Burton and Taylor – Review – BBC4

Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of tickle, shag.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle,shag.  Marry in riot of tabloid scandal following divorce from Eddie Fisher on set of crypto-Egyptian, eyeliner-heavy ropey film, made notorious only for its overtones of Burton / Taylor lust.  Flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Fight.  Buy some small dogs.  Stay in Oxfordshire 12th century hotels and annoy the locals with gin-soaked misery, shouts, psychosis and general, unmitigated tomfoolery.  Diamonds.  Buy some more small dogs.  Divorce.  Then try to do some more flesh, slap, booze, Welsh poetry, a bit of a tickle, shag.  Remarry and repeat until someone falls dead drunk / falls dead/ trips over the diamonds or dogs. Such was the appearance in the public mind of the relationship of Liz “I like a man with a big rock” Diamonds Taylor and Richard “I have a voice like a big cock” Burton in the 1960s and 1970s.  BBC4 attempted to recreate the dying embers of the Burton / Taylor relationship with their dramatic retelling of the circumstances surrounding the blighted Broadway production of ‘Private Lives’ a year before Burton’s death.

“To me, their relationship is ridiculous!”  screeched Beverley, regarding Burton and Taylor,  in Mike Leigh’s production of Abigail’s Party in 1977.  “They did it in the jungle”, replies Angela, semi-reclining on the orange upholstery.

The BBC cast Dominic West in the role of Richard Burton.  He captured the ripe roundness of Burton’s vocal tone superbly, that peculiar accent that was Welsh mining village cum Stratford upon Avon cum Shakespearean in New York that seemed to pour out of Burton’s mouth with the same rich sagacity that the booze poured in.  West has also aged in the last couple of years, and got a bit sexy-jowly, which is fine by me – and fine by Liz – but looked nowhere near as ravaged and unfortunate as Burton looked at this stage.  West looks like he moisturizes.  There was something lovely and clean about his face that didn’t quite ring true.  Burton  had the complexion of a used and dried out tea bag; somewhat muddy, brownish, pitted and interesting.  West looks like what he, I imagine, is : an actor in his mid-40s, still good looking but nervously slapping on the Olay regnerist serum nightly like nobody’s business to prevent the jowly scowl from progressing further over his lucrative career.  Still, it must have been cheering for him after playing Fred West, who we can only hope is not a relation.  “Hello Lumpy,” he said, to Helena Bonham-Carter’s Taylor, who, like him, looked far too young and had taken chiselled physical slightness to a new, decidedly non-lumpy level.

Helena Bonham-Carter played Liz Taylor, and I couldn’t quite work out at first why it didn’t work.   Her performance was quite wonderful.  But whilst no one really expects anyone to actually look like Taylor,  no one looks less like Taylor in the body than Bonham-Carter.  She doesn’t carry enough flesh, her body doesn’t look like it could withstand the potent cocktails of pills, spirits and hot dogs that Taylor regularly shoved down her neck.  She looked too porcelain skinned and too aristocratic to have considered getting married eight times, let alone getting married twice to a dipsomaniac, pout-lipped Welshman who took her on a decade long shag fest.  Bonham-Carter tried, bless ‘er.  She tried to look less patrician but there’s really nothing you can do about that when you’re dealing with a fine-boned darling whose great grandfather was a Liberal Peer.  They bolstered her cleavage up and sort of stapled it to the top of her neckline so that West’s Burton could be constantly reminded of what fabulousness he was missing, but Bonham-Carter’s breasts simply lack the gravitas to carry it off.  Appropriately for a Bonham-Carter, they were Liberal Party breasts; they were simply never going to achieve a majority.  There were always two bigger parties nearby to worry about.  Some actresses get upstaged by their own breasts, Bonham-Carter was upstaged by the fact that the viewer was constantly reminded that she didn’t have enough of them.  From scene to scene, her breasts played a turgid role of ‘Are they there or aren’t they?’, where she would sometimes appear as flat as a boy and other times the poor things would be hoisted up to create a cleavage which would be wretchedly dragged about like a fairground illusion act that doesn’t quite successfully convince.  Still, it convinced him. “You’re  gorgeous,” said West’s Burton, as he smoked a fag whilst firstly trying to make her join him in exercising in loungewear before just suggesting the two of them have a shag instead.

Unfortunately, despite the stellar efforts of the two actors, and Bonham-Carter’s deliriously wonderful Taylor-drawl, they were let down by the writers.   The script was quite, quite ordinary, terribly clunky and filled with clangers of plot points.  We were reminded of biographical facts in Burton and Taylor’s life with the laziness and lack of imagination that acted like a theatrical series of bullet points.  He is recovering alcoholic.  CHECK.  She was brought up in the studio system.  CHECK.  She has a problem with learning her lines.  CHECK.  She’s irresistible and he is some sort of fanny magnet.  CHECK.  The rehearsal scenes obtained a tang of credibility, but they were ruined by a riot of scenes taking place back stage in the theatre where they were, ludicrously, attempting to perform ‘Private Lives’.  The director seemed obsessed with doors opening and closing.  The doors in the dressing rooms were playing supporting roles.    Burton would march into her dressing room and sort of flounce about and say worryingly stupid, un-Burton like things such as “They haven’t come to see a play.  They’ve come to see US play out our lives!”  as if the idea had just struck him for the first time, and she’d throw him out and slam a door, walk through another door, knock on his dressing room door and go in and close that door in his miserable, classically trained face.  Most of the time she would be arriving at the theatre late with a band of silly dogs.  In she’s going through her door – ooh – out comes Richard (DOOR) and slams things (DOOR)  and goes into her dressing room  (OPENS DOOR).  Only once did it really go off between them, and she laid into him shouting and telling him to Fuck Off whilst he pretended he didn’t want to slap her and shook until his perfect hair moved and grabbed her and shouted back.  Finally, methinks, a little drama.  Go on Richard, SLAP HER.  It’s what she wants.  And then she wants you do try to do some exercises again whilst smoking a fag before shagging her.  Only at that moment did the viewer really believe that here were too absolute nutjobs who failed to resist each other’s physical capabilities to the point of personal destruction, and whose idea of a quite night in a la Burton & Taylor Towers would involve seven bottles of Jack Daniels and a succession of revealing negligees.   The rest of the time the relationship seemed tame and the characters, dare I say it, a trifle dull.  They had glamour but no substance.  None of the words that came out of West’s mouth appeared to have any resonance with the vocabulary and tone that we have come to know from Burton’s diaries.  Bonham-Carter, as I have said, spoke her role with great technical panache, but what was the point, when it was so woefully underwritten?

The terribly irritating thing was this:  Elizabeth Taylor was 51 when she and Burton decided to try ‘Private Lives’ on the stage.  This was a great opportunity to cast a 50 something actress in a strong, iconic role.  And yet, with the depressing predictability of television casting, we ended up with an actress who has just turned 40.   I would have loved to see (despite the lack of facial similarity) Cherie Lunghi play this role, or Julianne Moore.  Or someone – anyone – born before Burton and Taylor made ‘Cleopatra’.

This relationship captured the imagination and sense of glamour of many tabloid readers of the press in the 1960s and 1970s – the madnesses, the apparent sexual intensity, the drunken void that each of them came to fall into.  Why then was this depiction of Burton and Taylor so banal, so ordinary?   Could we really believe that this Taylor was the woman Burton wrote of as being “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography”? This drama was stupidly restrained; we wanted some truth, some spit and crazy theatrical sawdust, some fury and fierce awfulness, a lot more stupidity, shouting and sex.  But it was as if they turned all the lights off and decided to illuminate nothing.  This screenplay of Burton & Taylor made Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look like a fun couple to spend an evening with, and you know how unrelentingly boring they are.  A shame, because there is a great and terribly interesting tale to be told about these two.  This, however, was not it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog here is updated every other Thursday, so we shall see you on August 15th. Thank you! 


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