TV review: Reliving the time when Burton and Taylor put their private lives onstage
Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter are superb as Hollywood’s fiery couple in BBC Four’s drama, but there was more real-life drama in a new RTÉ series about struggling businesses
Meeting their match: Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter in Burton and Taylor
If you didn’t see Burton and Taylor (BBC Four, Monday), look at the photo of Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, above, as the famous Hollywood couple. Glamorous, aren’t they? And instantly recognisable as Richard and Elizabeth, although maybe she more than he.
West doesn’t quite exude the same garrulous machismo that Burton did, which was a foil for Taylor’s blowsy femininity. And that’s how it played out on screen in this feature-length biopic. Bonham Carter got Taylor down perfectly in all her guises, from vulnerable to flirty to brawling; West, meanwhile, has a way of capturing a real-life character (he was terrifying as mass murderer Fred West) without having to tick every box. It was set in the early 1980s when the pair, who had been divorced from each other twice, and had been estranged for five years, reunited to appear in a Broadway production of Private Lives. Both of their careers, but not their fame, were on the wane.
Taylor, bleary from her addiction to pills and booze, was a co-producer, and she wanted to reel in the love of her life, Burton. He was attempting sobriety, about to be married and anxiously awaiting the green light on his life’s ambition, a production of King Lear.
Private Lives was a huge commercial success. The audience wasn’t there to see Noël Coward’s comedy about an abusive codependent divorced couple, honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. They wanted the Liz and Dick show, and hooted loudly every time they spotted a parallel between the onstage story and what they knew – and everyone knew all the details – about the famously fiery Burton-Taylor relationship.
“They thought they had an invite into our lives, to see it happen in front of them,” said Burton, horrified by the reality of the situation he had landed himself in – for $70,000 a week.
Taylor relished the adulation, ad-libbing to the audience and appearing with a parrot on her shoulder to upstage Burton after a pre-show bust-up.
The drama – it had great material to work with – captured the pair’s intensely damaging relationship but also the sheer fun they had, and how much they loved each other. Irish actor Stanley Townsend as Milton, the play’s American director, conveyed the weary resignation of trying to get an old-school star such as Taylor to do anything she didn’t want to. When the critics slated Private Lives, Burton consoled an upset Taylor, saying: “Critics deserve nothing but our pity. So close to art and yet they contribute absolutely nothing whatsoever towards it. It’s like being a eunuch at an orgy.” Right, then.
Taking Care of Business, (RTÉ One, Thursday) is another series about companies in trouble – a sign of the times, obviously, but this one is more serious than RTÉ’s recent The Takeover. There the staff came up with the solutions, but for the businesses in this series, the bank problems loom large, and the difficulties have gone way past jokey fixes.
The constants in each episode are business consultants Sean Dunne and Tommy Murphy, and of course the first disappointment is that it’s not that Sean Dunne, Baron of Ballsbridge. Now that would be an instructive business programme. This Dunne is, like Murphy, an accountant, and he’s clear-eyed and quietly spoken. You’d like him batting for you.