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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own