Magazine article The Spectator

Television Public Lives

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Public Lives

Article excerpt

Watching Burton and Taylor (BBC4, Monday) I felt a bit like I do when I go to the theatre - or, more often, when friends have kindly taken me to the theatre. 'Are you enjoying it?' someone will ask. 'Oh, yes.

Very much, ' I'll lie. For the truth is, no matter how well done it all is, I'd still so much rather be doing other things. Catching up with the latest episode of the infinitely more gripping The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday), for example.

At the end I found myself wondering 'Why?' Not just 'Why didn't I switch off earlier?' and 'Why couldn't I maybe have chosen to review that David Starkey series on royalty and music instead?' but, most pertinently, 'Why did they bother making this presumably quite expensive biopic?' or 'Why couldn't it go on letting us enjoy Burton and Taylor as they were in our heads: as remote, unattainable fantasy figures defining a Seventies movie-star glamour the like of which we shall never see again?'

Consider, for example, all the outfits we saw Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West) wearing. We'll have recognised many of them from the photos. Taylor in that famous black and white geometric patterned dress;

Burton with his polo necks and his mink coats. But seeing Bonham Carter and West inhabiting them on the small screen didn't make you go: 'Why, it's as if Burton and Taylor were standing there before us now.'

Instead, it just drew your attention to how not like Burton and Taylor they were.

Which is a shame because they had a good stab at it, a really good stab. West couldn't quite capture the richness and resonance of Burton's extraordinary voice (which the script plausibly had him describe dismissively as the acting equivalent of a 'really big cock') but gave him a nice, subliminal Welsh lilt, which passed. Bonham Carter displayed superb comic timing - as, for example, during the first read-through of Private Lives where she admits she hasn't actually read the play yet - and captured almost perfectly Taylor's maddening capriciousness and ruined magnificence. But - a problem with West, too - she didn't look quite enough like her subject ever to allow you to forget that you were watching a bravura impersonation rather than the real thing.

So again: what was the point of the exercise? …

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