Once upon a time, I was 16. One 16-year-old Saturday afternoon, I switched on the television to discover a black-and-white Dirk Bogarde being sentenced to death by He-Who-Would-Be Rumpole (Leo McKern). I was horrified and mesmerised. And then when Bogarde declaimed “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” … well, there was definitely Something In My Eye. Such that my mother had to ask what the problem was, and when I told her Dr Simon Sparrow was on a tumbrel, headingfor the guillotine… she just shook her head.
I am of an age to remember when Friday nights were a Great Night for movies. My dad stayed up super-late with me once, to watch Breaker Morant, and had to almost physically prevent me from ranting and raving about the injustice of it all, because who does high-horse morality better than a 15 year old? Anyway, the ABC went through a period of classic British films, whence my introduction to Carry On. And after Carry On came the Doctor films. And Dr Simon Sparrow just stole my heart. (Seriously! Look at those eyes!)
All of this is the long-way-around way of saying that a few years after all this, my mother bought me a biography of Bogarde. That was quite a long time ago now. I have an unfortunate habit of appreciating the books she buys me but not reading them for ages. In my defence this is a BIG book – like 700 pages big – and somehow 700 pages of biography is different from 700 pages of space opera. Because I finally, finally read it. Hooray! And it took me quite a long time (like over a week).
I vaguely remember Mum breaking it to me that he was gay; I had no idea that he went on to have such a successful career as an author, nor that his film career was quite as… fraught.
The bio had some excellent bits in it. I was fascinated by the discussion of film-making in Britain in the 50s and 60s (and a bit horrified); the idea of Judy Garland and other such bright lights going over to Bogarde’s place for Sunday lunch kinda blew my mind. But there are some problems here as well. Firstly, and most annoyingly, Coldstream makes quite a deal of the fact that in his memoirs, Tony Forwood often appears as entirely marginal, sometimes only as a manager vaguely hanging around. The reality is that they lived together for something like 50 years. Coldstream makes this part of Bogarde’s fear of being outed as gay (totally reasonable in the 50s when Britain still had its laws making homosexuality illegal), but also part of his rewriting of his personal history. My main beef with this, though, is that Coldstream doesn’t actually interrogate Bogarde and Forwood’s relationship himself. I don’t mean that I wanted to read an expose of their sex life; I mean that I was left wondering whether they actually were lovers, or had an entirely platonic relationship or… what. Coldstream fell into the same problem – not entirely ignoring Forwood, but not properly considering his significance – that he accused Bogarde of. Which means there’s this huge part of Bogarde’s life – was he gay? Was he asexual? – that is ignored. And if you’re writing a bio, that should (I feel) be either part of the discussion, or completely left out, and if the latter then that needs to be spelled out for the reader. Especially in Bogarde’s case where his drop-dead-beauty was part of his appeal as a film star, and where his sexuality has been cause for discussion for a very long time.
My other gripe with this book concerns two really weird bits. One: Coldstream sent off samples of Bogarde’s handwriting to a graphologist. That’s someone who analyses handwriting and tells you about your personality. Um, weird. Two: the biography ends with a totally bizarre story of the people who bought Bogarde and Forwood’s estate in France being superstitious about a possession of Bogarde’s bringing them bad luck. Also, um, weird.
If you’re interested in film history, this is awesome. I’ve left it with my mum and I think she’ll get more out of it because she’ll know more about the people being mentioned. If you’re interested in biography generally this actually is quite a good one – it’s perfectly readable and Bogarde really did have a fascinating life, serving in WW2 then acting in theatre and films – and oh the drama (heh) around that – then going on to writing and public appearances.