Staying in, acting out


Biography/Dirk Bogarde By John Coldstream:  An all but flawless telling of life of the heart-throb who turned to darker roles and writing

'Why was I too busy acting? Covering up the fact that I was gay. Because as an actor you're always pretending to be somebody else; you're drawing attention to yourself in a story-telling way because you can't draw attention to yourself as a gay man. And I think that's why a lot of gay men become actors - because they can't draw attention to themselves as being gay. Well, they can, but there's a cost to that."

It was not Dirk Bogarde but the younger (by 18 years) Ian McKellen who, during a radio discussion, "came out" and admitted his homosexuality, but perhaps it goes some way towards answering the old "chicken or egg" question: is acting, as often as not, a form of sexual disguise, or is gayness an entrée into the tight little charmed circle that once was the domain of Noël, Terry, Ivor, and Sir John?

An old joke, reprinted in John Coldstream's all but flawless biography of Dirk Bogarde, has Noël Coward being driven past a billboard advertising Michael Redgrave and Bogarde in the film, The Sea Shall Not Have Them. "I don't see why not," the Master said. 'Everyone else has." And yet the dilemma of the closeted film star - a piece of jargon that Bogarde himself affected to loathe - was no joke; disclosure in those pre-Wolfenden days would have spelled the end of his career.

My only meeting with him was when, in the company of a film producer, I was invited to discuss a film treatment of the novel, Lord, Dismiss Us, which, as so often happened, never saw a camera lens.

He had achieved fame because of Doctor in the House and its sequels and now wanted to move away from such interchanges as:

Dr Sparrow (Bogarde) (examining a young patient): "Now, Eva, big breaths".

Young patient: "Yeth, and I'm only thickhtheen."

Bogarde's living-room - a converted barn - was so immense that there was a plough attached to one wall, half-way up, and we were given lunch seated side by side along a kind of minstrel's gallery; my point being that whenever a star talks of being hard up - as Bogarde often did - it is not the kind of penury complained of by, say, Wilkins Micawber. Throughout that day, our host was icily polite - as Kitty Black observed, "He looked down the nose at you as if you were a nasty smell" - and clearly longed to see the last of us.

However, I made so bold as to ask a question about his days when he was under contract to J. Arthur Rank. Was it true, I asked, that he was obliged to sew up the flies of his trousers because teenaged girls attempted to tear them apart? He replied: "One learned many skills in the army, needlework included". The topic died, there and then.

On the drive home to London, I asked my companion if Bogarde was gay. No one knew for sure, he said. He had shared his home for many years with Tony Forwood, who had been married to Glynis Johns. Forwood acted as his manager and amanuensis and was universally liked. But there were never rumours of a sexual nature, at least not until after the Wolfenden report, published in 1957, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

It could be said that with Victim (1961) Bogarde took his first step out of the closet. It was strong stuff for its day: a married barrister with a homosexual past fights back against a blackmailer. As a piece of "in" humour, several gay actors were included in small parts, and one still relishes the moment when a policeman warned Hilton Edwards (of all people): "You'll want to watch it, my lad, or you'll end up in Queer Street".

It was, however, as Bogarde had feared; his career began, almost imperceptibly, to slip. He was not ruined as an actor, nothing so melodramatic; but he was no longer the teenagers' heart-throb. The tone of his films grew darker. He moved to France; he worked with Joseph Losey and Visconti. He made The Servant, Accident, The Damned and Death in Venice - grim titles, all, with grim tales to match. They were "art" films and, as such, many of them could be defined as the kind of films which appealed to no one except the critics.

It was extraordinary that Bogarde, a man whose spelling and syntax were risible, should in middle age not merely adopt a new career as a writer of books, but should make a resounding success of it.

His volumes of autobiography are vivid and perceptive, and it is not surprising that he came to prefer writing to his work as a actor; after all, film-making is a collaboration in which one weakness can bring down an entire edifice; whereas in the creative sense a book stands on its own.

There were 15 volumes in all, and the best were probably Snakes and Ladders and A Short Walk from Harrods, in which - most affectingly - the one-time Derek Niven Van de Bogaerde dropped his guard on the subject of Tony Forwood's last illness and death.

An idea of how impenetrable that guard actually was may be gleaned from a BBC interview he gave to Russell Harty, whose nosiness was knocked on the head with: "But I'm still in the shell and you haven't cracked it yet, honey". And perhaps it is frivolous to say so, but I was much taken with the story of how Keith Waterhouse and his writing partner, Willis Hall, accepted a luncheon invitation from "Dirkie" because they were intrigued by the rumour that the actress, Capucine, would be present and they could discover whether, as rumour had it, that she was actually a male in drag. They never found out, but when she (or he) at last appeared, accompanied by a volley of foul language, she was bearing a silver salver on which reposed lunch: cold Heinz spaghetti in tomato sauce. So much for the glamorous life.

Hugh Leonard is a writer and critic

Dirk Bogarde By John Coldstream Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 611pp. £20