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
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

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.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines