Dirk Bogarde’s World of Interiors
As well as appearing in more than sixty films, Dirk Bogarde wrote six novels, eight volumes of autobiography and a volume of journalism, and recorded Lyrics for Lovers, an album of spoken word covers of George Gershwin and Jerome Kern songs (predating William Shatner’s similar efforts by eight years). Last September, I went to see Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), featuring a mesmeric performance by Bogarde as the brooding manservant Barrett. As Bogarde writes in another context entirely, ‘on such frail threads hang one’s destiny’; a year later, I’m eight volumes of memoir deep, and utterly obsessed.
Bogarde’s literary career began late in life. After turning his back on mainstream cinema in favour of European arthouse, he was rescued from his slowly shrinking bank balance by the shrewd eye of Norah Smallwood at Chatto and Windus, who spotted his potential as a memoirist when he appeared on the Russell Harty Show in 1974. His books went on to sell more than a million copies.
He was born in 1921, to a father traumatised by the First World War, and died a few months short of the new millennium. His life story begins, in A Postillion Struck by Lightning, in the lost world of his Sussex childhood, a place with no electricity or running water, barely a car on the roads. The first of countless celebrity appearances in the books highlights how far back we begin: a woman walking the banks of the Ouse, as young Dirk fishes with his friends, turns out to be Virginia Woolf:
‘A foreigner, isn’t she?’ said Reg.
‘Londoner. From over there at Rodmell,’ said Perce, skewering the biggest grasshopper onto his hook. ‘They say she’s a bit do-lally-tap … she writes books.’
The books go on to document London in the early days of the Second World War, D-Day, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, UN peacekeeping in Java during the struggle for independence, as well as Bogarde’s work with Powell and Pressburger, Cukor, Schlesinger, Visconti, Resnais and Fassbinder. By the final volume, John Major is prime minister and Neighbours is on the telly.
The books are awash with celebrity anecdote (even outside the film industry: on bored post-demob walks down Sussex lanes he exchanges pleasantries with Vera Lynn; James Baldwin turns up at his fiftieth birthday lunch in Saint-Paul-de-Vence), but the real joy of Bogarde’s writing is in the domestic detail:
On the first Sunday of the month we went to Isa for a tinned salmon tea, where I read knitting patterns; on the second Sunday it was Aunt Teenie … She shook and trembled constantly, like a cobweb in a draught, and presided over a gigantic tea table covered with cakes and scones and homemade bread. A silver teapot smothered by a crinolined celluloid doll, its pink shiny arms held out in supplication, a simpering Madonna. A small hand-knitted pom pom hat on its head. A brass kettle steamed gently over a spirit lamp, and we ate constantly, in more or less complete silence.
Houses are a preoccupation: the lost idyll of the Sussex cottage, the teenage years of postlapsarian exile at his aunt’s Bishopbriggs semi, the Georgian terraced house he bought on Chester Row in Belgravia, various Home Counties mansions during the Rank years. He settled at Le Pigeonnier, a crumbling fifteenth-century farmhouse in the south of France, before being uprooted again to Kensington, and finally a lonely top floor flat in Chelsea. He describes furnishing the houses, doing the gardening, and which bits of Meissen china were broken by careless cross-Channel removal companies.
In these sketches of domestic rooms looms one great elephant: Bogarde lived for nearly fifty years with his partner Anthony Forwood. He never came out publicly, or privately: in an Arena documentary made shortly after his death, his sister Elizabeth said: ‘I knew what I could ask him, and I knew what I couldn’t ask him’ – his relationship with Forwood was firmly in the second category.
Undertaking such a mammoth life writing project, with such an important part of his life so firmly off limits, brings an inevitable tension to the books. Forwood’s first appearance is unmistakably romantic:
I was quite unprepared for the elegant splendour reclining in the too-small seat before me. Booted, breeched, tunic’d, buttons and badges gleaming brightly in the meagre light of the dim auditorium, his hair shining like a halo, he extended an indifferent hand, told me his name and said he had been in the Front and thought I was ‘interesting’.
Even though all that follows is a handshake and a business deal over late night cocoa, its significance is obvious: ‘I felt so immediately secure, the atmosphere was one of such familiar trust that it never remotely occurred to me to say anything other than “Yes” without qualification.’
In the penultimate volume, Forwood’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s and cancer forces them to leave the South of France to be near London’s hospitals, and Bogarde almost seems to give up the pretence, his heartbreak obvious. Otherwise, though, Forwood is a peripheral figure, popping up with sound career advice once in a while, always only ‘my manager’, and only ever ‘Forwood’.
‘It’s a dead bore, to write about yourself all the time,’ Bogarde said in 1986, with four volumes of autobiography still ahead of him, and towards the end you get the sense that maybe he’d had enough: old anecdotes are repeated and rehashed, charmless complaints about socialism and the higher rate of tax find their way in. He burned all his personal papers before his return from France, so maybe he simply ran out of material, or got tired of the equivocations and concealments it required. Or perhaps eight volumes of autobiography is more than anyone needs to write. Even in the depths of obsession, I think it’s more than I needed to read.