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A true Renaissance man

For 50 years, Pierre Rouve was Bulgaria's equivalent of Alistair Cooke, broadcasting to his beloved homeland on the BBC

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Jan 30 2009 1728 Views
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In 1947, Bulgarian diplomat Petar Ouvaliev was declared an "enemy of the people" after he fled his native country to stay in London. Yet, 25 years later, he was drinking with Todor Zhivkov's daughter, Lyudmila, in Sofia. Somehow, even in the midst of communism, he had managed to transcend politics to become a kind of British-based cultural ambassador to Bulgaria.

His 1998 obituary in the UK newspaper The Independent, perhaps being deliberately obscurantist by way of tribute to his exceptional versatility, first cited Pierre Rouve (as he became known) as an "interpreter, diplomat, art critic and semiotician" before mentioning his more famous pursuits as a filmmaker and BBC broadcaster.

Rouve co-produced one of the most seminal and fashionable British movies of the 1960s - Blow Up. (The image of a young David Hemmings romping in a photographic studio with semi-naked models remains one of the decade's iconic images.) He also directed numerous plays and forged friendships with the literary and cinematic elite: film director Michelangelo Antonioni, actor James Mason, producer Carlo Ponti, playwright John Mortimer and novelist Romain Gary, to name but a few. If a man is judged by the calibre and range of his friendships, then Rouve was indeed a true Renaissance man.

Rouve's weekly broadcasts on the BBC - Essay by Petar Ouvaliev - in which, in his own words, he sought to be "a bridge between West and East", offered his musings on sundry subjects such as Henry Moore, Shakespeare, TS Eliot and James Bourchier. Later in his career, appropriately in 1984, he even dramatised George Orwell's eponymous classic for the radio, becoming compulsive - if furtive - listening in his homeland. Meanwhile, back in London, his Chelsea home became a Bulgarian beacon for intellectuals, dissidents and cultural emigres, as well as the cream of the British theatre.

Now, a decade after his death, his widow, Sonia, has written his biography. Sonia is a sprightly lady in her 70s, intellectually curious and with a good grasp of Bulgarian, having worked at the British Council in Sofia. Although she lives in London, she keeps a Sofia pied-a-terre peppered with photographs, diaries, letters and reminiscences. A few days before our interview, on January 12, she had launched her husband's English-language biography (Petar Ouvaliev, aka Pierre Rouve) to a warm reception at Sofia University, the turnout on a freezing evening on what would have been Pierre's 94th birthday a testament to his enduring popularity. The book is also due to be translated into Bulgarian.

The Road to Exile
Pierre's Western odyssey started in 1947 when he was posted as second secretary to the Bulgarian embassy in London. Significantly, his friend Romain Gary (then the French consul in Sofia) had obtained a student grant for Pierre to go and study cinematography in Paris, but Pierre declined, choosing London instead. When his secondment ended, he was due to be posted to Prague, another Iron Curtain city. It was then that he took the momentous decision to stay in London. He wrote to British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin asking for asylum - the contents of the letter are printed in Sonia's biography. In those days (when asylum requests were somewhat thinner on the ground) the personal touch was clearly more important!

Rouve was, in fact, strictly apolitical. Nowhere in his wife's biography, nor in any of his weekly broadcasts, was politics explicitly mentioned. But, as a lover of freedom, he hated to see the fate that had befallen his homeland. In the end, he came to help other dissidents, like journalist Georgi Markov, secure work at the BBC.

As his widow makes clear, his decision to abandon his home was never easy. She think he was lonely and homesick: "He was cut off from everyone he knew. His mother in Sofia was evicted from her flat. But, fortunately, he made good contacts with people at the BBC and, by then, his sister Dora Vallier [who became a famous art critic] had moved to Paris."

Plays and films were to become Pierre's passion. He befriended Russian writer Anatole de Grunwald and worked as second unit director on the movie Innocents in Paris with Claire Bloom. He also produced The Millionairess, a classic with Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, witnessing at first hand Sellers' unrequited passion for the Italian screen goddess. By this time, Rouve had met Sonia. Life with Pierre, judging by the biography, was a privileged tale of hobnobbing with the cultural elite. Each chapter seems to involve a hectic round of travel - Paris, the south of France, Rome, the Canary Islands - as Pierre set up new artistic projects.

But one trip was more important than any other. In 1971, after an absence of almost a quarter of a century, Petar Ouvaliev returned to Sofia. It was with a mixture of "fear, trembling and excitement" that Pierre and Sonia made the journey, staying at the Grand Hotel. The homecoming, a resounding success despite the possible death sentence hanging over him, led to more visits from them both, particularly after 1989. Pierre was to continue his weekly broadcasts on the BBC until a few months before his death, despite being increasingly overtaken by the ravages of Alzheimer's.

Although I never heard her husband broadcast, the face on the book's jacket somehow illuminates his soul: the quizzical expression, the beetle eyebrows, the penetrating stare and high forehead all revealing a passionate intellectual and lover of the arts, a Bulgarian whose love of his country remained undimmed despite 45 years of communism.

Petar Ouvaliev, aka Pierre Rouve: A Life by Sonia Rouve is available at Nissim Books on 59 Vassil Levski Blvd in Sofia.

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