Everything was better after a few drinks

Peter Stead examines the extraordinary continuing saga of Burton and Taylor, long after they first rose to fame

Richard Burton died in 1984 but you would be excused if that fact has eluded you. It could be argued that the actor is playing a fuller role in Welsh life than at any other time since his birth in Pontrhydyfen in 1925. Most weeks we hear his name in news bulletins and our national daily paper regularly likes to remind us of what he looked like. It is almost impossible to avoid him.

A bust is unveiled, a theatre is named, a research centre is established, lectures are given, actors attempt to convey his charisma and imitate his voice, campaigns are launched to secure further commemoration, Where Eagles Dare is given another airing, yet another disc of his Fernhill is sent to the Desert Island and in Port Talbot (which will probably become Burtonville in time for the centenary) there is a Burton cycle path. His great friend Robert Hardy suggests that there is a fair chance that Burton will haunt the new theatre at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff that bears his name. All we want now are rumours of miraculous healings by people who have taken the Afon waters and the Burton legend will be secure.

Of course, in Wales we like to look after our own and the legendary mode is a favoured option. ‘Milk it for all its worth’ is an established Welsh commandment. But as it happens we do not have to face any charge of parochialism as far as Burton is concerned, for the fascination with the legend seems to be a global phenomenon every bit as much as a Welsh one. The Burton-Taylor affair, veritably a modern playing out of the ancient Marc Antony and Cleopatra story was used in the 1960s by the gossip columnists and the paparazzi to launch a new celebrity culture.

Although every year brings new stars and scandals, the international media have retained their affection for their founding couple. Their great drama involving arguments, fights, marriages, betrayals, divorces, family conventions, diamonds, tragedies, clinics, private jets, presidents, royalty and endless parties still provides excellent posthumous copy. There always seem to be new letters, diaries, albums, recollections and, indeed, photographs – all confirming that there was inherently more drama, much of it almost Shakespearean, and vitality in their private and public lives than in anything they were actually paid to do on stage or screen.

Every week the international press brings news that there are more Burton/Taylor books and revelations on the way. For those of us who, almost in spite of ourselves, are interested in the Burton phenomenon, our only response is to wonder yet again whether the new material will merely be an embellishment of what is undoubtedly a good story. Or will there be some attempt to explain what all that glitter, jetting to-and-fro and champagne actually meant.

This is precisely the question that Tom Rubython’s latest mammoth biography of Burton raises.  The book comes to us with the publishers, the Myrtle Press, firing on all cylinders. Forget for the moment Edith and Dick Jenkins of Pontrhydyfen, for the title directly declares And God Created Burton. Staring out at us is a swarthy, slightly unrealistically blue-eyed face that belongs either to a criminal on death row or a saint exhausted by forty days and nights of communicating with his maker in the wilderness. But then comes the dust-jacket blurb that henceforth should be a compulsory extract for analysis in every examination set by the Media and Cultural Studies departments in Welsh Universities: Comment on the following, time allowed: three hours.

A sweeping saga spanning 1898 to 1984, stretching from the mining fields of South Wales to the film sets of Hollywood, and from the playhouses of Cardiff to the grand theatres of Broadway – this new and far reaching biography rakes over the coals of the life of Britain’s greatest ever actor, Richard Burton. And God Created Burton is the first complete biography of the greatest Welshman who ever lived.

These are enormous claims and, of course, they are not true. Scattered throughout his 61 chapters Rubython has quotations aplenty from both critics and biographers that illustrate that there were always reservations about nearly all of Burton’s stage and screen performances. Burton himself was well aware that he was an untrained stage actor with a limited range who relied on his voice and animal magnetism to carry him through. He was also aware that his formality and stiffness was unsuited to film. The Hollywood moguls hired him for his name and paid him millions, but those who understood the movies knew he was not a natural. Burton’s contempt for the movies has never been forgiven by those who treasure the greatness of Hollywood.

The excessive claims made in that cover blurb need to be analysed in a cultural context. Remarkably, given the initial rhetoric, this is something Rubython never attempts. He is happy to leave that task to the other biographers; we are listed and thanked. His aim is to tell the story of Burton and to tell it in great detail. Almost inevitably much of the detail pertains to sex. Readers will be exhausted both by the effort of holding this 800 page blockbuster and by the sheer contemplation of our hero’s athleticism: his true greatness could only have been recognised in some Sexual Olympics. In a chapter entitled Blazing Magnetism we read

“Of all the men that have ever walked the planet, it is probably true to say that Richard Burton, between the years of 1948 and 1962, was the most attractive. Burton’s success rate with women in his younger years was around 95 per cent. In his heyday, between 1947 and 1975, on average he slept with at least one new woman every other day. It’s hard to estimate the number of women he slept with, but the best guess is 2,500.”

Research like this puts Welsh universities to shame. One hopes that the New Welsh Encyclopaedia is at this very moment being amended. Rubython could well argue that, with a story like this to tell, cultural considerations could best be left to others. And he does have a point for once again we are reminded of just how enthralling the Burton saga was. Rubython has read all the books and diaries, spoken to some surviving friends and received particular help from Burton’s niece Rhianon Trowell. He then sets out to tell the story year by year.  He settles a score by criticising Swansea University, both for refusing access to a document and for their general handling of their Burton material. He puts his best interpretation on events knowing full-well that individual family members will not always agree or accept his version. Inevitably, in time there will be refutations and even some corrections. But meanwhile it must be confessed that many of these chapters make for compelling reading.

If nothing else one should read the first and last chapters that deal with Burton’s death and funeral at Celigny. This is family drama of Ibsenesque proportions, crying out for a movie directed by Robert Altman. Go on then to read of how Richard Jenkins became Richard Burton. Did his father ask for and receive £50? I would not be surprised: that kind of deal was not unusual in the Depression when Welsh working-class families often improvised arrangements for dealing with large families at a time of hardship. Read about Burton and Baker, two Welsh lads on the loose in the big city, of Susan Strasberg coming to Stratford to see her lover Richard at a time when he was already sleeping with three other women. Crisis follows crisis, and in all honesty it is difficult to put down this weighty tome as marriages fall apart and above all as brother Ivor is injured and dies. Undeniably this is a life lived as no other Welsh life has ever been lived.

But does it all matter? The man went off into a stratosphere well beyond our ken and then eventually became a sad figure. Clare Bloom, one of his great loves, sharply commented on how in his booze he had become both a rogue and a bore. And yet in Wales we are reluctant to give up on him. With a passion for theatre and film I once set out to discover whether Burton had taken something of Wales into his professional work. I was disappointed in that respect and yet I continued to cherish both the voice and the degree to which he had transported a Welsh confidence and style into a wider cosmopolitan world. In recent months I have listened to Chris Williams of Swansea University, who is editing the Burton Diaries, admiring the way in which he is ignoring the hullabaloo and just concentrating on what is best in Burton’s reflections on the cultures in which he operated.

Williams has focussed on a wartime diary in which Burton recorded his everyday life in Port Talbot, a routine of work, cafes, chapel, Hollywood movies, rugby and friends. It evokes a culture that was familiar to all of us who grew up in Welsh towns and villages before the coming of television and suburbia in the 1950s. Perhaps it was the last time that Wales felt really comfortable with itself. There was no pathetic identity crisis as experienced by a subsequent Port Talbot product, and there were schools, chapels and youth clubs specifically groomed to allow talented individuals to fulfil themselves.  This was the world of Dylan Thomas, Bleddyn Williams, Cliff Morgan, Aneurin Bevan and Gwyn Thomas. We cherish the memory of Burton primarily because his every world takes us straight back to that world with all its possibilities.

Of course, Burton walked away from it, just as he was to walk away from Oxford University, Stratford and the Old Vic, Broadway and Hollywood. He walked away in the sense of never fully accepting their cultural obligations and disciplines. He always worked (for huge amounts of money) but invariably regularly retreated into his own world. The anecdotes were better than the texts, the friends gathered around at lunch or late at night were better company than the paying audiences, and everything was better after a few drinks. He could always slip into a Hamlet or Dylan recital or talk about playing for Wales. In the company of the Kennedys or Tito he could reflect on how he should perhaps have progressed from playing Prince Hal to being President, or rather Generalissimo, of Wales. He was a Prince of a Kingdom from which he had moved away and which was in the process of moving away from itself.

Burton’s charisma was real enough as thousands of women and men could testify. But our Welsh fascination with him and use of him as a cultural reference point are rooted in what has become a fantasy. In exile he talked himself out and we will talk ourselves out if we think of him as a great figure in the history of the theatre, the movies or of Wales itself. He was both fascinating and unfulfilled. Therefore we must now look elsewhere for heroes if we want to create a culture that will allow fulfilment for a new and very different generation.

Let’s leave our Rich in Sardinia where he was filming Boom, a version of a Tennesse Williams play that inevitably the critics hated but which I rather enjoy. This was the time of the Red Brigade scares and Rubython conjures up an image which will always stay with me, not least because of its strange familiarity:

“One night Burton disappeared and the worst was feared. The police were called in and an island-wide search was mounted. At 10 o’clock, he was found with Bob Wilson, his valet, outside a bar, standing on a table reciting Shakespeare. He was apparently holding a competition for an audience of bemused Italians, with the prize of a drink to the person who could tell him which of Shakespeare’s plays his recitals came from.”

Peter Stead is the author of Richard Burton: So Much, So Little (1991) and Acting Wales (2002). And God Created Burton by Tom Rubython is published by The Myrtle Press at £20.00

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