Amersham’s matinee idol and the intriguing history of Beel House

by Alison Bailey

Beel House c 1958 courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate
Beel House c 1958 courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate

Last week’s (November 2021) Bucks Free Press article about the recent sale of Beel House, inspired me to look again at the history of this Grade II* listed country mansion. Whilst in recent years it has been owned by household names such as Heavy Metal star, Ozzy Osbourne, and the former talk show host and politician, Robert Kilroy-Silk, it is still remembered as the home of film star Dirk Bogarde. When Bogarde bought the house in 1954 he was at the height of his fame, starring in the comedy Doctor in the House, the most popular box office film that year. At Beel House he entertained a stream of stars including Kay Kendall, Judy Garland and Rex Harrison, who was persuaded to take the leading role in My Fair Lady after listening to Alan Lerner perform the songs on Bogarde’s piano.

It is believed that the house dates from Tudor times, which makes it the oldest house in Little Chalfont. The name Beale House, first appeared in the 1708 will of the owner, Quaker John Pennington. He was the brother-in-law of William Penn of Pennsylvania fame, but it is not known where the name originated. Around 1800 the house was completely remodelled in the Regency style by its owner, Kender Mason and his wife, Eliza Lovell. Both from local landowning families, their wealth was based on the West Indian Slave Trade and sugar plantations. This history is still reflected in the pineapple shaped finials on the front of the parapet and on gate posts. In 1836, Mason’s son, Henry William Mason and his wife, Lord Nelson’s niece, Horatia Matcham, sold the house. The new owner, William Lowndes of The Bury, Chesham was married to Mason’s sister, Mary and Beel House remained in the ownership of the Lowndes family for the next 118 years.

Tony Forwood and corgis, courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate
Tony Forwood and corgis, courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate

In March 1953, after an unsuccessful attempt to build a housing estate there, another William Lowndes decided to sell the dilapidated property. In a 1961 interview, Bogarde described Beel House: “It was a horror. Bleak and empty, few of its twenty-six rooms caught the sun, and the garden surrounding it was a tangle of overgrown rose beds. Inside it seemed a labyrinth of corridors and stone passages. It was painted throughout in dejected yellow and brown and each room had a rusty gas fire in it.” However, Bogarde knew the location well as he was living on the neighbouring Bendrose Estate, the family home of his business manager and partner, Tony Forwood.

Dirk Bogarde and Tony Forwood first met on 28 October 1940 at the Playhouse Theatre. Bogarde was acting in Grief Goes Over which Tony only saw because the Regent Cinema was sold out. 19-year-old Bogarde, had joined the Amersham Playhouse a few months earlier. He had decided to become an actor whilst studying at the Chelsea School of Art but unable to take up a place at the Old Vic School because of the outbreak of the war, seized the opportunity to learn the craft as an apprentice actor in weekly rep. His painting skills were also put to good use creating scenery! Forwood was an actor and occasional theatrical agent and impressed by Bogarde, he recommended him for a revue with Peter Ustinov and Joyce Grenfell which opened at Wyndham’s on New Year’s Day 1941. He also took him to meet his grandfather, Ernest Forwood, at Bendrose House. Shortly afterwards Bogarde was called up to serve in the British Army. Six years later, demobbed and looking for a job, Bogarde knocked at Forwood’s door in Chesham Mews, Belgravia. Within a year Bogarde had made his first Rank film and Forwood, now separated from his wife, had moved in. Although their relationship was a closely guarded secret, they were together for nearly 40 years, until Forwood’s death in 1988.

Dirk Bogarde and the French Japanese actress, Yôko Tani, his co-star in the 1958 film The Wind Cannot Read, courtesy of Amersham Museum
Dirk Bogarde and the French Japanese actress, Yôko Tani, his co-star in the 1958 film The Wind Cannot Read, courtesy of Amersham Museum

Beel House was purchased for £4000. Privacy was a major attraction as the house is located at the end of a long, tree-lined drive, half a mile from Little Chalfont village and surrounded by acres of gardens and grounds. Bogarde’s restoration included pulling down the 11 room servants’ wing, building a swimming pool and creating a studio. The elegant drawing room was hung with crimson damask, and filled with Bogarde’s collection of Georgian silver, paintings, and antiques, including a satinwood and red silk spinnet, identical to one made for Queen Victoria. Beel House soon became a destination for anyone visiting from Hollywood. Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor, were just some of the guests featured in Forwood’s home movies, which also starred their corgis, Bogie and Sinhue, and the parrot, Annie.

Incredibly Bogarde still found time for the local community. An annual horse show was held in Beel House Park with over a thousand entries, probably attracted by the fact that Bogarde was presenting the prizes. He was also honorary president of Amersham Film Society and the Chesvale Dog Training Club, where the Dirk Bogarde Challenge Cup was presented to the seniors! His favourite tailor was Nancarrow and Temple in Amersham-on-the-Hill, who also made his suits for films such as Darling with Julie Christie and Doctor at Sea with Bridgitte Bardot. With Tony Forwood he was a regular at the Regent Cinema in Amersham (always in the 3 shilling 2 pence seats) and campaigned against its closure in 1962.

Dirk Bogarde and corgis on the staircase of Beel house, courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate
Dirk Bogarde and corgis on the staircase of Beel house, courtesy of Dirk Bogarde Estate

Sadly, by then the couple had left Amersham for Drummer’s Yard near Beaconsfield. By 1960 the Council had approved the building of Dr Challoner’s High School just 200 yards from Beel House. Bogarde, who had strongly objected to the school, had already built a large earth mound, excavated from building work at the neighbouring Radiochemical Centre. Nicknamed “Bogarde’s Bastion”, it was 20 feet high, 200 yards long and 15 feet wide to shield the house from the sight of the school, and Dirk Bogarde from inquisitive schoolgirls! Shortly afterwards he sold Beel House to his friend Basil Dearden, the film director and his wife, the actress Melissa Stribbling. At the time Bogarde was starring with Sylvia Syms in Dearden’s ground-breaking thriller Victim, about a married but secretly homosexual barrister. Bogarde later wrote: “It was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life. It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three”. 2021 is the 60th anniversary of Victim and the centenary of Dirk Bogarde’s birth. See amershammuseum.org and dirkbogarde.co.uk for more on the history of Beel House and Dirk Bogarde’s life and career.

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