‘Agonising love. Lovely pain’

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$35, 704 pages

Richard Burton was a great actor who drank himself to death – that is the long and the short of it. He was also Welsh, and the machismo of the rugby field and the lacerating guilt instilled by the chapel both made him and unmade him, chopping up his peace of mind. “I hate myself and my face in particular,” he said after watching one of his films. Elizabeth Taylor and audiences across the world begged to differ: “He’s bloody beautiful – and sexy,” she insisted.

For though Wales gave Burton his sonorous voice and brooding temperament, it also led him to despise his genius, as if the theatrical world was insufficiently manly when you were a proud miner’s son. “All my life,” he wrote in his diary, “I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor.” Unlike Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, let alone Kenneth Williams (who was a friend), he stressed that he had no “love of dressing up and all that goes with it”. Time and again he reminded himself that “I don’t like making films. I don’t like acting in them” – so is it really any wonder that much of his output was, in his words, “mediocre rubbish”?

But should we take Burton at his own estimation? (Critics usually only write about him to write him off.) In the light of this wonderful and engrossing book – 400,000 words in length; the original notebooks are in the care of Swansea University – I have been watching the DVDs of all these films in which Burton played kings, generals, dictators and agonised priests. Charles Laughton apart, has there ever been anyone better at conveying what it is like to be going to seed on an operatic scale? He had such sheer power.

When Burton writes about his role as Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), he could be describing himself: “Great charm and stupendous outbursts of rage all co-mixed up with a brilliant cynical intelligence.” Burton’s own fury was always booze-filled: “I am drinking too steadily”; “I was so fed up I had three glasses of wine and two large brandies in a ½ hour”; “I drank quite a lot but couldn’t seem to get drunk and so turned to Sambuca”; “I have been fairly squiffed three nights in a row, so I’d better watch it.” He didn’t.

Day after day, year upon year, Burton is cantankerous and “just plain sloshed”. His “savage ill-humour” and “absolutely unstoppably filthy moods” destroyed his marriages and career – and him. Burton was dead at 58. He was fully aware that he was trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and insomnia: “I am stupendously disappointed in myself.” This is why the washed-up Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) is one of the most searing performances captured on celluloid – Burton is rumpled and tormented, the role a reflection of his suffering.

The notorious marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, whom he met on the set of Cleopatra in 1961, seems indistinguishable from the scenes between the warring couple they played in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Burton adored Taylor’s looks (“I can barely keep my hands off her”) and announced “how exciting life is with her about” (there were always “mob scenes” in shops, restaurants, hotels and airports). Perversely, what he most enjoyed were their quarrels – the primal screaming. On record here are many a “rip and tear quarrel with no holds barred”. Burton describes their “agonising love. Lovely pain.”

But agony won. “We are fighting and have been fighting for a year now over everything and anything.” It was a routine of boozing and remorse, a clash of giant egos. “What a stupid waste of energy and time,” Burton admitted eventually. You get the feeling from this book that the man who earned millions of dollars, frittering away his fortune on diamonds, a yacht and, at one point, a private jet, was somebody else, perhaps another role that the real Richard Burton was being forced to play – a role with which he never entirely connected.

This circus of secretaries, chauffeurs, pilots, hairdressers, lawyers and hangers-on was “a far cry from 1925 and the helpless poverty of the valleys”. For the real Richard Burton was one Richard Walter Jenkins, indeed born in 1925, the 12th of 13 children. Raised in Port Talbot by his eldest sister, he was a diligent scholar, and combined RAF officer cadet training with six months studying in Oxford. His chief happiness, man and boy, was being left alone to read.

As is clear from the diaries, Burton was immensely well-read. He knew Shakespeare’s sonnets and Evelyn Waugh by heart. He travelled with a library of 200 volumes. The place to find him in London wasn’t in a suite at the Dorchester; he’d be in Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

Burton got drunk in order to be sociable. He much preferred his own company and was bored by the vulgarity of the jet-set existence. Indeed, on the evidence of these diaries, Burton was no hellraiser. He was studious, serious and puritanical, disapproving of sleeping late (“there is a kind of lethargy, induced only by vulgarity”) and disapproving of other people using swear words (“I don’t know where to look,” he says when Victor Spinetti starts up).

Burton loved literature, and how proud he’d have been to know that in his diaries he demonstrates considerable literary gifts. His observations about his peers are brilliant. Of Rex Harrison, “clothes ... drape themselves around him, knowing that they have come home”; John Huston, he writes, is a simpleton who “believes himself to be a genius”; Michael Caine “speaks in a shout which becomes a bit hard in a small room”; Laurence Olivier is “a mass of affectations”. There are heaps of other examples of Burton’s perceptiveness.

My favourite moment in this book is when Burton, long a Swiss tax exile, is invited in 1971 to come and play Baron Hardup in pantomime in Porthcawl, south Wales. This was like inviting Rudolf Nureyev to come and dance in, say, Abergavenny. “Impossible of course,” writes Burton – but you can tell that for a second he is keen.

This indispensable book is meticulously edited by Professor Chris Williams – who is sometimes over-meticulous. He tells us the results of a rugby match between Aberavon and Cardiff in 1940, he tells us what paparazzi are, what a Bloody Mary is, who Oscar Wilde and Bertie Wooster are, and if you’ve only recently arrived on Planet Earth from a distant cosmos, it is helpfully noted that “Eton and Harrow are considered to be the top public schools in England”. Wales, presumably, must have its own.

Roger Lewis is a biographer of Peter Sellers, Laurence Olivier, Charles Hawtrey and Anthony Burgess. His latest book is ‘What Am I Still Doing Here?’ (Coronet)

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