Nearly thirty years after his death, The Richard Burton Diaries gives us a portrait of the actor so illuminating and no-holds-barred honest that it’s a tragedy he never marshalled his reminiscences into an autobiography. The book is edited by Chris Williams, whose love of footnotes is as all-consuming as Burton’s torrid passion for Elizabeth Taylor.
Clocking in at nearly 700 pages, the diaries are ordered into six main sections: 1939-1940, in which a series of regular but short entries give a snapshot of his childhood and a burgeoning love of literature; 1960, which is little more than an appointments diary; 1965-1972, which spans almost 500 pages; 1975, documenting his brief remarriage to Taylor and an unhealthy amount of drinking; 1980, centring mostly on his theatrical tour with Camelot; and 1983, which ends as he’s about to take to the stage again in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, an ill-fated production that co-starred Taylor.
As one would imagine, the Burton-Taylor years occupy centre stage. Cineastes will regret the lack behind-the-scenes on some of Burton’s most celebrated performance – there’s barely a word on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Becket or Night of the Iguana – but what there is, in plenitude, is an account of Burton’s life – the travel, the glamour, the fabulous restaurants, the glitzy hotels, the premieres and hobnobbing. He almost casually records his acquisition of extravagantly priced jewellery, a yacht and a private jet. “I did something beyond outrage,” he says of dropping $960,000 for the latter – this in 1967, the equivalent of $6.5million today!
In the wrong hands, this could have been the stuff of gloating. But everything Burton writes is tempered with his background, the poverty of his childhood, the admission – made repeatedly – that he’s been lucky. Moreover, fame and materialism didn’t lull him into intellectual moribundity. Throughout Burton demonstrates an inquiring mind, a thirst for knowledge, a keen engagement with the written word and a fascination with linguism.
I haven’t enjoyed an actor in his own words this much since Ever, Dirk, John Coldstream’s volume of Dirk Bogarde’s waspish and unmediated correspondence. Bogarde, of course, enjoyed a second career as a memoirist, novelist and reviewer in the last two decades or so of his life. It’s a damn shame Burton didn’t get to tread a similar path.