Dirk Bogarde

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Dirk Bogarde Pencil Portrait
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Perhaps more than any other single entry within my portfolio, Dirk Bogarde, to my mind, has undergone some seriously favourable reassessment as the person behind his public image. This original impression I had of him, based upon several key interviews given in the last quarter of his life, was of a waspish, secretive and challenging interviewee, in effect as one friend put it to me “a nasty piece of work.” I believe this misinformed impression of mine to have been considerably wide of the mark, even though not completely erroneous. He appeared towards the end of his life to be reconciled to the superficiality of fame and was overheard to say that when he died he wanted people to “just forget me”. In 2013 I purchased “Dirk Bogarde – The authorised biography” by John Coldstream and borrowed from my local library “Ever Dirk – The Bogarde letters,” edited by the same author. Both volumes provide a fascinating insight into the life of an enigmatic character. I have, on more than one occasion, read passages from both books to my wife who, suitably bored with much of today’s vacuous television, as indeed I perpetually am, has extended an interest surpassing mere politeness or tolerance.

In his cinematic heyday, Dirk Bogarde, with his good looks, easy charm and clean-cut image, was the archetypal leading man of Fifties British cinema yet off-screen was a very different man from the characters he invariably portrayed. While in films, the actor known as ‘The Matinee Idol of the Odeon’ played the romantic lead, in real life Bogarde was a homosexual, who concealed his true sexuality from his adoring female public, even after homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence.

Or did he? Perhaps Bogarde was slightly detached from the normal testosterone fuelled drive that envelops most men, possessed of a realisation that true objectivity and appreciation of lasting relationships and the ability to sustain them could only be achieved by avoiding the bedroom door. He maintained a monogamous ‘friendship’ with Anthony Forewood for well over forty years yet to a person, there is no-one who came within his social orbit that can recall even an oblique reference to homosexuality in the company of the two men. Why would this have been so and especially after the decriminalisation of such activities amongst males? Perhaps he recognised that his inclinations were, if not an abomination to my mind and rightly so, still nevertheless, a deviation from the accepted norm. Attempts have been made to twist the Bible over the vexed question of homosexuality yet the position is made clear via several sources notably Leviticus 18:22 / 20:13 and Corinthians 6:9-10. As for Bogarde, his views on religion (and in effect his disinterest in how organised religion might view him) were apparent in a speech he gave on the Holocaust at Tonbridge school in September 1991 when he spoke of his wartime experience of entering the unspeakable horror of Belsen concentration camp in 1945. In his address to the pupils he described seeing an inmate recognisable as a girl “because she had breasts – but only just. They were like spaniel’s ears”. That day in Germany, writes his biographer John Coldstream, he said he ‘lost any faith he might have had; of God there was no sign: God was invented by man for those who lose faith in living. I believe in another force – the force that helps plants to grow’. Bogarde was visibly moved recalling this day in a filmed interview I have in my collection. His lack of traditional Christian faith therefore, does not provide us with any insight to this man’s inner views on his perceived ‘natural’ proclivity. One can suggest that he felt it was nobody else’s business but that is perhaps too simplistic an explanation by half. As I said earlier he was clearly an enigmatic character. Most importantly, whatever the changing trends in public perception or the seismic shift in the law regarding homosexuality, he (and there appears some measure of validity to this assertion), still determined in his own mind what was right and what was wrong and saw no public benefit in promulgating his own ‘persuasion’. In assessing his sharp observational skills I would suggest that he might have championed the hijacking of the word “ecstatic” as a self descriptive term for the heterosexual community in much the same way as the prevailing use of the word “gay,” since the 1960’s, has rendered it impossible for me to record or perform some of the most famous songs from the great American songbook of the period 1900-1950.

Bogarde’s wartime experiences also made him a strong supporter of euthanasia._ “My views were formulated as a 24-year-old officer in Normandy“_ he wrote. “During the war I saw more wounded men being ‘taken care of’ than I saw being rescued. They were pumping blood or whatever; they were in such a wreck, the only thing to do was to shoot them”. Much later during the course of his second appearance on Desert Island Discs in the late 80’s he elaborated further to Sue Lawley. He resented growing old although “there are compensations – not many”. (For me personally at my venerable age and provided my argument is both reasoned and balanced I just say what I think now whilst Dirk had clearly fashioned such a policy throughout his entire life!) So did he fear death? ‘Not at all – I fear the method of it. I don’t want to be in an aeroplane slowly spiralling down. I don’t really want to go through what Forwood* did with Parkinson’s and cancer, because there’s nothing more undignified and more hideous than that. That’s why I’m totally for euthanasia in those circumstances. I’ve taken precautions for myself. It won’t happen to me”.

*Tony Forwood – his live in companion/business manager over many years.

When his acting career declined in the 1970s, Dirk Bogarde re-invented himself as a successful writer- penning award winning autobiographical volumes, novels and book reviews. But again, all was not what it first appeared. His books helped foster the image of a well-mannered, cultivated and likeable man. The perceived Bogarde however was waspish, foul-mouthed and incredibly snobbish.

He seemingly resented the rise of working class actors such as Michael Caine and Albert Finney in the 1960s. He said of Caine:_ “he has to have the ugliest voice in the business… and pop eyes.”_ Yet there are inconsistencies in this assertion. Of Sean Connery with whom he co-starred in the film A Bridge too far he wrote “adored Sean C and worked very happily with him and made a surprising new mate in Ryan O’Neil who could not be a nicer, jollier and brighter!” In the same letter to Bee Gilbert dated 13 September 1976 he hilariously describes the location shoot. “Holland was hell. Amsterdam dull with hippies and free sex and enormous dilldolls (!!!) and (a) rubber penis outside every shop … plus those tatty ladies sitting in their windows offering a dose of the clap at fifty guilders a throw”. Ending the foreign commentary with a poetic slant he adds “Toss? Blow? – I don’t know”. I creased myself reading this – he seemed to grammatically encapsulate the very real potential health risk people take on, in starting new sexual relationships.

He railed against the “lower orders” and what he saw as their increasing influence. “I watch that filthy ‘telly’ to get into the feel of things. And the only feel I get is one of frustration and futility; and hatred against the lower orders who demand mediocrity (sic) and get it.” Fellow actor John Fraser recalls Bogarde telling him how, when he was a lonely young actor in London, he would invite studios assistants round to his flat for a meal. “One day I looked round at all these insignificant people with whom I was sharing my precious, precious leisure- and I thought ‘If you’re going to be a Film Star, ducky, you better start behaving like one’ .

Yet this all pervading image of Bogarde as one of life’s great misanthropes is flawed especially when placed in the context of his many deep and abiding friendships; the directors Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti, the Sunday Times film critic Dilys Powell, his book publishing manager Norah Smallwood and the novelist Penelope Mortimer to name but a few. Other constancies in his life included his sister Elizabeth, his ‘live in’ companion from 1950 to 1988 Tony Forward and his nephew Brock.

He was knighted in 1992 and died in 1999 at the age of 78 following a heart attack and several strokes, the last of which rendered him a near prisoner in his London apartment.

Recommended listening

Desert Island Discs (31/12/89)


Bogarde’s second appearance on the programme; his first sadly, from 1964, remains missing from the BBC archives.

A portion of the programme was utilised in the excellent 2 part ‘Arena’ profile of the actor in 2001.

Recommended viewing

Hunted (1952)

Bogarde, in one of his first starring roles, bristles with abrupt violence and fiery magnetism as the everyday man who has stepped outside the law, killing his wife’s lover before finding redemption in his burgeoning relationship with the young boy with whom he takes flight. Jon Whitely is utterly believable as the abused child fleeing his step-parents, whilst Bogarde overcomes his early edginess to bond touchingly with his travelling companion.

A personal favourite of the actor’s, director Charles Crichton evokes a tense, forbidding atmosphere amidst the authentic locations, whilst coaxing first rate performances from his ensemble cast. A wonderful film – I knew my wife would love it if I could grab her attention for long enough, and she did.


Doctor in the House (1954)

Playing it “straight” as a leading man within the context of lightweight comedic froth is no mean feat but Bogarde carried the weight of responsibility to perfection in four ‘Doctor’ films starting with this one. By the end of the series he was a man in his early forties suggesting a screen characterisation more than fifteen years younger and with the exception of one or two minor scenes, carried off this deception with aplomb.

The Spanish Gardener (1956)

Displaying that rare ability to genuinely interact with (but without being upstaged by) child actors is an ability few actors possess; Bruce Willis springs to mind in the modern era as an obvious example.
Bogarde too, was similarly gifted and the touching scenes between his character and the young son of a British Diplomat are the cornerstone of this movie which was adapted from the novel by A.J. Cronin.

Victim (1961)

A daring career choice at a time when homosexuality was still outlawed “Victim” prefaced Bogarde’s transition from matinee idol to thought provoking actor. “Alright alright you want to know” he exhorts in front of his concerned and deeply perplexed wife, “ I’ll tell you – you won’t be content until I tell you will you? – until you’ve ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand? – because I wanted him! Now what good has that done you?”

He isn’t camp, but he is compelling and the storyline involving a Barrister brings ever more closely into focus the (then) corruptibility of high ranking individuals leading a secret life.

The Servant (1963)

Another movie masterpiece which I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with recently, having last viewed it as an impressionable fourteen year old. Shadings, nuances and characterisations that had perhaps then eluded me, now came sharply into focus with a redolence that was both disturbing and evocative to a person such as myself, created in original sin.

The last vestiges of cultural snobbery and whimsical notions of a dying British Empire may no longer be as topical or relevant as they were in early 60’s, but the current economic divide north and south of Watford Gap still plays host to a professionally emasculated group, as feeble and obsolescent as the people they still pretend to serve. James Fox is effete and eminently corruptible whilst Bogarde is at his oily best, seemingly servile yet in reality a truly bitter counterpart. The question of burgeoning homosexuality between the two protagonists is not overtly explored yet remains seemingly at Bogarde’s whim should he so desire. Sara Miles is the teasing trollop, ostensibly the servant’s sister yet in reality his “fiancée.” Slumbering provocatively on the kitchen table there seems little else for Fox to do than indulge his carnal desires. Falling through the trapdoor at this stage the “master” is led relentlessly down a path of dissoluteness and abandon to a stage of complete decadence. It’s endemic in our society and an “attitude of mind” perhaps best encapsulated in “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf” in the scene where Elizabeth Taylor is sitting on the porch with George Segal after a semi abortive alcohol induced bedroom interlude conducted whilst her husband (Richard Burton) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) are absent. Half mockingly but certainly condescendingly, she tells him to “relax, sink into it – you’re no better than anyone else”. It’s not the seductively coated entrée any woman would use with a married man but it’s the unvarnished, unspoken truth. More pertinently, she knows he’ll feel much worse afterwards but she’ll actually feel better. There is considerable comfort in dragging people down to one’s own level.

King & Country (1964)

During World War I, in the British trenches at Passchendaele, an army private, Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion. He is to be defended at his trial by Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), an upper-class officer. A volunteer at the outbreak of hostilities, and the sole surviving member of his company, he has inexplicably ‘gone awol’. Contemplating a walk to his home in London, he is picked up by the Military Police after more than 24 hours on the road, and is sent back to his unit to face court-martial for desertion.

Hargreaves is initially arrogant towards the simple-minded Hamp, but comes to identify with his plight. With testimony from a doctor (Leo McKern), the soldier must be made an example of in front of his comrades. He is found guilty and is shot by a firing squad, but as he is not killed outright, Hargreaves has to finish him off with a revolver.

The film depicts a grim picture of life in the Great War; the action being confined to the mud-entrenched, rat-infested trenches and barracks. Bogarde excels in his role, venting his frustration upon the young ‘deserter’ when all his efforts appear in vain. When Courtenay thanks him for his court room eloquence, Bogarde retorts “It was my duty. If you’d remembered yours, none of this idiotic rigmarole would have necessary. Now get that into your head. Don’t thank me for doing my duty. I had to”, before pausing momentarily, “Just as you should have done yours.”

Questioning his hitherto slavish obedience to military protocol, his character’s dilemma is perfectly encapsulated in the following words of President Kennedy – in particular his last observation.

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”

John F Kennedy 1962

Death in Venice (1971)

A career and personal high-point for Bogarde, based on a novel by Thomas Mann, ‘Death in Venice’ teamed the actor with Luchino Visconti, the celebrated Italian director in the tale of a German composer who is terrified that he has lost all vestiges of humanity.

While visiting Venice, Aschenbach (Bogarde), falls in love with a beautiful young boy (Bjorn Andresen), yet the relationship is ruined by Bogarde’s obsession with the adolescent’s youth and physical perfection. Realising that the child represents an ideal that he can never match, Aschenbach begins to fret about his aging face and body.

Bogarde’s character is based on Gustav Mahler, whose haunting music is featured on the film’s soundtrack. Evidently impressed by the music, Warner executives enquired of Bogarde, whether Mahler would be available to score another film project in the works. Realising that the world is truly full of idiots, the actor merely rolled his eyes……

The Night Porter (1974)

A triumvirate of films that Bogarde considered to be amongst his best work. The first, with Joseph Losey once again at the helm, is probably one of the grimmest depictions of trench warfare in which Dirk excels as Captain Hargreaves. In the second he plays a composer dying of cholera who becomes enraptured with the aesthetic beauty of a young polish boy. Naturally the bigwigs at Warner Bros misread the entire premise of the movie, declaring it obscene yet ultimately relented by organising a charity Gala premiere in London in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to raise funds for the sinking city . Dirk knew what to expect from film executives – suitably marvelling at the film’s musical soundtrack they enthusiastically enquired of the director Luchino Visconti whether the composer Gustav Mahler would consider other film projects for their company! The world is truly full of idiots.

In the final movie listed above, the Italian director Liliana Cavani explores the intimacies of a sadomasochistic relationship between a Viennese hotel porter (formerly an SS Officer in the Nazi party) and a female concentration camp survivor. I recall seeing this film as a late night screening in my teens for it was never going to secure a prime time slot. I suppose the overriding theme of the film is the desire within some people for a form of compulsive repetition of the past. The camp survivor, portrayed by Charlotte Rampling traded “favours” for survival with Bogarde who was one of the guards and many years later in 1957 she willingly re-enacts the relationship in his apartment. It’s a studied analysis of the “human condition” and a film that interested me greatly despite the critical mauling it received. I can only take so much of the “Die Hard” series and the current proliferation of CGI themed epics. It appears to me as if the cinema going public stopped thinking years ago.

Recommended reading

Dirk Bogarde – The authorised biography (John Coldstream 2004)

One of the most enjoyable biographies I have ever read. Yes it’s an officially sanctioned work by his immediate family, but no less compromised for that reason. As the author himself acknowledges, the book could not have happened without the co-operation of Elizabeth, Dirk’s sister, his nephew Brock, brother Gareth and solicitor G. Laurence Harbottle.

Despite his fame, one can genuinely relate to aspects of his life and in particular the pendulum of changing financial fortune. He is compelled to be prudent within reason during latter day periods in his career. His remuneration from appearances in “european cinema” and “art house movies” were invariably comprised of an upfront salary and bonus structure linked to the project moving into profit. Advances from his publishers in later life were more than welcome and his one man show sustained his penchant for fine wines and objets d’ar. In essence, his is not a story of profligate indulgence, either monetarily or sexually. In line with half the country’s voters or perhaps ‘proportional representation’ ‘ Bogarde detested Thatcher’s overt Conservatism. Jane Whitaker, a BBC radio producer who engaged him for narrative work on “The Forsyte Chronicles observed, if not a “mellowed individual” after his first mild stroke, then at least a man in rejection of many things his class was holding on to.


Ever Dirk – The Bogarde letters (edited by john Coldstream)

A useful supplement to the official biography and full of his own unique brand of self deprecating wit. To Penelope Mortimer in September 1973 he confided “After 53, the face doesn’t suit youth anymore. It all sort of falls in …. Like a melting Walls ice cream with chocolate.”

Showing suitable disdain for anything but an intuitive approach to his profession he informs Penelope several years later that “I don’t dig Method actresses. It turns them into virgins however much they get fucked”.

Unfortunately I am not in a position to recommend Bogarde’s novels because I don’t read fiction, and even the first four instalments of his autobiography are rife with distortions. It has taken the dedicated work of John Coldstream to correctly interpret some of Bogarde’s literary recollections, a number of which are of doubtful veracity.

Dirk Bogarde - The complete autobiography (1977 - 86) 1988

I picked up a well preserved hardbound edition for £1.29, a snip of a bargain and an engrossing read from beginning to end.

Combining all four volumes of his best selling autobiography – ‘A Postillion struck by lightning,’ ‘Snakes and Ladders,’ ‘An Orderly Man,’ and ‘Backloth’ – it’s a shame the illustrations from the individual volumes were omitted for the 1988 compendium edition as the references to pictures lose meaning. The staff at Methuen also missed an opportunity to correct certain earlier proof reading omissions.

I’m nitpicking – the four volumes provide ample testimony to a talented actor and writer, and required reading for anyone with an interest in British and European cinema.


Youtube—Dirk Bogarde interview 1961

At this point in his life he was on the cusp of a major artistic breakthrough with Victim yet still took understandable pride in a number of earlier works such as The Hunted and the unrivalled international success of the ‘Doctor’ films, previously unheard of for a British made series and unrepeated until the Bond franchise took off in 1962. It’s a relaxed informal interview and the bookshelves groaning with leather bound volumes lay testimony to a successful man at home.

Official Website


The official website boasting an impressive photographic archive and some interesting examples of Dirk’s artistic endeavours. In addition there is a useful links section.