Beautiful, controversial, and possibly a masterpiece, there is much to be said about this fine achievement of European arthouse film. Join us on a frank, funny and reflective chat about why we love Bogarde, return to this film so often, and why we rate it so highly.
Greg: I knew that a legend had left us, though I’d never seen ‘Death in Venice’ at that point. If you weren’t aware of him beforehand, why did you watch the Arena documentary that you mentioned?
Sam: I stumbled across it, I think, on BBC 2. I mean, I knew who he was, but hadn’t properly explored his work, and his private world seemed so compelling I wanted to see what all the fuss was about in terms of his acting and writing abilities. As it happens, the first Dirk Bogarde film I’d come to watch would be ‘Death in Venice’ that same year. On VHS cassette, special order, as it wasn’t exactly an off-the-shelf blockbuster. What attracted you to him?
Greg: The Arena documentary instantly made me a fan. I revered Bogarde as a handsome and successful man, and a great actor. But I had no idea up until then that he was a homosexual, though he of course never openly stated as much in his lifetime, and claimed otherwise in his autobiographies, so I don’t mean to be disrespectful to his privacy. At that time I was living rather a sheltered life and struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. I became withdrawn, but this allowed me to live through books and films. I never felt at home in Scotland, but stayed for four unrelentingly dismal and rain-sodden years – it was like a prison sentence!
Sam: Ah, having read a few of his autobiographies I can see some similarities here. Go on!
Greg: My grandmother, who I was very close to, died during my first term at university, and I remember being mocked and ridiculed for my grief, because I was English. It was the time of devolution, and the stoking up of grievance politics that have since become so wearisomely prevalent. Talk about a hostile environment. It was the first time I had experienced overt xenophobia, and I had no idea how to handle it. I was just way too naïve. I found that students from the EEC gravitated towards me – the Greeks and the Germans could understand what I was saying but could never penetrate the thick accents of the locals. Neither could I for that matter!
Sam: Outsiders united. It’s not an uncommon bond between unlikely, desperate allies. Both you and Bogarde were fish out of water…
Greg: Exactly. So when I found out that Bogarde had been sent to Glasgow as a teenager, and had endured an experience every bit as miserable as my own, and for very similar reasons, I instantly gravitated towards him. The Arena documentary pointed out that he disclosed his wretched time in Glasgow in the first volume of his memoirs – ‘A Postilion Struck by Lightning’. I remember visiting Dillons’ Bookshop at the bottom of Bold Street in Liverpool and buying a copy. Those were the days! I began reading and started to live vicariously through Dirk Bogarde’s words.
Sam: Isn’t it remarkable how we stumble across these people and want to find out more, and when we do, we discover some remarkable connections to our own lives, be it in past or present experiences. Like how Alan Bennett describes writers from another age reaching out a hand to hold ours in the present.
Greg: There is a sentence in ‘Postillion’ that stuck with me, when he describes leaving Glasgow. “Looking out of the scummy window I watched the cranes and tugs and hulks of ships lining the sullen waters of the Clyde. I hoped never ever to see it again, and I never have.” I swore to myself that I would do the same, and indeed, Dirk, I never returned either! But even when I moved to Leeds and began a very happy period of my life, Bogarde came with me. Twenty-two years later, I’m still in love with him, and I’ve read all eight volumes of his memoirs. I think that story, personal though it is, is worth telling – because it really is why I so deeply connected with Bogarde. Have you read all of his autobiographies?