Thursday, 28 March 2019

Remembering Dirk Bogarde

The majestic Dirk Bogarde was born on this day in 1921. I first became aware of Bogarde through his deliciously light touch starring roles in the Betty Box hit film series, the Doctor films. Growing up on a diet of Carry On comedies, the more innocent, slightly classier Doctor comedies were a natural progression and I sought them out with the appetite of a young film lover discovering yet more wonderful treats.

For years I knew Dirk only as the affable, occasionally bumbling yet always suave Dr Simon Sparrow. The young doctor who became romantically involved with the likes of Muriel Pavlow, Shirley Eaton, Kay Kendall and even Brigitte Bardot. Dr Sparrow was part of a very talented gang which also included the likes of Donald Houston, Donald Sinden and Kenneth More. The early Doctor films, In the House (1954), At Sea (1955) and At Large (1957) are wonderful period pieces packed full of the very best of British character actors. They are gentle pieces of fluff these days but packed out cinemas across the land. 

Such was the star quality of Dirk Bogarde that the later films in the run, those without him, failed to spark in quite the same way. They featured top class actors like Leslie Phillips and Michael Craig, but Dirk had something special. They may not have changed the world but well not all cinema needs to do that. Absolutely nothing wrong in 85 minutes of innocent escapism and that sentiment is as true and valuable now as it was then. In a BBC Omnibus interview back in the early 1980s, a more mature, reflective Bogarde was asked if he regretted all those light comedies. His answer? Not a bit! He didn't dress them up as anything other than what they were - money makers and crowd pleasers but he definitely did not appear either snobbish or ashamed about his part in them. Dirk also helped calm the nerves of a certain young actress making her first significant mark in film - in 1954 Joan Sims shared one beautifully comedic scene in Doctor in the House with Dirk. In her autobiography Joan noted Dirk's gentleness, his kindness and his charm. If he's alright by Joanie, he's alright by me.

As the years have passed I have discovered many of Dirk's other big screen performances and there are so many to cherish. Thanks to the consistently brilliant Talking Pictures TV, I have been able to track down and enjoy several other films from Dirk's back catalogue and it's been a wonderful voyage of discovery. I love Dirk's turn as a dangerous, devious delinquent in the 1949 crime drama, The Blue Lamp. The film is best known for leading to the long running BBC police drama, Dixon of Dock Green. In a cast full of eye catching talent and first rate performances, Dirk steals the limelight as the anti-hero Tom Riley. It's an arresting performance, pun intended, and one I return to again and again. It's about as far removed as Simon Sparrow as you can get. 

More was to come of course and other favourites include his delightfully light and frothy turn as Tony Howard in For Better For Worse in 1954. Starring as a young, naive couple setting out on the road to marriage and independence, Dirk forms a really sweet starring partnership with Susan Stephen as the 1950s couple trying to convince her parents and everyone else in their orbit that they can make it in the world. It paints a picture of a world long gone, probably one that never really existed for most of us, but it's beautifully portrayed and is a perfect rainy Saturday afternoon matinee film. It also boasts a gaggle of brilliant supporting turns from the likes of Thora Hird, James Hayter, Sid James, Cecil Parker and Athene Seyler. 

Dirk was back on deliciously evil form as the villain in the 1955 British film noir, Cast A Dark Shadow, in which he plays a seductively dark young man with a predilection for bumping off wives. Directed by the legendary Lewis Gilbert, this suspenseful drama co-starred the amazing Kathleen Harrison, Kay Walsh and Margaret Lockwood. The following year Dirk starred alongside Michael Hordern and Jon Whiteley in the classic technicolour drama, The Spanish Gardener. The film follows the story of the novel of the same name, relating how Nicholas's (Whiteley) innocent love for his father is destroyed by the latter's jealousy and vindictiveness when Nicholas forms a friendship with the young Spanish gardener, José Santero, played by Bogarde. 

I also love Dirk's starring role as Sydney Carton in the Ralph Thomas directed 1958 film A Tale of Two Cities. Co-starring Dorothy Tutin, Stephen Murray, Cecil Parker and Athene Seyler, Dirk is on dashing form as Sydney, a drunken English lawyer whose conscience is pricked when a man he once defended tries to escape the guillotine during the French Revolution. I can't go any further without mentioning the legendary 1961 film, Victim, in which Bogarde starred as a hugely successful London barrister, Melville Farr, who on the surface leads the perfect life. Married to Laura (Sylvia Syms), Melville has a secret life involving romantic relationships with men. The Basil Dearden directed film was the first English language film to use the word 'homosexual' and although its themes may sometimes appear dated today, it was and remains a hugely influential film. It took courage and determination from all those involved to get it made and it played heavily against type for Dirk Bogarde, himself a gay man. 

As the 1960s progressed and Dirk parted company with the light comedies of Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, he chose a different path which saw Bogarde take on more challenging roles in films like The Servant in 1963. This darkly psychological drama shot in crisp black and white by Joseph Losey and written by a certain Harold Pinter. The film focusses on four central characters, played superbly by Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig and James Fox. The main themes of the film are very timely for the era in which it was made - class, servitude and the changing face of the British upper class. It's a superb study and Bogarde shines. 

Dirk's film career faltered in the later 1970s following surprising and sometimes controversial roles in films like Death in Venice in 1971 and The Night Porter three years later. He continued to appear sporadically until the late 1980s but long before that he had begun to shun the limelight and concentrate on writing. I am poring over the several volumes of Dirk's memoirs at the moment and they provide a fascinating insight into the great man. His rise to stardom, his struggle with his subsequent fame and his relationships with famous friends and family. His writing is as elegantly constructed as the man himself. I loved the descriptions of his friendships with such exotic characters as Kay Kendall and Judy Garland. At times his writing is delightfully bitchy, at others reflective, maddening, charming and searingly honest. It leaves me completely fascinated with Sir Dirk Bogarde even if at times I think I might not always got on with him. 

As we remember Dirk today, we should highlight what a superbly talented film actor he was. Quintessentially British, he was a leading man in the golden age of British cinema. Delicate, complex, technically brilliant, Dirk was a master of his craft and was at home in everything from light comedy to dark psycho drama. Suave, daring, devilishly handsome, Dirk was very much a product of his era and yet he's still a joy to watch today. 

So pull out your favourite bit of Bogarde and raise a glass to this most elegant of British screen stars. 

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1 comment:

  1. He was delightfully young in The Spanish Gardener which is defiantly innocent in its depiction of a boy/hero friendship which these days could be sadly given other connotations; the less innocent scenario was played out in Death in Venice, and here I would argue we see a tour de force performance as the decaying composer is overtaken by illness in mind, body and soul ….But on a lighter note, he was part of an era gone forever in British comedy where he jousted with the likes of the great 'JRJ' as Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctors series (driving his own Rolls Royce!) and for me, that is enough...them were the days!