Dirk Bogarde – from Rank to Penguin
In the centenary of Dirk Bogarde’s birth and in the sixtieth anniversary of his performance in the landmark film Victim – and with The Servant being re-released this week in UK cinemas – it seems a good time to publish extracts from an interview I did with Bogarde back in 1996. We were both working for Penguin Books. He was a star author, and I was a copy-editor.
His career at Penguin was a sort of reprise of his matinee idol days at the Rank Organisation. He left Rank at the beginning of the 1960s to make such independent films as Victim, The Servant and Darling. But then in the late 1970s became a ‘company man’ again when he wrote a series of bestselling memoirs and novels for Penguin. I think he enjoyed being part of a large organisation, but the beauty of Penguin was that he was free to write as he chose, whereas at Rank he had to appear in the films that other people chose. I preferred his memoirs to his novels. My favourite was his very first, A Postillion Struck by Lightning, which offers a beautifully written evocation of growing up between-the-wars in rural Sussex.
Like many other people, I was curious about his sexuality. He spoke in our interview as if he were straight, but why should he speak otherwise? To do so would undermine the breadth of his on-screen image and, in spite of his fame, he had a right to a private life. Greatly to his credit, he used his talent to champion an intelligent, adult cinema, which helped to change society for the better.
Bogarde on making Victim (1961),
produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden
Relph and Dearden were trying to do things with some social content, like for example Victim about homosexuality. Oh, I don't know, there were three or four – they did Sapphire, which was about the colour problem. Basil knew what I was trying to do and I knew what he was trying to do, but our problem was the very English attitude of Michael Relph, who didn't like anything like overlapping the dialogue, or coughs in the middle of a line. I said to Basil that I would do it, because it was written actually for Jack Hawkins, but Jack Hawkins at the last minute turned it down because his wife said it would prejudice his chances of a knighthood. So Basil called me at home, on Christmas Eve, can you believe? And said, ‘I'm in the shit. Will you stick your neck out if I bike over a script? Because we've got to start after the Christmas break, and he told me why. He said, ‘Nobody else will touch it. Margaret Leighton has peeled off. So-and-so's peeled off.’ For a friend. I remember him saying that. ‘For a friend,will you do it?’
I said: ‘Look, I'm decorating the Christmas tree, Baz.’
He said, ‘Yes but I'll send it over, OK?’
So he sent it over. I read it, and it was a nice little story, but there was nothing Important in it at all. I called him back and said that I would do it if that was what he wanted me to do, but that it lacked two scenes: it lacked a confrontation with the wife at the beginning; and it lacked a scene at the end when the man said: ‘Yes, I wanted the boy.’
CD: I remember that scene. It's a very powerful scene.
Basil said I would never get away with it. I wrote the two scenes, and nobody made a fuss about it, because Rank at that point were giving up anything to do with Allied Film Makers. Michael Relph was very upset, very worried, but aware that it might be an important thing. I remember in the scene that we did I told Sylvia Syms, ‘I'm just going to go for this, and let it go, and if I start choking or burst into tears, I don't know what will happen, just bear with me.’ And she said she would, she was that kind of girl. And I did get a thing in my throat, and cleared my throat a couple of times in the scene.
That's why it's so powerful. It has a rawness about it.
Yes, I know. I'd wanted to do it. I'd been trying to do that for years at fucking Rank. Basil came up after the take. I was shaking and Sylvia was fairly shattered. Basil was streaming with tears, which was strange because I didn't think it would move him.
But Michael Relph said, ‘I'm a little bit worried about the two clearings of your throat.’
I said, ‘But I meant those.’
He said, ‘I think we should go again.’
I said, ‘If we go again, I can't do it again.’
I knew that Basil knew I was right and that it was a spontaneous thing and effective. I mean we weren't kidding ourselves, we knew exactly what we had done, and I knew I could never do it again as a scene. And that's why finally I pissed off from here and went over to France, where I was allowed to do that kind of thing. Where improvisation and force, or whatever it was, was part and parcel of the deal, but not here. You had to have everything tidy and clean, based on the American principle.
Bogarde on working for the Rank Organisation
CD: How did it feel to be a star at that time?
It was just absurd. I remember they said, ‘This is your CV,’ or whatever they called it: I was trained for the diplomatic corps, I was a baron, I spoke six languages, and I was the youngest major in Montgomery's army.
This was your star profile?
It was unbelievable. Reading it, I used to think I'd better believe it. I loathed it. And then the time came when I had to have fly buttons, a zip in the side of my trousers rather than the front because the girls were always ripping the flies. Then I knew that I had arrived. The concept of the star was something built by Earl St John [head of production at the Rank Organisation], who loathed me, and the pattern they had evolved for themselves at Pinewood to be based exactly on Hollywood. They tried to manufacture you. The trouble was I wasn't young enough to be manufactured. I had my own point of view. Until Betty Box and Ralph Thomas came on the scene, I wasn't a star. I very nearly wasn't in Rank. But she made one film called So Long at the Fair  and shoved me into that with Jean Simmons. I used my own voice for once and I looked quite pretty. We were both made to be in love with each other by the Rank publicity [machine] and that was when the beginning of the star build began.
So when you say you used your own voice, in the previous films you'd been playing provincial working-class parts?
Yes, always with an accent. And that's why when they [Betty Box and Ralph Thomas] said they had this part for me in a film called Doctor in the House, Earl St John said over his dead body because I was a thug, a spiv.
That was how he imagined your role in films?
Yes. He said, ‘That's the kind of role you play.’ Because you're categorized by people like Earl St John. They said, ‘We think he can play comedy,’ and he said no way I could. But from then onwards I flashed up through the heavens and became a star. And when I say ‘became a star’, what it meant was red carpet outside the train when it stopped in every station – we didn't go by air in those days, we went by train – that was being a star. And bouquets of flowers and all that shit. But that was only from Betty and Ralph. '51 or '52, I think.
At Pinewood we used to go in and check in in the book, ring a bell, put your card in, ting-ting, and that was the time you came in and there was a perfectly pleasant woman who was there to see that you checked in. It was all done on that basis. And in those days we worked until six or six-thirty at night.
It was a film factory?
It was a factory. Absolutely.
I suppose this brings us on to John Davis [the Managing Director of the Rank Organisation in the 1950s and 1960s].
Davis was the money man. I didn't meet him until one day at the Dorchester. I said, ‘Who are you? What do you do at Rank? I've never seen you.’
He said: ‘Well, you'll be seeing a great deal more of me in future.’ What he was saying was that he was going to take it over, that he would be right up there at the top. And he said, ‘If you will give me your trust on your word of honour, I can make you a world star in the next five years and I can have enough work for you to do in the next three years. Are you up to it?’
I said: ‘Have you got the subjects?’
He said yes, and they were all approved by him.
I said, ‘Yes. I'll go with you.’
He said, ‘I've got as much money as you need’ – not for my pocket, but for the subject. I could buy any book I liked. I sent him a list of books later, none of which he had liked at all. One of them was Casino Royale, but he didn't like that. I was left to deal with Earl St John, who loathed me.
He never thought I was film material. I was too skinny, I had a tiny head, I had a thin neck. I was scrawny. They sent me dumb-bells, iron things, which I never used. Every which way was wrong. I just kept my temper and behaved correctly. He didn't like that, either.
Davis liked it very much because he hated St John. There was this battle between them and I was Davis's fish. At the very, very end, when everything was beginning to crumble, and Davis had really fucked up the film business – which he did simply by not listening to anybody, he wouldn't trust anyone – he finally cut me off. I used to go and have dinner with him every month at the Dorchester, in the Pineapple Room. We discussed the month's work, or the week's work, or whatever, and then suddenly it stopped. At the very end after about five years.
What was he interested in?
Keeping tabs on me, trying to get any gossip he could from me. I think he was a very shrewd businessman, but he didn't know fuck bugger all about the cinema. I think he thought he did. He tried to buy a cinema in New York just for British films. I said, ‘But we don't make the kind of films the Americans like.’ He said, ‘We'll do better than them.’
I used to get terribly pompous letters from him saying how very proud they were in the Rank Organisation to announce that not only was I the top star for Great Britain in 1958 or 1959, but I was also the top star in the whole world, beating therefore Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra… That kind of letter. I've got the whole list. I didn't mind, it didn't bother me. And when I had done the five or six films I think it was that he asked me if I'd do, I started going off on my own to other companies, working with Judy Garland and working with whoever they were. Though of course being lent out by Rank, they took fifty per cent of my salary. So it was quite a good lease. They didn't mind that as long as I kept it up.
Reading your book, Snakes and Ladders, one gets a sense of increasing frustration as the years went by. You wanted to do something serious, but it was impossible within the Rank orbit to do something serious. Did you ever make this known to Davis, and, if so, what was the response?
He said, ‘I've got a wonderful subject for you, which I bought from David Lean. It's scripted and it's ready to go.’ It was The Wind Cannot Read. Richard Mason and it's very good.
I said, ‘OK, it sounds all right.’
But the whole thing was so desanitized. They spent a fortune on it. We were out in India for ages. They got this girl, Yoko Tani, nobody had ever heard of her, but she was a hostess in the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. Gradually my little head started to click. ‘Oh God, he's been shopping there.’ Because that's the kind of place he went. He got the girls who amused him. He had her completely remade, from top to bottom. All her teeth were yanked out. Her eyes were done. Everything. We loathed each other. We hardly ever spoke!
That was his idea of giving you the opportunity to do something serious?
‘Serious’ because David Lean had bought it. That was the hallmark. Then I was asked to do Lawrence of Arabia. They all thought this was a very good idea.
I said, ‘Well, I'm not like him.’ They said, ‘No, but we'll wig it.’
I started work on it the year before. I thought, ‘Well, I think I can get away with this’ – not from physical looks, but I could understand who he was. It was called Ross. Terence Rattigan had written a brilliant script. King Faisal had given us all his army, and we had this enormous area of wherever he was in Arabia. All my clothes were made, my robes, Lawrence's robes, everybody was cast. It was all on and then literally 48 hours before we were due to go, it was off. I was asked if I would go to Earl St John's office to discuss the alternative to Lawrence of Arabia, nothing else. Nobody was told why. But that night we heard on the radio that Faisal had been killed in a coup. Earl St John the next morning gave me a book called Captain's Table as my alternative, which is one of the Doctor films.
I said, ‘Earl, I turned this down six years ago.’
He said, ‘I know. Well, now you have another look at it, Kiddo.’
I never saw John Davis again. I thought, ‘Well fuck 'em. If that's what they're going to do…’
I think Basil [Dearden] was beginning to fray away, too. We were all getting discontented, you know. I think I left in '61. I said to Earl St John, ‘Well, there's no point in me hanging on. I'm getting older and older, there's no work, everything's changing, the studios are all being closed down, and as a leasing object I'm not much cop.’ I was fairly blunt. I said, ‘I don't want to work with you when I've been here seventeen years, and it's not enough.’ Anyway, I got a note saying on the receipt of £10,000 they'd let me go. So I bought myself out. It was a very draughty period, because I always had that regular salary coming in. It increased after I became what they call laughingly a film star. My money went up, and I got very bad-tempered when Kenneth More came in very much later than me and got £50,000 a picture. I had hysterics! I called Davis. I used to get through to Davis on his private line. He said, ‘Now what are you complaining about?’
This was a number that only a very few people had?
Nobody else had it. Only me and Mrs Dodds. She was controller of senior artists’ contracts. She took a liking to me and I liked her. A tough nut. She said, ‘As long as you put yourself in my hands’ – this was the first year of my work – ‘and do what I tell you even if you don't agree, if you do, you'll last here.’ I remember her saying that. You can't believe the tippy-toing you had to do. I mean if you think it's bad at Viking-Penguin, Wrights Lane [at the time of the interview in 1996, 27 Wrights Lane in Kensington was Penguin’s London headquarters], you should try Rank... You never knew if there was a brown envelope on your dressing-room table when you went in after lunch.
What is so interesting and makes that time seem even longer ago is the fact that you've had these three extraordinarily distinct careers: film star, serious actor, writer.
It was the normal desperation of a man to try and better himself from the job he was in. And if they didn't see it – how to make it better – you had to bow to their knowledge, which I did as far as Davis was concerned. But then when I realized that he was really off course, I realized that I had to save myself.
Presumably you must have known that the staple of Rank would be Family Entertainment?
I had thought that we might have chucked in one or two little bits of nourishment. But that was not to be.
And Davis probably didn't even have a concept of nourishment. He probably thought the sorts of films he made were what good films were.
I remember him saying to me, ‘I know what they're all at me for, all these arty-farties. They don't realize that working people’ – you see, he came from a working background – ‘they want to take their boots off when they get home and have their grub and then probably put on a clean collar or tie and go off to a good happy picture. A bit of tears. A bit of fun.’ I mean his delight were the Carry Ons.
So John Davis at Rank was a dead hand on British films in that time?
There was no such thing as a British film. He didn't realize when we made them how fucking awful they were. I can't be mock modest, but I was the biggest box-office seller for nearly ten years, and always 2nd or 3rd even into the sixties. You could put my name on the thing and a certain number of people would still come to see me.... King and Country cost £80,000. And my take-home money was £2,000. Joe [Losey] didn't get paid at all, as far as I know. No, we got no money for it. I think the only one we got any money for, and that was a total disaster,and it should never have happened and Joe should never have made it, nor been paid so much, was Twentieth Century-Fox, who paid us a fortune to make something called Modesty Blaise, which was a total disaster. We had so much money we didn't know what to do with it. We were washing in it.
I said to Joe, ‘Darling boy, the only time you make a good film is when you've got to count on me for a shilling.’ And it was true. ‘Have you got change, Dirk, for the telephone?’ I remember him saying that so often.... What joy, what relief to work with Visconti, with no money at all. Death in Venice had nothing.
You see, I did make that break, in '61. I left this country from the point of view of work, and tried a different kind of nourishment. It was amazing how different it was, and I brought my knowledge, the sparse knowledge I had learnt here. Nobody in Italy where I started working, or in Germany or in France, knew that I had ever been in the movies, they never saw those movies... I was so fortunate that I had had that kindergarten, prep school, university and everything else long before I was ever asked to deliver something important. I mean I didn't have to learn my way through in France or Germany or Italy. But they had never heard of me. The only time they had ever heard of me was when I broke away here, to much scorn, to do films with Joe Losey.