TV | Burton and Taylor

Adam Somerset reviews BBC Four’s semi-biographical drama, Burton and Taylor, with a critical eye.

BBC4 touched on Welsh subjects twice in the last week of July. The series Bought with Love – the Secret History of British Art Collections ended in Llandinam with the Davies sisters. The makers told it as it was; the director did not have his presenter jump on a merry-go-round as a metaphor for the vagaries of the art market. Two women sat quietly at a table at Gregynog, and we all enjoyed the smugness of hindsight. A curator laid out a letter from London’s National Gallery declining the offer to show a landscape by a new whipper-snapper of an artist, for whom the sisters had taken a liking. The name of the artist was Paul Cėzanne.

And then there was Burton and Taylor. Now, public service broadcasting has its enemies – commercial vultures, libertarian zealots, populists – and I am not among them. It takes me to places in the body politic and social where no-one else goes. It tells me, for instance, that the quality validators of an Accident and Emergency Department selected the hour of eight in the morning for their sampling and forbade their staff to speak to the doctors in charge. The Wales Report, when it puts its mind to it, is genuinely revealing and informative.

‘Original British Drama’ run the advertisements that clog television and radio. Words have their meanings. ‘Original’ indicates that a writer or a director has had an idea that has been gradually brought to fruition. An acted-out documentary, or quasi-documentary, on celebrities stretches the adjective ‘original’ into areas where it begins to blur.      

The aesthetic qualities of drama were laid out two and half thousand years ago; structure, rising rhythm, human truth, ambiguity, moral tension, narrative excitement and denouement. All are lacking in the bio-drama. They burble along until they end and then require captions at the credits to complete their narrative.

The aspiration to truth is removed by the makers’ self-given right to make it up as it takes their fancy. ‘Some scenes have been created for dramatic effect’ is the declaration, but the audience is left with no idea as to the what and the where of authorial fabulation. The tabloid press has at least the courage of going after subjects who are alive. This television jackal genre only goes for celebrities who have departed. The saps cannot answer back. 

Artists are the subjects, but the genre has scant interest in artistry, either its execution or its hard-won acquisition. These films are interested in one thing, and that is their subjects’ love-life. The motivation is a reductive belittlement, a manifestation of a gossip culture that fears the power of art. Placing the person before the work was caught definitively by Alan Bennett in his play Kafka’s Dick.

Burton and Taylor review

A strand of misogyny runs through Burton and Taylor, a leering camera poking at middle age. One scene features on-the-spot jogging and has been created solely to draw attention to the character’s breasts. Burton appears in his first scene at a press conference with collar button undone and loose tie, a sign to say ‘I am a scruff and a wreck’. The sharp observer of the Diaries and the bibliophile of Cėligny are absent. This Burton shouts ‘bitch’ and ‘shut your mouth’ to a theatre helper. ‘I’m Richard Burton,’ he declares; ‘I don’t play to fifty people.’ Maybe he said it, and maybe he didn’t. The greasiness of the genre means that the audience may not distinguish fact from makers’ malice.

Times are tough with budgetary constraints and Burton and Taylor suggests a script editor on work experience. The language rings false. Ms Taylor uses the term ‘wussy advisors’. Burton tells his fellow actor ‘learn your lines, love’. Maybe he said it. But ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘duck’, ‘bach’ are all subtle differentiators of place in Britain. It looks more as it has been fashioned for a US audience – the Brits all say ‘love’ – in the same way that Wallace and Gromit were forbidden to grow marrows.

There are tell-tale signs when film-makers have rushed at it without the hammering out, over and over, of a script that works. Terence Malick can make films but he sure cannot get a tight script together. Burton and Taylor has all the signs. There is an aesthetic pleasure to be had by the audience in the climax, but the genre cannot create a climax because it is not drama. Burton gets to smash a couple of vodka bottles – being Public Service the labels are carefully turned out of sight so as to avoid any taint of cash for product placement. A voice-over is employed, archly referring to the characters by their first names. The music is stretched to flood the scenes because the words cannot carry them.

There are only a couple of proper critics of television in Britain. The schedulers timed their broadcast during the holiday of one so that Burton and Taylor had an easy run. The worst writer reduced two of the most magnetic actors in film history to ‘Dick’n’Liz, 1960s power shaggers’. The rest focused on whether the celebrity casting fitted the celebrity subjects. Where would an actor, in any case, be found who could capture Burton, asked one rhetorically? Never let a little fact-checking get in the way of a television review – after all, it’s only a media group with a billion-pound turnover. The answer is that there are actors who have honed Burton over years, but they are Welsh. Celebrity bio-pics require celebrity faces; the necessity to flog the stuff overseas means that the man from The Wire gets it.

Burton does not belong to Wales. Cardiff may have the theatre and the statue, Swansea the Diaries and the archive. But when it comes to drama it looks as if Wales was well and truly roon-eyeworthed. (From the Urban Dictionary ‘to roon-eyeworth’ means ‘to display a degree of unfamiliarity with places and people not immediately nearby’.)

The great film critic Pauline Kael wrote a celebrated essay ‘Trash, Art and the Movies’ in 1969.  It is a hymn to pleasure, but Burton and Taylor is a world away, a genre of belittlement, indolence of imagination and tabloid prurience and ethics. Small theatre companies struggle, for small financial reward, to fashion drama. It is depressing that the ambitions of those inhabiting corporate departments with the ostensible label of ‘Drama’ should be so low, so restricted, and so antithetical to drama’s very notions.