, are in varying degrees thespian anecdotage.

His excursions into the more revealing medium of fiction (inspired by experience) were smooth; but although the slickness of his novels is occasionally animated by accounts of female domination, male narcissism and male prostitution, their author's true pleasures remained classified.

Even as he guarded it, Dirk Bogarde's neat world crumbled. Having been ill since 1983 Forwood died in 1988, doubly stricken with cancer and Parkinson's disease. The French house was sacrificed to medical bills and proximity to London hospitals and Bogarde's last years passed in a flat in Chelsea. Planning ahead, he espoused euthanasia in 1991 and in 1992 he received a knighthood. He reviewed books for The Sunday Telegraph, contributed irritable, anglophobic articles elsewhere and testily reiterated his heterosexuality - but discreetly friends thought him unbearably embittered by Forwood's death.

It was a grief he could not allow himself to acknowledge, a grief which united with his early and frequently reinterpreted disillusion to lend to his public appearances a great disenchantment. Off-duty, he seemed even more poignant - squeamishly skirting Sloane Square, his hair as black as the dying Von Aschenbach's, his manner no less fussy, frail and furtive; and Chelsea's pavements, like Visconti's Lido, a lonely place for yearning.

Derek Jules Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde (Dirk Bogarde), actor and writer: born 28 March 1921; Kt 1992; died London 8 May 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee