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When Burton and Taylor trod Oxford’s am-dram boards

MEMOIR

KISS FROM ELIZABETH TAYLOR

by David Wood (Book Guild £9.99, 152pp)

Although Richard Burton never went to Oxford in the sense of an official student working towards a degree, he was allowed to attend lectures during his RAF training in 1944 and remained grateful for the opportunity.

For despite the excesses and the womanizing, Burton was a bookish, private, serious man, obsessed with literature and language. He even harbored fantasies about quitting his acting career and taking up academic life.

Twenty-two years after that taste of academia, Burton returned to Oxford with Elizabeth Taylor, to star in a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with a student cast from the OUDS, the Oxford University Dramatic Society, directed by Professor Nevill Coghill, Burton’s teacher in his RAF days in Oxford.

This very quirky episode, as part of a plan to raise money for the University Theater Workshop Fund, is the subject of one of those undergraduate actors. David Wood’s fascinating memoir is a beautiful and loving evocation of the “magical, surreal few days we shared.”

Welsh actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) in costume as 'Dr Faustus' and Helen of Troy in the Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Christopher Marlowe's play at the Oxford Playhouse on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1966

Welsh actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) in costume as ‘Dr Faustus’ and Helen of Troy in the Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Christopher Marlowe’s play at the Oxford Playhouse on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1966

Rehearsals began on January 3, 1966, but with typical grandeur, Burton and Taylor arrived on January 31. The idea was that by then everyone else (and the students) would know their rules and moves — the stars would be “slid in, as they were.”

Burton, already 40, and Taylor, 33, “had put their reputation on the line by sharing the stage with us,” Wood says, but they came in, were “happy and relaxed” and thoroughly enjoyed the parties. where students (in Taylor’s sense) ‘puked in the john’. Taylor gave away Burton’s spare clothes when she thought people looked shabby: “You can’t walk around like this!”

But egalitarianism only went so far. There were plenty of signs that world-class celebrities had descended amid the Dreaming Spiers. Burton and Taylor arrived in a green Rolls-Royce driven by a bodyguard named Gaston Sanz, a former free French commando and black belt judo.

He would accompany Burton to the Gents, so the star never risked being vulnerable and alone. Occasionally, without looking or asking, Burton would throw his arm back over his shoulder—Gaston would be there at once to place a lit cigarette between his master’s fingers.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Rehearse for the Oxford University Dramatic Society's Production of Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus'

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Rehearse for the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Production of Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’

Burton was so generous that he never carried any money. Gaston paid for everything. The trunk of the Rolls was filled with fan mail, which Burton and Taylor never looked at.

Rehearsals were held in the Oxford Police Station gymnasium, as the premises could be secured against paparazzi intrusion. The Burtons kept daytime suites at the Randolph Hotel, where they took over the ballroom as the office for their agents, managers, hair and makeup people, clerks, and dressers. It was like a royal court.

The night was spent at The Bear in Woodstock, where dinner was offered to the young cast – many of whom later in life became Supreme Court justices or grand masters of the establishment with knighthoods.

On Wood’s 22nd birthday while running, Taylor slapped him on the lips: “I still glow at the memory of this spontaneous gesture of affection.” I bet he does.

Burton, who had grown a beard for his part, played Faustus, the man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasures. As Wood cleverly argues, comparisons can be made ‘between the character and the actor’ – for Burton, the penniless South Wales actor, had deliberately thrown away a traditional and respectable career playing the classics on stage to make a big Become a Hollywood star who was married to a bigger, smashing Hollywood star.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor visit Merton College, Oxford, to discuss the production of 'Mr Faustas', in which they will both star for free

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor visit Merton College, Oxford, to discuss the production of ‘Mr Faustas’, in which they will both star for free

Private jets, jewels, fur coats, an entourage, unimaginable wealth—with such a reversal of fortune, such a sale, it would be no surprise if Burton identified with Faustus.

He told Wood that the last speech, in which Faustus begs for his soul, was “the greatest in English drama.” Indeed, against a soundtrack of chimes and beating heartbeats, speaking these majestic lines – ‘Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, / That time may cease and midnight never comes’ – Burton’s ‘characteristic melodic tones were thrillingly clear’. He had the best voice of any actor who ever lived. Wood witnessed the opening of what appeared to be “a magic circle of space around him to portray his power.”

The opening night was February 14. Tickets, normally six shillings and six pence (32 pence), now switched hands for a fiver, or a hundred pounds in today’s numbers.

They were all “the most publicized three weeks in Oxford history,” which may be an exaggeration, except we’re talking about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor speak at The Oxford University Dramatic Society, Oxford, England, February 8, 1966

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor speak at The Oxford University Dramatic Society, Oxford, England, February 8, 1966

As Helen of Troy, a non-speaking role, Taylor used Johnson’s Baby Powder to give her face “a subtle matte sheen.” On her head, a wig weighed 20 pounds. She had her costume specially designed by Irene Sharaff, who had been responsible for her lavish gold dresses in Cleopatra.

“All I do is kiss Richard and walk around,” Taylor said, which was true. But, Wood adds, like the appearance of Helen of Troy, casting Faustus lascivious glances, “she became a fantasy, a ghost bathed in dry ice.” Maria Aitken, a student who plays an angel, confirmed: “When they kissed, it was the most exciting moment I’ve seen even in more than half a century of theater attendance.”

With the Randolph as their dressing room, Taylor and Burton rushed through the hotel kitchens, into the covered parking lot, and down an alleyway to reach The Playhouse’s Stage Door.

Taylor was escorted to her entrance above the stage, left by her followers. Then they ran behind the set to greet her at her exit, to the lower right of the stage, where a glass of gin was waiting on a satin pillow. When Burton came off the stage, a servant stood in the wings to hand him a shot of whiskey and a lit cigarette.

At the final, audiences, including Harry Secombe and Stanley Baker, gave the stars 15 curtain calls. There was loud applause for nine minutes.

There was, of course, great interest from the press – so it’s disgusting to hear how sneering, mocking, scornful and cynical were the national reviewers, opinions formed in advance.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are pictured on stage at the Playhouse Theater in Oxford, with cast members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society's Dr Faustus production of Marlowe.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are pictured on stage at the Playhouse Theater in Oxford, with cast members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Dr Faustus production of Marlowe.

It’s like the couple is honest because they are rich and famous. Burton, the critics said, “made himself smaller”; ‘an eagle among a flock of well-meaning sparrows’. Nonsense.

One Sunday a recording was made in Putney with the student cast – Taylor appeared, despite her non-speaking role, and announced, “I’m here to make the sandwiches.” They also kept in touch – Wood was invited by Taylor to Burton’s birthday party at the Dorchester in 1975.

Unfortunately, as Wood says, the film’s production subsequently financed by Burton in Rome never recouped its budget, so no donation came.

But as I know, there was more to it. Coghill failed in his bid to nominate Burton for an honorary doctorate – those in power found the Burton and Taylor circus too vulgar. Hurt and bitter, Burton understandably objected to authorizing his lawyers to release the hundreds of thousands Oxford expected.

This is exactly the kind of show business book I love. Wood also includes material about working with a crazy Shelley Winters, an ambitious Malcolm McDowell and, in the crazy PG Wodehouse musical Jeeves, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Ayckbourn and David Hemmings.

It went down the drain because the director, Eric Thompson, Emma’s father, who died at the age of 53, was short of white wine as of 10 a.m. Even Burton didn’t start that early.

  • Roger Lewis is currently completing Erotic Vagrancy, his biography of Taylor and Burton.

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