When asked by the Sunday Times in 1978 if he would ever consider working for television, Dirk Bogarde’s response was characteristically pithy: “No, never. It may sound impossibly arrogant but it’s a question of standards. I don’t want my audience going for a piss or making tea while I’m hard at work on the screen.”
The mercurial actor and writer’s career underwent multiple transitions, from 1950s ‘idol of the Odeons’ (a moniker he derided) to edgy icon of the 1960s British New Wave, darling of 1970s European arthouse and – in his final two decades – prolific memoirist, novelist and occasional chat show guest. But the fact that he was never a huge fan of television makes his few small-screen credits all the more intriguing.
Bogarde had in fact worked on television as early as the 1960s, though not in an acting role. Broadcast in December 1965, not long after the release of John Schlesinger’s modish classic Darling, the absorbing BBC documentary The Epic That Never Was features Bogarde as a presenter, telling the story of Alexander Korda’s ill-fated attempt to film I, Claudius at Denham Studios in 1937.
With previously unseen footage from the aborted shoot, and recollections from director Josef von Sternberg and cast members Emlyn Williams, Merle Oberon and Dame Flora Robson, this was a chance for Bogarde to indulge his love of cinema history and pay homage to some of his own big-screen icons.
By the early 1980s, and now in his sixties, Bogarde had lost interest in the film offers trickling in – refusing to consider anything other than starring roles. He was enjoying life as a full-time writer at his home in the south of France. In 1983 he made a return of sorts to the small screen, narrating a Thames Television documentary about Oskar Schindler and appearing in conversation with Tony Bilbow at the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank), broadcast by the BBC as part of the Guardian Lectures series.
Bogarde’s tiny TV oeuvre really emerged in the latter half of the 1980s, with a trio of feature-length dramas. For Yorkshire Television’s May We Borrow Your Husband? (broadcast 23 November 1986) Bogarde himself adapted the title story of Graham Greene’s 1967 collection May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life. He also plays the leading role – an introverted writer holed up in a Côte d’Azur hotel who is drawn into the romantic entanglements of two upper-crust English couples.
The focus of the curmudgeonly writer’s attention is the gay interior designers who contrive to tempt a sexually confused honeymooner away from his nice-but-dim bride (witheringly nicknamed ‘Poopy’). The depiction of the gay characters as superficial, corrupting and unpleasant has a bitter edge to it, while the implication that Bogarde’s character is in love with poor Poopy may puzzle contemporary viewers. Yet the role of solitary observer and confidante seems tailor-made for Bogarde, and in hindsight the conflicted nature of his public and private lives lends added poignancy to the performance.
Bogarde was dismissive of his first acting appearance on British TV. “Television is so vulgar, isn’t it?” he half-joked in Good Housekeeping magazine, adding: “I’ve written myself the longest, dullest part that could be.” (His interviewer begged to differ, describing the performance as “masterly”.) He couldn’t help but apologise for dabbling in this populist medium: even a prestigious made-for-TV film shot on location was a step down from his cinema heyday. Ever the spiky interviewee, Bogarde’s public persona became increasingly brittle in later life.
Behind the scenes, Bogarde was in a committed relationship with Anthony Forwood, with whom he lived for almost four decades until the latter’s death in 1988. Bogarde was dogged in his insistence that their relationship was platonic, describing Forwood as his manager and doubling down when Russell Harty visited their Provence farmhouse for Yorkshire Television special Dirk Bogarde – Above the Title (broadcast 14 September 1986).
Harty had interviewed him three previous times, including on his LWT chat show in 1977. This final encounter contained the extraordinary revelation that Bogarde had burned all his personal papers, inviting the cameras to film the ashes and insisting his published memoirs represented the truth as he saw it.
The level of control and privacy Bogarde demanded exasperated even close friends and family. But he was far from alone in choosing not to ‘come out’, even if by the 1980s he had less to lose compared with the early 1960s, when he risked his career (and possible legal investigation) by taking on the role of a homosexual lawyer in Victim (1961).
With that film Bogarde made a laudable contribution in widening public support for the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality six years later. As was his prerogative, he later rebuffed all questions about his own sexuality and showed no interest in the burgeoning gay community: the outsider’s outsider. A cognitive dissonance may linger over his fragmented personae, but Bogarde was very much a product of his generation and experience.
Bogarde’s most prominent TV starring role, in BBC sci-fi drama The Vision, has hardly been seen since its only broadcast, on 10 January 1988. Made after Forwood’s illness forced the pair to return to London from France, Bogarde stars as a once popular TV presenter and flawed family man, reduced to opening supermarkets until he’s recruited by a right-wing US religious cult to front their new satellite channel. Behind its happy-clappy veneer, the People Channel has more sinister designs on the hearts and minds of Europe.
Written by William Nicholson, and produced by the team behind his 1985 TV play Shadowlands, the unsolicited script was partly shredded by Bogarde before he realised he was on to something: “It was the best script I’d read in about seven years… it was well constructed and intelligent. And I was going to chuck it away!”
Nicholson’s script – rescued from the bin and painstakingly sellotaped back together according to press notes – is perceptive and intelligent, with moments of black comedy as Bogarde’s atheistic James Marriner faces up to multiple moral dilemmas and faces off with Lee Remick’s seductive channel boss. Viewed in today’s landscape of fake news and international media monopolies, whose power and motives are under increasing scrutiny, it has a prescience that belies its late-80s trappings. It merits renewed attention.
Bogarde’s own suspicion of television and his hatred of tabloid muck-raking may have attracted him to The Vision. He no doubt saw the wry humour in playing a cuddly teatime TV personality, not least one with a skeleton in the closet (a secret lover). His own world-weary sardonic charm is certainly reflected in the character as written and performed. A wonderful supporting cast includes Eileen Atkins as Marriner’s wife, a true believer who immediately distrusts the People Channel’s ‘Christian’ agenda; and a young Helena Bonham Carter, with whom Bogarde struck up a lifelong friendship.
Interviewed in the Sunday Express magazine, Bogarde stated that while he liked The Vision, he still hated working for television: “The pace is too fast, and it’s just on for an hour and then forgotten. In the old days, when people queued up to see one, in pouring rain, in ice cold weather, that was a different thing.”
Bogarde would remain firmly behind the camera for his final significant TV credit, adapting his 1981 novel Voices in the Garden. A UK-French co-production shown in the BBC Screen Two slot on 7 March 1993, this Riviera-set drama starred Anouk Aimée as an ageing socialite given a new lease of life by a handsome young guest. Bogarde’s return to this rarefied milieu was not to all reviewers’ tastes. In this period he also contributed to a 1991 edition of This Week, appearing in his capacity as vice-president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. His final film role, in Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgie, was released in 1990.
As late as 1998, confined after a second stroke to his Chelsea flat, Bogarde played the begrudging viewer, telling a radio interviewer: “[I] sit here and read or watch television, which is dire.” After his death in 1999, the man himself was profiled in unprecedented depth in two-part BBC Arena documentary The Private Dirk Bogarde (broadcast 26 December 2001). With the blessing of Bogarde’s family and drawing on previously unseen photographs and 16mm home-movie footage, this was the first detailed attempt to get under the skin of a star who went to considerable lengths to control his public image.
Whatever the truths of his private life, Bogarde remains something of an enigma, on and off-screen. There’s so much going on below the surface, out of reach, which could be the key to his enduring appeal. As he told Russell Harty in Provence: “I’m still in the shell and you haven’t cracked it yet, honey.”
The programmes mentioned in this piece can be viewed free at the BFI Southbank Mediatheque, alongside some of Dirk Bogarde’s classic British feature roles.
A centenary season of Bogarde’s film roles runs at BFI Southbank throughout December.
In pictures: Dirk Bogarde, the reluctant movie star
By Jade Evans
“Servant? I’m nobody’s servant”: Dirk Bogarde in Pinterland
By Josephine Botting
Between the lines: the hidden drama in Dirk Bogarde’s scripts
By Carolyne Bevan