A man for all seasons
I knew Pierre Rouve by his European name, mainly because I met him in London when we both lived there, thirty years ago. In a smoke filled room in Markam Square, Petar Ouvaliev, as he was better known in Bulgaria, always seemed effusive, thoughtful, and interested in the world around him. You might say that he was a ‘jack of all trades and master of none,’ but that was not strictly true. It would be far better to introduce him, to those who hardly knew him, as a man of many parts.
Born in the capital Sofia, Pierre lived with his parents Xhristo and Guina, in Karnigradska Street, in the centre of the city, and was sent by his parents to the Alessandro Manzon Italian Primary School. He once said-
‘It was 1921 and my father – who had only one fault, but a huge one: he was wholeheartedly European – said to my mother: ‘We’ll need to send this son of ours to an Italian school. If one day he’ll want to be a cultured person, he’ll need to start by speaking Italian. Thus it was that I found myself the only foreigner in a small Italian school in a pretty small Balkan capital and, if I haven’t quite succeeded in becoming what my father would have wished, it is entirely my fault.’
Living in a country which was hardly the most sophisticated in Europe, after graduation in 1937, Petar started to write film reviews. Published in Balkan, the pages he edited, were called Dnes and Zlatorog. He was to continue writing reviews, not only in Bulgaria – but also while travelling and on postings abroad – and for the rest of his life.
By then, Pierre was working in the Bulgarian diplomatic service, specifically for the Ministry of the Interior in their Press section. This meant that with his contacts, and excellent command of foreign languages, he became very useful when official visitors came from overseas. Later, in the early 1940s, Petar was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in September 1942, he was appointed Legation Secretary in Rome.
On the road to freedom
Despite the war, and his diplomatic posting, it must have been a dream for a sociable and charming young man in Rome. His knowledge of Italian made him very useful to the Head of Mission, Boris Altinoff, and Petar was present at the meeting when the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov, was received at the Vatican.
The progress of the war meant that after one year of being in his post, the Allies began their push, and the landings in the south of Italy meant that Rome would very soon be under attack. On the 19th July 1943 the Allies bombed Rome, and on the 25th July the Grand Council of Fascism met, and Mussolini was dismissed. Diplomats were given certain options to remain or go elsewhere. After the war, Pierre continued to work as a diplomat, and was finally sent to London.
Life in the British capital started in an interesting and lively manner, including meetings with many different people – not just diplomats – and learning the English language. In 1948, Petar Ouvaliev was promoted to the rank of 1st Secretary and was due to be sent to Prague. At this point, Petar decided to turn down the promotion, and to stay in the UK. This decision was to completely changed the course of his life, because, although an immigrant, he also had a work permit.
One of Bevin’s boys?
Following his interests, he made contact with writers, translators, theatre and film people, and due to his knowledge of French and Italian, he started publishing articles and reviews in the French magazine ‘Art & Culture’. In 1949, he started his longstanding passion – writing reviews of exhibitions for the British magazine ‘Art News & Review’ and made weekly broadcasts on cultural topics, for the BBC Bulgarian Service.
There, he was able to use his beloved mother tongue and inform his Bulgarian listeners about British culture. At the beginning of the 50s, Pierre Rouve – as he was then known – launched his theatrical career in the UK by working with Jack De Leon at the Q Theatre. He also directed his close friend Jonathan Griffin’s translation of Claudel’s Partage De Midi at the Ipswich Playhouse in 1972, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Annie Firbank.
The film noir of the 60s
In the early 50s, with the help of his Russian friend, Anatol De Grundwald, he began working in the field of cinema, where he met with the likes of Richard Todd, Dirk Bogarde and Claire Bloom. By this time, Pierre’s work in cinema was becoming ever more significant, and in 1962, he filmed Sofia Loren in ‘The Millionairess’ and worked with Antonioni, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in ‘Blow Up,’ one of the most iconic films of the ‘60s.
Back home once more
These are only the bare bones of Petar Ouvaliev’s story, and I am sure that many of those from ‘the good old days,’ are very familiar with his life. This is because he was one of the few Bulgarians who managed to bridge a complicated period, and remain politically intact.
From an independent pre-war Bulgaria – throughout the Nazi Axis period of world war two – the formation of the Bulgarian Communist State, and beyond to the present day Bulgarian Democratic State, Pierre Rouve’s search for personal and intellectual freedom, did not come easily.
In his obituary written by Antony Rudolph in 1998, Rudolph refers to perhaps the most famous poem by Wallace Stevens, Rouve’s favourite English- language poet. It is called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Rudolph goes on to say –
‘Substitute the name Rouve for blackbird, and you will have a good idea of his manifold nature.’
A man of many parts and with considerable influence within the arts, the cinema and the theatre in London, he must have seemed to be rather an enigmatic character, to the usual Bulgarian anoraks at The Ministry of the Interior, but somehow art does conquer all. At some point, the inevitable suspension of disbelief must have found a conscious place in the hearts and minds of the Bulgarian intelligentsia who, at the time, were so cut off from mainstream influences, and for so many tragic years, that he must have seemed like a huge breath of fresh air!
By Patrick Brigham