Last week when I went to BAFTA for a preview screening of Burton and Taylor my expectations were high.
Not least because of the subject matter, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who's life together has always been fascinating, but also because of the two actors chosen to play the couple, Dominic West and Helena Bonham - two of this countries finest acting talents. So I guess you want to know whether or not my expectations were met? Well, to tell you the truth, yes, they were - and then some. It wasn't just the performances by West and Bonham Carter, nor the subject matter, but the script was really strong and the direction was beautiful.
The screening was kicked off with a speech by Ben Stephenson, who is the Controller of Drama Commissioning for the BBC, in which he revealed that Burton And Taylor would be the last drama for the foreseeable future that would be made specifically for BBC Four, due to necessary budget cuts. When you think back to the drama BBC Four have made in the past, in particular biographical dramas such as, Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story, Enid and Hattie but to name a few, this news comes as quite a shock. Why end a run of such great original British Drama?
That said, what was clear was that they wanted to go out with a bang, and I think with Burton And Taylor they've definitely succeeded.
Burton And Taylor doesn't aim to tell the life story of the couple in 90 minutes, instead the story begins in 1983, when the two of them were in their fifties. The drama opens with a huge announcement at a press conference - "Ladies and gentlemen, we're here to announce our favourite companies next production. Noel Coward's comic masterpiece - Private Lives. Starring none other than Miss Elizabeth Taylor and one of the greatest stage actors of all time - Mr Richard Burton."What's great about the opening scene being at a press conference, is that the couples history together is referenced and even those unfamiliar with their story know that if the couple were to marry again it would be their third time and are made aware of the couple's extensive history together.
The production company putting on the play is Taylor's own, so right from the very beginning we have this very strong idea that the reason the play is even going ahead in the first place is so that Taylor can bring Burton back into her life. So from putting on the play to the couple's final performance together, this drama follows it all.
Watching Helena Bonham Carter play Elizabeth Taylor is a real treat. You soon begin to realise that no other actress would have been capable of portraying her quite so well.What really comes across is Taylor's sense of humour, something Helena only found out Taylor had after it was revealed to her by an astrologer friend of hers. Speaking after the screening, Bonham Carter revealed that Taylor's sense of humour, played a massive part in her excepting the role. As well as consulting an astrologer, in preparation for the role Helena revealed how she also "Swotted up on countless biographies".
Well, whatever she did it certainly helped, as did having an 18-day shoot which as Helena said leaves very little time for the character to leave you. There isn't that thing, she said, that actors often have where they're waiting around doing nothing. In fact, speaking to her after the screening it's funny to see how often the american/Taylor accent would creep back in - something she herself referenced throughout the Q&A.
To be honest her accent throughout Burton And Taylor is fantastic. I love how varied her accent can be, from high to low and the way she pronounced certain words. Even just the way she spoke conveyed how much of a diva she really was. Not to mention a rather terrific scene where Taylor speaks in hushed tones to Burton leading to a blazing row where she ends up hitting him.
Elizabeth's character is everything we wanted her to be and more.
Yes she's always late, turns up with several animals including Alvin the parrot, but as Bonham Carter herself revealed, Elizabeth was rather funny. Her sense of humour is what endears you to her as well as her ability to put on a front like no-one else. She really was incredible and you could really see how the hysteria around such a character began.
Dominic West handles the task of playing Richard Burton, equally as well as Helena Bonham Carter. His preparation didn't involve an astrologer, even though Helena did offer one to him, however West chose to visit Burton's childhood home of Pontrhydyfen in Wales. And when it comes to perfecting that famous Burton voice, West revealed that he only ever managed that after a night of heavy smoking and drinking.
One of my favourite lines in the drama comes from Burton as he sits in a cafe with Taylor and talks about the critics loving his voice. "Well of course they do. It's the Theatre equivalent of having a big cock. Everyone likes it but it doesn't make you a great lover does it?"
Despite no longer being together, I love how the drama chose to explore the couple admiration for one another. They would constantly pay each other compliments, Taylor calling Burton "The greatest stage actor she's ever known." Burton would often repay the compliment, as we see after their opening performance when he tells her "I'm proud of you Elizabeth. You're phenomenal. There's no-one else quite like you."There's also that scene after the first rehearsal where we see Elizabeth tell Richard that she doesn't want to disappoint him, which of course she could never do, which he lets her know by saying "Just learn your lines, go on stage and say them and you will electrify."
The final scene in the dressing room is so beautiful, and possibly me favourite of the entire piece. I love how it left me in two minds as to whether or not they should get back together. Part of me felt like I wanted them to get back together, fore example when Taylor says - "I love you Richard. I always will."
Yet the other part of me agreed with Burton, who in that final scene tells Taylor "I'll always love you Elizabeth. As long as I live, but, us together, it'll destroy me. I can't do it."
What I loved most about that final scene was the honesty and truth behind it. Burton couldn't help but say farewell to Taylor properly and managed to get Taylor to admit that she did need help. Yet again their admiration for one another shone through, and rather poignantly, Taylor turned to Burton and said - "You're Richard Burton. You're every man there ever was." - which is just a heartbreaking line. Especially when you learn that shortly after, Taylor checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic and nine months later Burton passed away.
You hear it time and time again speaking to actors when the inevitable "What made you take the role?" question comes up, and the answer is almost always - "The script." - and sure enough the same can be true of West and Bonham Carter. However this time, I truly believed it.
Being able to tell the story of two such iconic characters in a way that is ultimately heart-warming and clever is no mean feat. Most of the one-liners in Burton And Taylor are incredible, and for the way in which William Ivory has been able to capture their relationship, Ivory deserves all the credit that's coming his way.
Of course there are various other characters that come in and out of the drama, Sarah Hadland for example plays Kathryn and Lenora Crichlow plays Chen, and there are daughters and partners that come in and out, but as a drama about Burton and Taylor titled Burton And Taylor, it quite rightly focusses on the famous double act.
So whether you're already familiar and fascinated by the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor story or not, this is certainly 90 minutes of high quality drama you would not want to miss. An hour-and-a-half of fine acting, fine scriptwriting and a story well told - I honestly can't praise it enough, and I really hope that this style of drama continues on the BBC, sadly no longer on BBC Four, but hopefully on BBC Two.
And if you're a big fan of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, BBC Four is about to become your favourite channel with a host of programmes dedicated to the couple.