Burton and Taylor (3 stars)

Burton and Taylor

BBC Four’s drama hurrah is an entertainingly mixed bag

There’s plenty to feel melancholy about when watching this 80-minute biopic about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. With Hollywood still reeling from the shock death of Glee’s Cory Monteith, it’s hard to watch dramatised scenes of an infamous celebrity couple caning their way towards oblivion. For Elizabeth Taylor, her dependency revolved around booze and pills while her two-time husband Richard Burton fought against his addiction to booze and more booze.

For BBC Four, this is a bittersweet moment and the end of an era, with Burton and Taylor marking the grand finale for their original drama output. Perhaps the stories about stars from the past were becoming a little formulaic and all-too similar: behind the glamour and success always seemed to lie something sad or dark whether it was about Alfred Hitchcock, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams or this tormented pair.

This feature is set close to the end of Richard Burton’s life as he and Taylor reunite one last time, taking to the Broadway stage in 1983 for a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Line after line of the play seems to hint at their own relationship while the title alone is a stark irony: whenever they got together in public (at press conferences, in restaurants, on stage) nothing they said or did could stay private in any way. In an age that was only slightly less obsessed with celebrity than ours, they were the Brangelina of the day (Richabeth maybe? Or Lizard?).

What drove their passions for one another? Even after their two divorces, a smouldering passion still existed, and their attitudes towards each other’s acting abilities ranged from the highly respectful to the downright envious. While Burton was the acclaimed act-or and Taylor the beloved star, moments are touched on here when they seemed to resent the other’s place in the showbiz hierarchy.

Straight from the off, we get the inevitable disclaimer: ‘some scenes and events have been created or modified for dramatic event’. Modified is a new one on me, but it naturally makes you question almost everything you see: was Liz really so unprofessional as to have not read Private Lives before the first rehearsal? Did Dickie really wear a mink coat to his ex-wife’s 50th birthday bash?

Of course, much focus will zero in on the central performances. Judging by looks alone, Helena Bonham Carter was simply born to play Liz, while Dominic West’s Burton is merely Jimmy McNulty with a polo neck and Grecian 2000 in reverse. Reports have suggested that West was directed to dial the Welsh accent down and he has more or less adopted his own cut-glass tones.

The overall effect is a pair of decent enough portrayals, but the Burton and Taylor problem is one of distraction. Neither actor is convincing enough to make you forget that this is an adaptation which plays fast and loose with aspects of the true story: exactly which bits is left unclear but having the viewer play a guessing game does not make for a happy ending to BBC Four’s drama swansong.

Burton and Taylor, BBC Four, Mon 22 Jul, 9pm.

Burton and Taylor: TV Trailer - BBC Four