Writing reveals a love of reading

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
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Richard Burton was one of the world’s greatest actors, yet yearned to be a writer as Tony Earnshaw finds in The Richard Burton Diaries.

Up with the dawn, out on the terrace, in the quiet of the morning, Richard Burton bashes away at a typewriter, relishing a few brief hours of solitude before noisy children invade his world.

It is 1970 and Burton, aged 44 and married to Elizabeth Taylor, is committing to paper his thoughts on life, marriage, kids, food, his weight, alcohol and the business of acting.

Notice how his livelihood comes at the end of that list. In his mid-40s Burton confesses to being bored by the life of an itinerant actor.

In fact most things bore him, including his children. His real love is reading – he devours books by the shelf-full; on one day he reads for a straight 16 hours – and writing.

His diaries are a remarkable record of life as a superstar under siege. He loses himself in them, meticulously recording his day-to-day life with its mundaneness (he goes shopping) and jaw-dropping exclusivity (he goes shopping for diamonds).

Forty years on from the height of Burton’s fame, and almost 30 years since his death in 1984, it is difficult to comprehend how huge a star he was. In partnership with co-star and wife Taylor he was one of the most recognised and photographed people on the planet.

These diaries, then, illuminate the private Richard Burton in a manner in which all the documentaries and biographies never could.

Burton is not a disciplined diarist in the mode of Kenneth Williams or Michael Palin. Yet when he hits his stride – and the diaries are solid and detailed between 1965 and 1972 – he is a witty, bitchy match for any of his contemporaries.

His sense of observation is finely tuned, and merciless.

As wicked with a pen as he could be with words, he slays those who fall under his basilisk gaze – and he takes no prisoners, no matter how revered or famous a name they are, all bets are off.

Laurence Olivier is “practically a dwarf”. Robert Redford is “disappointingly ordinary”. Barbra Streisand “fancies herself a big star”. Paul Scofield “walks like a pimp”.

Yet always there is an over-arching sense that Burton seeks to retreat from the world. Work bores him; he describes his weariness at having to play Henry VIII in a script he calls “robust and unsubtle”.

His journals (could they one day be published?) are an antidote to the fakery of the film world.

“I loathe, loathe, loathe acting,” he writes.

His entries are scattered with references to films made, films planned and films offered. He is sometimes fickle, demonstrating eagerness towards a project and then never mentioning it again. Throughout there is a mood of ennui that cannot be easily erased. The globetrotting lifestyle, famous friends, the hint of a knighthood… none of it seems to appeal.

It is extraordinary to think that, as one of the world’s most revered film stars, he was not happy with his lot. The self-portrait that emerges through his own hand is of a harried man, a reluctant actor and a fearsome drunk. He is also tender, giving and needy with his devotion to, and infatuation by, Taylor – a driving force in his life; never one without the other.

Anyone wanting a blow-by-blow account of Burton’s films, the mechanics of acting and gossip about Hollywood will be largely disappointed.

But the breadth of Burton’s interests and his attempts to maintain a degree of ordinariness in the fishbowl madness of his extraordinary life with La Taylor will surprise those seeking the real man.

This is a life lived fully. When he is able to keep boredom and the bottle at bay Burton thrives on a diet of books. They are his constant companions and confidants.

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press, £25).

From the Bard to Beverly Hills

Burton was born in the South Wales mining community Pontrhydyfen on November 10, 1925. His real name is Richard Walter Jenkins. He made his reputation as a theatre actor in a series of stunning performances with the Old Vic playing Hamlet and Henry V, among others.

An early attempt to crack Hollywood was unsuccessful.

He was a seven-time Oscar nominee for films including Becket but never won.

He fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor when they co-starred in Cleopatra. They married in 1964, divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976.