by John Coldstream
There are novelists, biographers, essayists, scriptwriters, journalists, critics and poets. In his time Dirk Bogarde belonged to each category. Those in the last five – nowadays especially – are not necessarily driven by some inexplicable interior force. Dirk was. It would be safe to say that he satisfied more than most the definition of the ‘born writer’. This much-used, and often misused, expression applies in truth only to someone continually in the grip of a compulsion; and the most convincing symptom of the need to write is to be found in the private diary and the personal letter. Only fragments of his journals remain, but Dirk was also a prodigious correspondent – prolific not only in the astonishing quantity of letters and cards that he consigned over the years to postboxes in Britain and Europe, but also in the length at which he wrote. He had so much to say. And, fortunately, those taking part recognised its particular quality sufficiently to preserve his side of the conversation.
Few examples survive from Dirk’s early life, but a handful of letters home from the schoolboy’s wretched exile in Glasgow indicate the strength of his prose, the vividness of his description and the fertility of his imagination. A single copy of The 2C Chronicle, a four-page form newspaper, compiled, written and drawn on both sides of a single sheet, and bearing on its masthead the date of his fourteenth birthday, reveals a combination of artistic flair, humour and close observation. This one-boy editorial and production team was practising in a microcosmic, juvenile way the profession of his father, Ulric Van den Bogaerde, Art Editor of the mighty Times. During his time at art school, Dirk wrote short plays, some with his girlfriend Nerine Cox; one of these, Dark Comfort, they performed together at the village hall in Newick run by her father. He wrote poetry to her – dark, troubled lines about the so-called Great War, steeped in foreboding at further imminent strife. Regrettably, only the first volume of the journal he kept in the Army was spared from the bonfire in the mid-Eighties on which he destroyed so much of his archive; however, it contains a draft in pencil of a poem, ‘The Sniper’, which, retitled ‘Man in the Bush’, would be published in The Times Literary Supplement just five months after its creator’s 20th birthday. Another, ‘Steel Cathedrals’, about the melancholy of travel by railway for the soldier in training, appeared in Poetry Review and many years later would be reprinted in several anthologies.
Otherwise, apart from a couple of magazine cartoons, nothing has surfaced of Dirk’s writings for a wider audience from either the European or Indian wartime theatres. Only from his spell in Java (December 1945 until July 1946) does any significant trace remain; for it was there that he began contributing to The Fighting Cock, the daily newspaper of the 23rd Indian Division, which had its office next door to the one in which he carried out his official, but by then almost non-existent, duties as interpreter of aerial reconnaissance photographs. He submitted news reports of divisional activities, essays about his experiences in Europe, and wry conversational vignettes. When the division moved its headquarters to Bandoeng he assumed the editor’s chair, from where he would produce sharp, sometimes contentious, leaders, as well as long pieces of fiction. In some of the articles streaming from his typewriter in the tropical heat lay the seeds of what would one day flower resplendently as autobiography. Germination, however, would take thirty years.
It is important, even in this context, to bear in mind just how rapid was Dirk’s ascent in the film business. In November 1946 he was still an Army captain, whose sole experience of work on a film set was as an extra in a pre-war George Formby vehicle, Come on George!. Twelve months later he had taken the male lead in Esther Waters and was being lined up for other starring roles. From this point the writing took a different turn. As a respite – and perhaps as a protection – from submitting to the interminable interviews, he found himself in demand for first-person pieces in film and fan magazines.
Editors, accustomed to inconsequential pap and froth, latched on to the discovery that this late-comer to the business had his own mind and could be refreshingly candid, even to the point of snapping at Rank – which, after all, was the hand that fed him. The problem for us at this distance is to know how many of the hundreds of column inches that appeared under his name were actually composed by him, were ‘ghosted’ by a trusted journalist or by a sympathetic employee in the publicity office, or, as sometimes happened, were crafted by Anthony Forwood, who by now shared Dirk’s life and who also had an infectious way with words. Incontrovertibly, though, Dirk was the ‘author’ of a five-week series in Woman magazine, to which he gave long interviews and his signature for use with the title ‘My Life Story’. It was published early in 1961, a year momentous enough personally for Dirk because he turned 40, but even more significant professionally because it saw him make Victim and cut his contractual ties with Rank. It was a good moment to take stock, and he did so with vigour. Evidently, this actor could write convincingly and at length.
The first serious attempt to promote an obvious off-screen talent from the flimsiness and ephemerality of periodicals to the grown-up world between hard covers came at the end of 1963, when, after seeing The Servant, Edward Thompson, a director at Heinemann, said in a letter that someone should persuade Dirk to write a book ‘and if that someone could be me, then I would be very happy indeed.’
A courtship ensued, lasting more than ten years, but in the end Dirk rejected this persistent and perceptive suitor in favour of another. By that time, he had had an altogether more intense correspondence with a ‘Mrs X’ – Dorothy Gordon, a librarian working at Yale University. She was sent a magazine containing a photograph of a house on the borders of Sussex and Kent in which she had lived before the war. It was now owned by a film star about whom she knew little and cared less, but she was curious to find out about her former home. In the five years from 1967 something close to a thousand letters and cards crossed the Atlantic as Dorothy Gordon and Dirk ‘chatted’. She, the intellectual, encouraged him with books and with thoughts on the great writers; he, knowing she was dying, stimulated her with his own reportage and observation. In one letter, urging him to persevere with the few chapters – almost discrete essays – which he had so far produced about his childhood, she wrote: ‘FORCE memory!’ And so he did.
In October 1974 Norah Smallwood saw Dirk being interviewed on a weekend television programme, and on the Monday morning told senior members of her staff at Chatto and Windus that ‘if he writes as well as he talks, he might have a book in him.’ A second courtship by a publisher ensued, and eventually Dirk acquired not only a contract for a volume of memoirs but also a second ‘Needlewoman’, to guide him and to boost morale when the Muse remained aloof. A Postillion Struck by Lightning was published in March 1977 and disarmed all those who came to it expecting just another actor’s autobiography. Its first section, a depiction of childhood holidays spent with his sister Elizabeth and their nanny, ‘Lally’, on the Downs in East Sussex, was a beautifully wrought elegy; its second, devoted primarily to Dirk’s three years of exile in Glasgow, was no less effective in its study of a free spirit being suffocated. There was pleasant surprise among the critics and delight among the booksellers. The public, which some twenty-three years earlier had taken him to its collective heart, and a significant portion of which had kept him there despite some difficult – even alienating – work in the cinema, found reason to envelop him again with enthusiasm and warmth. It was a spectacular debut for a fifty-three-year-old, and a swift follow-up, Snakes and Ladders (1978) showed it had been no fluke. Then Norah Smallwood said ‘Try’, and A Gentle Occupation (1980), based on his service in Java, introducd Dirk as a novelist, to no little acclaim.
In twenty-one years Dirk produced fifteen books. Six are novels; all essentially comedies of manners, all bitter-sweet. Seven were autobiographies, although one of these, Great Meadow (1992), a return to the Sussex childhood as ‘evoked’ by the boy Derek, could as easily belong under the heading of fiction. Likewise, A Particular Friendship (1989), a heavily edited selection from the letters to Dorothy Gordon and the first spotlight on Dirk the brilliant correspondent, is nothing if not autobiography. The final volume, For the Time Being (1998), was a collection of journalism, compiled after a second, devastating stroke made it impossible for him to carry on any sustained creative undertaking. It is this body of work, coupled with the generally favourable reception accorded it throughout, that gives him a unique status as a lauded and respected screen actor who also achieved a sustained and considerable success in the world of letters. Honorary doctorates from the universities of St Andrews and Sussex bear testimony.
Two further areas deserve mention. Surprisingly, given his acuteness in both rendering dialogue on film and creating it on paper, Dirk had only one screenplay to his credit – an adaptation for Yorkshire Television of Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband? More productive and rewarding were his efforts as a book critic. He had done little in this line until 1988, when he was at his lowest ebb. Nicholas Shakespeare, then literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, offered Dirk one or two new titles for possible review. He chose Mr Harty’s Grand Tour, by the television interviewer whom he most favoured, Russell Harty. The resulting piece, a succinct, witty and lethal strike with a dagger wielded in honesty, led to seven years of regular reviewing, during which Dirk wrote for a constituency more responsive than that of any other contributor to the books pages of a national newspaper. It was one he seldom, if ever, disappointed; and when he addressed the subjects of euthanasia and the Holocaust the mailbag bulged.
In the cinema it was Dirk’s intelligence, his stillness, his ability seemingly to usher the audience through his eyes and into his mind, that made him stand out as an actor. In his writing it was his directness, his economy, his ear for dialogue, his sardonic humour. He wrote as if he was in the same room as the reader, taking him or her into his confidence, provoking nods of recognition, winces of Schadenfreude, the occasional sigh of compassion, and gentle laughter. It was, as suggested above, one side of a conversation. And, as in life, so on the page: it was a pleasure for us to be involved.
This essay is based by the author on material in his ‘Dirk Bogarde: the Authorised Biography’ (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004) and on the introduction to ‘Ever, Dirk: The Bogarde Letters’ which he compiled and edited for the same publisher.