At the Connaught

Robert Morley

  • An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde
    Chatto, 291 pp, £8.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2659 0

It depends, I suppose, on what you thought of the film Death in Venice.

What does?

What you think of Dirk Bogarde’s new book An Orderly Man, Chatto, £8.95.

Worth it?

When you think of what a meal costs, yes it’s worth it.

Well-written?

Extremely. Like the first two. A postillion Struck by Lighting and Snakes and Ladders.

What happened to him?

How do you mean?

Three volumes of autobiography. Is he very old?

A child. That’s how he strikes one.

You’ve met him?

Oh yes, made pictures with him. Three. He’s a very good actor. An extraordinary performance as Dubedat, and then we made a nonsense in Italy. I enjoyed it immensely, he’s a great host. Deeply in love with hotels, especially the Connaught.

In love with himself like the rest of you?

Perhaps a little, after all he’s done himself very well. The money keeps running out. The same with the pictures he makes these days.

Did the money run out while he was shooting ‘Death in Venice?

I don’t imagine so. When it was finished the American money was shocked into silence. One of the executives summed it up after a Royal Performance. Who would have thought the Queen of Britain would have taken her little girls to see a picture of a dying man trying to get his hands on boy’s ass?’

Fair comment?

She was quite grown up at the time – the daughter, I mean.

What do you suppose Bogarde thought?

He thought it was a masterpiece, but then it was mostly shot in the Hôtel des Bains.

You make him sound sybaritic.

That could be the word.

No harm in that?

Not exactly harm, but this craving for the best of everything can prove exhausting, particularly when it has to be put into practice. In a way, it might make an epitaph: ‘the best was always good enough for him’.

Could you say that about his acting?

He is very informative about his craft. Concentration, he opines, is the main key to cinema playing: without it you are lost and the maintaining it through thick and thin is essential, exhausting and sometimes so hard that one is brought to the edge of madness. It is a lesson many actors never learn.

Of whom was he thinking do you suppose?

Possibly Robert Mitchum. Certainly his own concentration is remarkable. In An Orderly Man there are no less than five colour photographs of his home in Provence. Once a shepherd’s cottage and now the sort of property you find advertised for sale in the back pages of Sotheby’s catalogues. There is also a wonderful description of the lady who sold him a pup – in this case, a dining-table. Fate does not forgive. A few months later the artful vendeuse was found in her own garage, headless, handles footless and run over five or six times by her own car. It was strongly rumoured, Dirk adds, that she entertained Arab youths from time to time and this was the unpleasant result.

A racist is he?

Not particularly.

A moralist?

Perhaps. He certainly doesn’t care for dishonest dealers.

Tell me more about the book.

The best bits are about his parents. They really come alive. His father worked on the Times. A quiet, thoughtful artist who was more than a little impressed that Renoir had once lived in his son’s village. He died unexpectedly before his wife, who had been ill for a long time and ended up despairingly in a private hotel hiding her daily bottle of Spanish wine in the wastepaper basket. Dirk brought her his first novel:

‘Lovely.’ There was no interest. She screwed up her eyes. ‘What’s this, on the cover?’

‘Bamboo, barbed wire, a butterfly. It’s called A Gentle Occupation.’

She placed it carefully on the coffee-table before her, took up her glass and drained it. ‘Lunch is at one. Punctually. Do you like my hair?’ ...

A man at the table beside us finished his meal, pushed himself up with the aid of a white stick, adjusted a green plastic eye-shade over his fore-head, and inched from the room in little shuffles.

‘Cheerful, isn’t it?’ said my mother ...

‘Do you talk to Daddy?’

‘Talk to him? Where?’

‘In your room, his photograph is on your dressing-chest.’

‘Yes.’ She pulled a curl of hair behind her ear.

‘Yes, I talk to him all the time. All the time, all the time.’

‘What do you say to him?’ ...

‘Come back,’ she said. ‘That’s what I say to him.’

Does Visconti come alive?

Not remotely. There are pictures of him and the author sitting a metre apart, not speaking. Of Dirk eating his customary luncheon on the set, a small boiled sole, three potatoes.

Did he always have the same luncheon?

Always.

What did Visconti eat?

I think it was beetroot salad. When making films one leads the monastic life apparently. It’s important to remember that all film directors are mad. Some more than most.

How do you know?

I’ve had experience. So, I gather, has Bogarde, Certainly with his last three films, Providence, Despair and The Night Porter. In each case the director was Supremo, which is, of course, the trouble with the industry. Years ago the quality of films was controlled by the men in the front office. It was not nearly so much fun for directors, who were obliged to shoot the scenes as the producers intended. Nor for the actors, who were not expected to stretch themselves. Often a fatal exercise in their cases. Actors did what was expected of them. Directors toed the line. The public got what it was prepared to pay for. Here is Bogarde explaining what Providence was about: ‘In the simplest possible terms, Providence was about one long night in the life of a dying novelist, who, racked with pain, filled with drink and pills, is struggling to create a new work. Using the members of his family for his characters; muddled with the past, in terror of the future, filled with anger, spleen and guilt, aware of swiftly approaching death.’ John Gielgud played Daddy and survived – which was more than the picture did. A plot like that would sink a battleship.

That’s your opinion. What about the others?

The Night Porter was about one of the inmates of Dachau or possibly Belsen. She falls in love with one of the guards who is shot by the Americans. Each year she returns from America smartly-dressed to lay a rose on the site of the camp hut. The critics attacked it for being pornographic. Apparently it is still playing in New York. That he should make the film was apparently Forwood’s idea.

Who is he?

Friend, confidant, manager, lifelong (almost) companion. As the bills were piling up in Provence: ‘You are the only hen you’ve got, as far as I know. Start laying again.’ Dirk obliged.

Tell me about ‘Despair’.

I gather that was another egg. His director was called Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

What was the plot?

There wasn’t one. At least I can’t find it in the book. Bogarde played a madman. It was rough going apparently. He changed his costumes in the back kitchens of filthy Berlin restaurants where today’s food lay on the floor amidst the debris of yesterday’s and the air was full of droning bluebottles. ‘But we were all tremendously happy.’ A long way, one feels, from the Connaught. On the last day Fassbinder turned off the music which he habitually played all day. He was particularly fond of Evita and the Rosencavalier and thanked his star for his performance:

‘I come to thank you,’ he said, for the Hermann you made possible for me: I hope it will be our Hermann, like his madness is a little bit our madness ... ‘Danke’ he said, and walked quickly away. People were calling from the bar, the evening had begun. Rainer didn’t come to the party. I knew he wouldn’t. We had said farewell.

It is time, I suppose, to say Danke to Bogarde. Thank him for the party. A superb host, a very good writer these days, and, like his recent directors, somewhat elusive.