Not many young men who landed in Normandy on D-Day took along a box of water colours to paint the scenery. Not many make a hobby of breeding tropical fish, or of embarking on a film career by co-starring with Kathleen Ryan.
But Dirk Bogarde is no ordinary young man. Two years ago, he was one among thousands of ex-Servicemen looking for a job. Now he has achieved top film billing at one jump. While his first picture, Esther Waters, which is now playing in the West End, is being judged by the critics, he has already completed his third.
Dark and lanky, with brown eyes and lively features, Dirk looks young for his twenty-eight years. He sounds as if he might be hell-bent for fame and fortune. If he is, he doesn’t show it. Questioned about his quick success, he is apt to shuffle his feet.
“I’m a beginner … very lucky to have had such good parts in my first films. I want to work every day until I get somewhere near knowing the job.” He is too polite to add: “Now, let’s talk about something else.” But that is what he implies, for he is a shy lad at heart.
Born in Hampstead, on March 28, 1920, Dirk comes of an old Dutch family. His parents, not foreseeing that his name might one day appear in lights, had him christened Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven Van den Bogaerde. For centuries the Van den Bogaerdes (literal translation: “of the orchards”) lived in the fruit-growing region on the borders of Holland and Belgium. They were seafarers and later landowners.
His father, now art editor of “The Times,” came to Britain at an early age, married a Scottish actress called Margaret Niven and reared a family of two boys and a girl. Dirk, the eldest, spent a nomadic childhood, mostly on the Continent, then settled down to he educated at Allan Glens College, Glasgow, and at University College School, London, where he studied literature, painting, sculpture and languages. He was a good scholar. There seemed to be every possibility of a bright future in the Diplomatic Corps.
But, despite paternal hints to this effect, he felt an early “yen” for the theatre. Very well; he would be given enough rope, agreed his parents. At fifteen, he went to the Chelsea Polytechnic to take a course in stage and film décor and, a year later, won a scholarship for the Royal College of Arts.
At eighteen, he had made up his mind to go on the stage. The quest ion was: how? As it turned out his début in the theatrical world was a strangely casual affair. Passing the “Q” Theatre at Chiswick in a bus, he jumped off on a sudden impulse, went inside and asked for a job.
“They were so surprised,” he recalls, “that they gave me one – boiling glue, getting the carpenters’ tea, painting scenery and acting as call boy: all for seven and six a week!”
Followed a promotion to prompter and assistant stage manager; then a traditional piece of luck. One of the cast of J. B. Priestley’s “When We Are Married” fell ill. Dirk was offered the part, played it and stayed behind the footlights. His weekly wage was increased to a guinea.
The year was 1939; he was independent; life was good.
The outbreak of war found him playing a variety of rôles with the adventurous little repertory company at Amersham. In 1940 he arrived in the West End with “Cornelius” at the Westminster Theatre a week before the blitz began. When the play finished, he returned to repertory, then came back in “Diversion,” a large-scale revue which braved the bombs from one o’clock to four thirty every afternoon at Wyndham’s. The show and Dirk Bogarde both scored a remarkable success.
In March, 1941, national service claimed him. He joined the Army and, on gaining his commission, went into Intelligence on a special photo-interpretation job. Throughout the European campaign he filled in off-duty periods sketching and painting. Two of his D-Day drawings – one on blotting paper – have since been purchased by the British Museum. Two others have been sold in America.
Finally, in recognition of his talents, the Army authorities gave him the status of semi-official war artist. Thus he was equipped with an impressive looking pass that allowed him to stick his neck into any trouble that was going.
Among the minor works of war he counts the time he took part in planning the destruction of Aunay-sur-Odon, a village that was eventually reduced to dust except for its church tower. Having helped to eliminate it, Dirk painted the ruins. Years later, in London, when a fund was started for the rehabilitation of villages such as Aunay, he held an exhibition of his war paintings at Batsford’s Galleries – all profits to the fund.
When peace came, Dirk Bogarde found himself in Hamburg with the rank of major. He was just contemplating a return to London and the stage, when he was flown to Burma. There he became A.D .C. to the G.O.C. of the 23rd Division, editor of a Forces’ newspapt-r and chief British announcer for the Java radio network.
Age group thirty-six seemed a long while getting round to demobilization. When, at last, Dirk reached home, the agents were not particularly interested. “‘Diversion’ – yes, but that was six years ago.”
He made his “comeback ” through one of the ex-Service actors’ Reunion Thea tre productions. This led to a fairly meaty part – that of the schizophrenic younger son in Michael Clayton’s play, “Power Without Glory,” which opened at the New Lindsay Theatre in February, 1947.
The play transferred to the Fortune in April, where it ran for several months. Among those who saw it was Ian Dalrymple, the Wessex film producer, then searching for a new leading man to play William Latch, the groom turned bookmaker, in George Moore’s Victorian racing drama, Esther Waters. He decided forthwith that he need look no more.
Dirk Bogarde was put under contract by the J. Arthur Rank Organization and sent to Pinewood. Life has been somewhat hectic ever since.
As soon as Esther Waters was finished he went to Shepherd’s Bush to play with Françoise Rosay in “Alien Corn,” one of the four Somerset Maugham stories being filmed by Sydney Box under the general title of Quartet. Then back to Pinewood for the latest Wessex production, Once a Jolly Swagman, in which he has the rôle of a young speedway rider who becomes a star of the track too quickly for his own good.
Dirk is grateful for the material gifts that stardom has brought him. Excited as a schoolboy over his new Sunbeam-Talbot sports car, he packs in as many members of the unit as he can on his way to and from work.
He lives alone in a small Regency house in Chelsea with his tropical fish, his books and his pictures. One evening a week he goes to the movies. Other times, he mooches round antique shops, or spends hours restoring the colours to old canvases by rubbing in milk with his fingertips. Recently, he picked up a Zuccarelli – not fabulously valuable but well worth while – for £3, the value of the frame alone.
Not particularly fond of public functions, he hopes to get over his shyness, but at present, the more he sees of first-night crowds, the more at home he feels with his tropical fish.
As the groom in Esther Waters Dirk plays a character entirely unlike himself, a good test for a first film. The young man is determined to build up his fortunes by betting. He seduces Esther, the heroine, and later runs away with the niece of his master. Years later, as successful bookmaker and a publican, he meets Esther again, learns of his child and persuades her to marry him.
They live a happy life until his luck runs badly. Finally he dies of tuberculosis, not knowing whether the horse he has backed with his last hundred pounds has won or lost.
Quite a meaty part for a film début, you see. Most people will agree that he has made a creditable showing, especially in his later scenes when the character has, so to speak, taken full shape.
The picture has been received by the critics with some reserve but that should have no adverse effect upon Dirk’s career. His work is sound, and his sponsors have faith in him. Picturegoers will, I think, discover an adultness in him that is particularly attractive. There is a hint of strength, too, in some of his scenes that indicates his ability to play a dynamic réle and to tackle strong meat successfully.
His part in Once a Jolly Swagman gives him quite a bit of that kind of thing; and it will be interesting to see him at work in a story in the modern idiom.
Thorough in his work, he believes in studying the background of each character he plays. For Once a Jolly Swagman he took lessons in speedway riding from the experts at New Cross Stadium and became quite interested in the sport.
But going a round in circles is not really in Dirk’s line. He is going straight – to the top. That is his determination. It is also the view which the Rank people take of him.