Richard Burton's journal of a booze-soaked life

Richard Burton's prodigious drinking is a constant backdrop to his fascinating, almost-charmed life, his passion for Liz Taylor and his loathing of the acting profession, writes Simon Callow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 2:35pm


One Sunday night, in the winter of 1981-82, there was a celebration, at the Duke of York's Theatre in London, of the original radio production of Under Milk Wood. Various participants in that famous broadcast, including Richard Burton, the original narrator, were to read the play under the direction of its producer, Reggie Smith. The theatre was packed, with a largely Welsh audience.

Burton seemed to be enjoying himself, but it was not easy to hear him. He was glued to the book, seemingly in private communion with it. After the interval, the reading resumed and it became evident that Burton had liberally refreshed himself. Now he was not just inaudible but incoherent, with a tendency to slump. The reading lurched to its conclusion, after which the cast repaired to the Garrick Club for supper.

When the first course of soup arrived, Burton gracefully slid into the bowl, face first, at which point Elizabeth Taylor (who had made an unannounced appearance onstage at the beginning of the evening) briskly pulled his head up, wiped him clean and took him back to the Savoy Hotel.

The wonder was that Burton pulled himself together sufficiently during his remaining two years after this incident to act in a number of films, including his last, 1984, shot the year of the title. Except for occasional brief stints on the wagon, these diaries, at least the vastly longer part of them, from 1965 onwards, could well be titled - as Burton himself suggested, only half-humorously - "The Diary of a Dipsomaniac".

His consumption was on a heroic scale. In May 1975, for example, there were six consecutive one-word entries: "booze". On the seventh day, the entry read: "went into clinic late afternoon." It was the familiar alcoholic pattern: the moroseness, the destructiveness, the self-reproach - his "mad moods".

By the end of the diaries, neither he nor the reader is any nearer to understanding the origins of his addiction. ("I don't know why I drink so much. I'm not unhappy…")

On the face of it, he led a blessed life. Born Richard Jenkins in a Welsh mining village, he left it at the age of two after the death of his mother and escaped his father's and grandfather's desperate lives on the coalface, moving to his sister's house in Port Talbot, where he was lovingly raised. At 16, he met his mentor, English teacher Philip Burton, one of those extraordinary polymaths who chose to lead their lives in obscurity. Their relationship, which gave the boy a superb education, culminated in the 19-year-old becoming Burton's ward, and taking his name.

From then on, against the background of the war and National Service, he moved from one charmed opportunity to another: after a six-month RAF course at Exeter College, Oxford, and demobilisation in 1947, when he was 22, he was signed up as an actor by the greatest producer of his day, Binkie Beaumont. By 1948, he had enjoyed West End and Broadway successes; the following year he made his first film; in 1951, he had his first classical success at Stratford; in 1952 he went to Hollywood, starring opposite Olivia de Havilland in My Cousin Rachel; the next year he had two legendary seasons at the Old Vic, which confirmed him as a great classical actor; soon after he was signed by Twentieth Century Fox. In 1957, at the age of 32, and only 10 years after he started acting, he had to become a tax exile because his earnings were so great; he continued to act on stage, creating the part of Arthur in the successful musical Camelot.

In 1962, he met Taylor, their relationship ignited, and together they became for many years the epitome of glamour, the starriest acting couple of their time.

And all along, we learn from the diaries, Burton was hating every second of it. The acting, that is, not the life. "I like being famous" he cheerfully admits, and he certainly liked being rich (every so often he would stop to tot up his millions), but he detested acting. "I loathe, loathe, loathe acting … hate it, despise it, despise, for Christ's sake, it." Nothing annoyed him more than being asked by a journalist about "his first love, the stage". He berated one of them for not being able to understand "the indignity and the boredom of having to learn the writings of another man", and the situation in which "you are 43 years old, are fairly widely read", and have to "drag yourself off to work day after day with a long lingering regretful look behind you at the book you're interested in".

He dismissed the idea of dedication in actors: "Dedication is an invention of envious journalists. It's all right for your Paul Scofield, or Gielgud, or Larry Olivier, or John Neville to 'dedicate' their lives to the theatre, but, poor sods, no other f***er will allow them on the phone."

He prided himself on his professionalism, which amounted to his ability to learn lines, to speak them clearly, to speed the process on. But the idea that there might be something more to acting - that acting might be a creative art - was ludicrous to him.

All this is familiar from the writings of Dirk Bogarde, another actor who saw acting as beneath contempt. Like Bogarde, Burton had ambitions to write; unlike Bogarde, all that he wrote was the diary, and then only fitfully. The reason Burton - unlike Bogarde, with his novels, his autobiographies, his reviews - never fulfilled his dreams of writing was that it would involve sustained work. Similarly his vision of teaching at Oxford dwindled into a few personal appearances because it required hard labour.

But why all the misery? He asked the same of himself. "I am stupendously disappointed in myself. Something went wrong in my head at the wrong time … I am, I think, sublimely selfish." Well, there you have it, although sublime may not be the word that first comes to mind. Meanwhile, there was a great deal of money to made, and to be spent. It is hard not to turn away from the page in disgust as Burton worked himself into a competitive frenzy bidding for a diamond that he eventually secured for US$1.1 million.

He was generous to individuals and to institutions, and in turn the rewards of the world gratified him, but they, too, could not satisfy him. He was quietly pleased with his CBE, knowing it might lead to a knighthood. "A couple of seasons at the Old Vic and a stint or two at Oxford and I could swing one fairly easily with Labour in power," he mused. But increasingly the booze obliterated both his life and his career. He and Taylor broke up.

By the end of the diaries, in 1982, he was appearing in Private Lives, with Taylor, long after their second divorce. There is something sad about the fact that he now found her, his Cleopatra, with her apparently infinite variety, finally, "boring" too.

The diaries were never intended for publication, and it is difficult to imagine why it was thought advisable to present them at this length. Still, they show that Burton might have made a splendid Graham Greene-ish foreign correspondent, disgusted with the world, risking his life, propping up the bar, filing copy seconds before the deadline. He was wasted on acting, and acting was wasted on him.

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