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Sir Dirk Bogarde, actor and author, died on May 8 aged 78. He was born Derek Van Den Bogaerde in Hampstead on March 28, 1921.

In public Dirk Bogarde liked to be dismissive about himself. “I used to be a thespian, now I write books,” he was fond of saying when he was in his seventies to the few strangers whom he met during his semi-reclusive final years. The listener was invited to brood on the extraordinary changes in a man who had started as a product of the J. Arthur Rank charm school, moved in mid-career to be one of the most bankable stars of the European Cinema and then retired to a self-contained and highly successful career in writing.

Handling words came easily to Bogarde, whether he was plotting a novel – of which he wrote seven – turning in a review for The Daily Telegraph or, most valuably of all, looking back on his own life in a series of autobiographies. He wrote gracefully, as he had moved gracefully across the screen in the 1950s when he was the idol of a generation of teenagers. But underneath there was a feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction at still being under-appreciated in his own country.

At times he felt a stranger in England, and twenty of his middle years were spent in France with his partner and manager, Tony Forwood. From his farmhouse, Le Pigeonnier, near Grasse in Provence, Bogarde looked towards England with a mixture of envy and distaste. He had given up the British cinema as a lost cause, and stage fright had made him abandon the theatre before he was forty. The men who enticed him back to the film studios were the great European directors: Visconti, Renais, Fassbinder. From his Provncal terrace Bogarde viewed the world with the ironic, detached and lightly melancholic eyes which were to become part of his old-age persona.

The melancholy deepened when Forwood became ill and eventually died in 1988. Le Pigeonnier had been sold – in any case urban development had been creeping up all around it – and they had been forced to return to London for medical reasons. Bogarde began by hating the enforced new life and especially the Belgravia hostesses who treated him as a “spare pair of trousers” for their dinner parties. His dyspeptic state of mind is shown to the full in A Short Walk From Harrod’s (1993). After Forwood’s death Bogarde suffered a minor stroke (followed in 1996 by a much more serious one).

But after his first stroke the old resilience gradually came back and the books began to flow steadily again. They had started with A Postillion Struck by Lightning commissioned in 1977 by Chatto and Windus. The publisher’s editorial director, Nora Smallwood, had by chance seen Bogarde interviewed on a TV chat show and rushed into the office next day crying: “Anyone know an actor called Dirk Baggared – or something? He tells a marvellous story.” She was no cineaste, but she knew a born narrator. Within a few days a new career was beckoning.

When he was a child Derek Niven Van Den Bogarde (as he styled himself in his Who’s Who entry) had scribbled plays for his sister and himself to perform. His mother had been an actress and one of her friends, “Auntie Yvonne”, introduced him to the theatre. As the Yvonne in question was Yvonne Arnaud, it was a good introduction. His father was the first art editor of The Times, a fact of which Bogarde remained inordinately proud, and was a key influence. He taught Dirk his powers of observation, and the autobiographies are full of minute recall of atmosphere and places. He must, too, have passed on the skill of draughtmanship as the books are sprinkled with Bogarde’s sketches as well as photographs.

Early childhood was happy, but adolescence was interrupted by the arrival (somewhat unexpected) of a much younger brother. This had the effect of diverting attention away from Dirk and led to an enforced exile with some stern and puritan relatives in Scotland. Bogarde hated both the country and the ambience. One of his novels, Jericho, concerns the search for a missing and much younger halfbrother, who turns out to have been up to some unpleasant things in France.

Bogarde resisted all attempts by his father to find him a job on The Times and went instead to Chelsea Polytechnic to study art. Later he took an ironic pleasure in the fact that his last London nat was not far from the place where he spent a mildly bohemian youth just before the war. He decided to be an actor. again to the displeasure of his father, who later remarked to him: “You’ve brought the family name just as low as it’s possible to get.” He was referring to a film poster in a particularly deep London tube station, but was only half in jest.

Bogarde spent the war in The Queen’s Royal Regiment, reaching the rank of captain and working mainly in Intelligence. Some of his future skills began to emerge: he wrote quantities of letters for illiterate soldiers, edited a forces’ newspaper and was a radio announcer. He was also one of the first British soldiers to see Belsen, which had a profound effect on him. Much later he was to become a passionate advocate of voluntary euthanasia as a result of Forwood’s slow and painful final illness.

After demob Bogarde returned to the stage via fringe theatres around the West End. At one, the New Lindsey, he played alongside Kenneth More in Power without Glory and was quickly spotted after the play had been filmed for television. His first major screen appearance was in the indifferent Esther Waters in 1947, hut two years later came The Blue Lamp with Bogarde as the young thug who kills Jack Warner.

He had the style for the time: lean, with dark lustrous eyes and a slightly Mediterranean appearance. He looked good in leathers, as in Once a Jolly Swagman (1948), a minor speedway drama. Bogarde was to play other criminals, notably in Hunted (1952) and The Sleeping Tiger (1954), the first of several films he was to make with Joseph Losey, who was then on the run from McCarthyism and working under an alias in Britain.

Bogarde achieved heart-throb status in the early 1950s. mainly through the series of Doctor films drawn from the Richard Gordon novels. As the accident-prone Simon Sparrow, he huilt up a huge following and for one film, Doctor at Sea, was even invited to help select his own leading lady. He went to France and came back with Brigitte Bardot.

Such successes did not help Dirk Bogarde’s stage career. He tended to choose serious plays and claimed that the audience too often comprised uncomprehending teenyboppers panting to see him in the flesh. Probably his most notable appearance was in a wistful Anouilh adaptation, Point of Departure, at the Duke of York’s in 1950, with another sex symbol of the time, Mai Zetterling. Peter Hall directed him, not altogether happily, in Summertime (1955-56). His final appearance on stage, again in Anouilh, was Jezebel in 1958. Bogarde admitted that he was beginning to suffer from stage fright and thereafter decided to be content with the cameras.

In 1960 Bogarde eventually succumbed to the lure of Hollywood and agreed ro play Franz Liszt in the musical biopic Song Without End. It was a disastrous move. He knew that the script was risible and he did not like being barked at by the director, Charles Vidor who, fortunately for Bogarde, died during the filming. But he was entranced by his co-star, Capucine.

She had made her reputation in Paris as a model and Hollywood was convinced that she could be made to act. The Liszt film was in part devised to launch her into the movie world. Dirk Bogarde was so taken by her charms, if not by her acting talent, which was almost non-existent, that in due course he proposed to her. Bogarde senior added his appeals on bended knee, not a position he often adopted. But Capucine declined. She made one or two more films but eventually, alone and fearful of losing her looks, she committed suicide in Lausanne. Bogarde was later to write movingly about her under the laconic heading of “A Girl I Knew”.

He made a further, and even worse, film in Hollywood, called The Angel Wore Red (1960) before returning to Britain in search of meatier roles. One came in The Servant (1963), in which he played a manservant who gradually gains sway over his ineffectual master (played by James Fox). In a film which reunited Bogarde with Joseph Losey. Harold Pinter provided a script which had powerful undercurrents of corruption and homosexuality. Bogarde made the most of them, turning in a performance that established him as a serious screen personality. The British cinema was going through one of its thinking periods and there followed King and Country (1964) and Accident (1967), again scripted by Pinter.

In between, for John Schlesinger, Bogarde played in Darling (1965), one of the first and most corruscating looks at swinging London. But some sixth sense must have told him that the sun was beginning to set on serious films as far as Britain was concerned, and in 1968 he and Tony Forwood decided to live abroad.

First they tried Rome, then opted for Provence. Bogarde became a European in both residential and career terms. He was to make a number of cameo appearances in British films, such as “Boy” Browning in Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), but his important work was to be with the leading continental directors. It began with Luchino Visconti in The Damned (1969). Soon after, the same director was to draw from Bogarde a fine performance as the doomed and lonely Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1971), based on Thomas Mann’s novel. He drew his inspiration for the part from the memory of an elderly lady “thin as a stick-insect”, whom he had watched take a solitary supper every night in the restaurant at a Paris railway terminus. In emulation of his model, he shed pounds before shooting, so that his crumpled suit napped about his frame. It was a masterly performance, and one which carried the film.

For Liliana Cavani he played an ex-SS officer with sadomasochistic inclinations in The Night Porter (1973). It was heavily criticised for its tastelessness; indeed, Bogarde began to favour “unsavoury” roles, but for directors he played extremely hard to get. Most of his energies were going into building up his home at Le Pigeonnier, where he could look down across the bright lights of the Côte D’Azur and determine to avoid them.

In his half-retirement only the best names could tempt him out. Alain Resnais did for Providence (1977) and Fassbinder for Despair (1978), based on Nabokov. Bogarde was in the habit of declaring that each film was to be his last. Finally, Bertrand Tavernier coaxed him out in 1990 for Daddy Nostalgie.

But by this time Dirk Bogarde was a man of letters. As each new volume of autobiography or fiction was published, he gave carefully selected interviews, usually at the Connaught. Occasionally he was tempted to appear in public: Tom Stoppard turned him into wry and worldly-wise narrator when Glyndebourne performed Lehar’s The Merry Widow at the Royal Festival Hall. But he generally guarded his privacy.

As each section of his life was covered in his autobiography he destroyed the relevant notes and memorabilia. He was determined to have the final say on what he was and did. He was so scrupulous in this that for his seventh and final book of autobiography, Cleared for Take-Off (1995), he sometimes turned to Forwood’s diaries to prompt his memory. In many ways this was the most personal of his books, opening up episodes which, for the sake of himself or others, he had previously left undisclosed. Personal pride at being made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 1990 and in being knighted in 1992 was mitigated by a sense of being at odds with the society in which he now had to live. One especially bruising encounter with the press after a radio series drove him further into his shell. His life after Tony Forwood’s death was a solitary one.