Not just a pretty face: Onetime matinée idol Dirk Bogarde
In 2004 John Coldstream published a life of Dirk Bogarde so good that no one should ever feel the need to write another one. Coldstream was a literary editor by trade, and in that capacity had enticed Bogarde to review books for the Telegraph. Bogarde, who was by all accounts (including Coldstream's) not the easiest man of whom to win the trust soon came to trust Coldstream. The decision that this sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent man should write the life of the actor was inspired.
Happily, the biography was not to be Coldstream's last word on Bogarde. The British Film Institute has just published a monograph by him on one of Bogarde's best and most interesting films, Victim, made in 1961 (BFI, £9.99). Those of you unfamiliar with the film should buy the DVD and see it. It reminds one how, in certain respects, half a century ago England was another planet. Bogarde plays a barrister, Melville Farr, who has all the trappings of success: a sumptuous house on the river at Strand-on-the-Green, a large amount of work, the respect of his clerk and his chambers, and a beautiful and devoted wife, played by Sylvia Syms. There is one problem: Farr is homosexual, and has had a brief and it seems unconsummated relationship with a young working-class man. An attempt is made to blackmail him. Farr chooses to give evidence to help have the blackmailers locked up; and to take the consequences. We do not see what those are, but in the era when homosexual activity between men was still a criminal offence, they would probably have included professional and social martyrdom.
The film probably is the high watermark of Bogarde's acting career. It was brave of him to do it, because (whatever the publicity machines of the studios he worked for said at the time) his own private life was open to the same assaults as Farr's. He turns in a brilliant performance from, as it were, the heart. Jack Hawkins had been the intended star, but was too committed elsewhere — or at least that was the official line. The film did well commercially, drawing on Bogarde's lingering appeal as a matinée idol. But he had been a matinée idol without ever engaging in the hearty masculinity that characterised Hawkins. For Hawkins, playing such a role could have been career death.
Coldstream's book helps confirm the view that Victim is a considerable and important film, and not just for its propaganda message about the iniquity of criminalising a form of sexual behaviour between consenting adults. But it also invites consideration of how good an actor Bogarde actually was. In his later life as an habitué of the chat show — many of us can see him in our mind's eye on Michael Parkinson's sofa, plugging his latest book — he seemed to disparage much that he had done earlier, notably the immensely popular, ineffably lightweight roles such as Simon Sparrow in the Doctor films of the 1950s and '60s. They are period pieces now — indeed, they seemed period pieces when I saw them on television as a child in the 1960s. The roles he played fitted ill with the image Bogarde clearly wanted to cast of himself, as a brooding, sophisticated intellectual. Victim did that for him perfectly.