Sir Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) b. London, England.
Sir Dirk Bogarde was born Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde in West Hampstead, London on 28 March 1921. One of three children, his father, Ulric, art editor of The Times, was from a mixed Flemish and Dutch background and his mother, Margaret Niven, formerly an actress, had Scottish ancestry. He was baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Kilburn on 30 October 1921.
He was first a pupil at Allan Glen’s School in Glasgow and later returned to London to study at the London’s University College School and then at Chelsea College of Art & Design where he studied commercial art, under tutor, Henry Moore. Very much against his father’s wishes, he dropped out of the course and re-enrolled to study drama and whilst his acting talents at that stage remained undiscovered, he made himself a living during the 1930s as a commercial artist and scene painter. Keen to pursue his acting ambitions, he applied for positions with repertory companies, eventually securing an apprenticeship with the Amersham Repertory Company, making his stage debut in 1939 with a minor role, followed a few months later by his West End debut, under the name Derek Bogaerde, in JB Priestley’s Cornelius.
In 1940, nineteen year old Derek joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment and served as an officer with the Air Photographic Intelligence Unit, where he eventually attained the rank of major and during his five years of active service was honoured on seven occasions. He spent a lot of time writing poems and painting during his military career and today, some of his paintings form part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.
When the war ended in 1945 he returned immediately to his acting and his stage name of Dirk Bogarde was born. In 1947 he appeared at the New Lindsay Theatre in the play Power without Glory a performance that drew much praise and attention, in particular from Noel Coward, who congratulated him on his performance and promised him that success must surely be just around the corner. Indeed it was, as shortly afterwards a representative from The Rank Organisation saw him in the play and offered him a contract. Soon, he had made his big screen debut, as a policeman in Dancing with Crime. His first film lead came quickly too, when later in 1948, after Stewart Granger had to drop out, he was cast in Wessex Films’, Esther Waters. For the next couple of years, however, things progressed very slowly for him as he struggled to find his way in films with the Rank stable. Then in 1950, he was cast in the role of the young hoodlum Tom Riley, who kills a policeman in Ealing Studios’ most successful film of that year, The Blue Lamp. Dirk excelled in this dark and intense role, the type of character he was to revisit many times over the years and it certainly put him very much in the public eye, although it was soon to be in an unexpected arena that he was destined to become a household name and star.
Whilst he had continued to perform in stage plays, he was growing more and more concerned at the hysterical reaction he was receiving from sections of his fans, so much so that he developed stage-fright so badly that after his performance in Jezebel in 1958 he decided to retire from the theatre for good. He never returned, despite many offers to do so.
Dr. Simon Sparrow was to finally make Dirk Bogarde a star. The amorous doctor shot to stardom in the 1954 comedy film Doctor in the House. The film was a huge success and has become one of the most popular British films of all time. A staggering 17 million people saw the film in its first year and to confirm his position as the new screen heartthrob and most popular British actor of the 50s, he triumphantly returned in Doctor at Sea (1955) and Doctor at Large (1957).
As a result of his new-found box-office appeal, he was offered many more roles, one in particular being Jimmy Porter in the 1958 Saltzman/Richardson adaptation of John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger. Bogarde wanted to take the part but Rank refused to let him make the film because, in their view, there was “altogether too much dialog.” Richard Burton played the ‘angry young man’ instead and, bitterly disappointed, Bogarde decided instead to try his hand in Hollywood, appearing in two films, firstly as Franz Liszt in Song without End (1960) and then with Ava Gardner in The Angel Wore Red , Nunnally Johnson’s drama about the Spanish Civil War. Despite both being big-budget presentations, neither fared well, leaving Bogarde disappointed once again, determined in future to avoid Hollywood productions.
Interestingly, it was whilst making Song Without End that he developed a friendship with his co-star, Capucine. Despite her very open leanings towards lesbianism, the couple grew very close and it seems this was the only serious relationship he ever enjoyed with a woman, although he himself counted Judy Garland as among his closest friends.
With his contract at Rank coming to an end, he decided to put his hugely successful commercial films career on hold and try his luck with more serious roles. The first was as Melville Farr, the homosexual lawyer in the 1961 Basil Dearden film, Victim. This film was ground-breaking in its examination of the persecution and blackmailing of homosexuals and at the time a huge gamble for one of Britain’s biggest film stars. When the film was made, homosexuality was still illegal in the UK and even today, in our much more liberal and tolerant society, many top actors still steadfastly refuse to portray such a character, fearing it will damage their reputations, though this is much more unlikely than it was in 1961. Bogarde was un-concerned however, determined to make the leap from screen star and heartthrob to serious performer and carried it off with distinction, his performance earning him the first of his six BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. The film did raise questions in the public mind though and whilst Bogarde always publicly denied he was a homosexual, he did later in life confess that he had enjoyed a long-term relationship since 1939 with Anthony Forwood, his manager.
He confirmed his arrival as a serious actor with his performances in The Servant (1963), for which he won the Best Actor BAFTA and the following year, as a barrister defending a deserter, in what he describes as his favourite film, King & Country, although, sandwiched somewhat incongruously between them was his last outing as Dr Simon Sparrow in Doctor In Distress. Incidentally, although set in WWI, King & Country was to provide him with a chilling reminder of his own experiences on the battlefield, when at one point in the film, his character, Captain Hargreaves, is begged by a mortally wounded soldier to put him out of his misery and shoot him. Bogarde faced exactly this situation on the beaches of Normandy twenty years earlier, an experience that remained with him for the rest of his life and one that certainly helped crystallise his later attitude towards euthanasia, of which he was a very determined supporter. Later, when in 1988, his partner, Andrew Forwood, endured a long drawn out illness with cancer and Parkinson’s Disease before he died, this only served to reinforce his opinions on the subject.
In 1965 he was cast as Robert Gold opposite Julie Christie’s Diana Scott in John Schlesinger‘s Darling, for which they both won a BAFTA. Bogarde had now firmly established himself as a serious actor and he was to enjoy further success with major starring roles in critically acclaimed productions, including as Bibikov in The Fixer (1968), as Frederick Bruckmann in La caduta degli dei (1969) and as Gustav von Aschenbach in Morte a Venezia (1971), based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for which he was again BAFTA nominated. Bogarde always maintained that his performance as Gustav von Aschenbach, the dying composer in love with a young boy was, in his words, “the peak and end of my career . . . I can never hope to give a better performance in a better film.”
Bogarde made only a further seven films over the next twenty years, due, he said to the fact that “the majority of scripts I was offered were ‘crap’.” So he began to write and he gives an insight into his disillusionment with the film making business in one of his volumes of autobiography when he writes that “cinema is now controlled by vast firms, huge conglomerates, faceless, soulless, concerned only with making a profit; never a work of art . . . ”
He did return to main-stream film making however, in 1977, with his portrayal of General Frederick Browning in Richard Attenborough’s star-studded A Bridge Too Far, about the Allied Forces ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture several bridges across the Rhein in 1944. Of all the actors on the picture, Bogarde was the only one who had been present at the actual Battle of Arnhem. Also that year, the first volume of his autobiography, entitled ‘A Postillion Struck By Lightning’ was published. This marked another change in direction for his creative output and there followed six more volumes, as well as seven novels and various memoires and book reviews all written with great thought and insight in a witty though sensitive style and his success as an author was confirmed when his work was critically – and commercially – well received.
Since the early 70s, Bogarde had lived with Anthony Forwood in their restored 15th-century farmhouse in Provence. When, in 1983 his partner became ill, they immediately returned to London so he could receive treatment for cancer and, subsequently, Parkinson’s Disease. During this time, Bogarde himself suffered a stroke in November 1987, brought on by years of heavy smoking coupled with the stress of his partner’s condition. He helped nurse Forwood over the next twelve months, until his death in 1988. Bogarde was devastated and became more and more reclusive and after completing the filming of Daddy Nostalgie in 1990, he retired altogether. He almost immediately received the London Film Critics Circle Lifetime Award in 1991 and then on 13th February 1992, his highly successful career was officially recognised when he honoured with a knighthood for his services to acting.
After suffering a pulmonary embolism in September 1996, caused by an angioplasty operation to unblock the arteries leading to his heart, Bogarde was paralysed down one side of his body. Although confined to a wheelchair with his speech quite badly affected, he did manage to write one final volume of autobiography, in which he wrote lucidly and movingly about his stroke and its effect on him. His condition was deteriorating and in May 1998, when he was receiving full time nursing care, he instructed his lawyers draw up a ‘living will’. This ‘no-resuscitation order’ as it is also known, was his final confirmation of his support of euthanasia and he publicly backed the Voluntary Euthanasia Society’s work by becoming their Vice President.
The contingencies he made proved unnecessary however, when on 8th May 1999, aged 78, Bogarde suffered a heart attack and died in Chelsea, London. In accordance with his final wishes, there followed a small family funeral before his ashes were scattered at his former home of Le Haut Clermont in Southern France.
Compiled by Clive Saunders.