Richard Burton and the Kings of the Underworld

Gaw recalls a Welshman who was a self-made hero to some, a self-romanticising show-off to others.

Brit’s clip of Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood from Lazy Sunday Afternoon the other week sent me looking for more opportunities to hear that voice. Here’s a spell-binding excerpt from an interview where he talks about mining. Some wonderful lines which now seem to come from such a distant industrial era, or at least they do here in Britain. It’s a reminder of why coal miners were held in such esteem, had such a mystique, back in the day.

I’m sure he’s being straight when he talks about the attractions mining had to his family and his schoolboy peers. Others were more circumspect. ‘Being sent down the mine’ was held out as a pretty horrible fate in my family, one that was made flesh when we used to visit my Uncle Horace whose silicosis – a lung disease caused by the inhalation of rock dust – meant he couldn’t move far from his armchair and oxygen cylinders. I can still hear his awful, rattling wheeze.

The British mining industry has almost disappeared, of course. We’re two years away from the 30th anniversary of the last miners’ strike, an event that turned out to be the beginning of the end. I wonder how it will be marked? It would seem strange to mourn the passing of a livelihood that still regularly kills people, even in what remains of the South Wales collieries, as we saw just a few months ago.

Anyhow, the clip above is also a reminder of what a wonderful talker Richard Burton was, what terrific charisma he possessed. He really was something of a hero to many of the post-war generation: a provincial working class boy who conquered pretty much everything he took on, from the London theatre to the most beautiful film star in the world, amassing great riches on the way, which he spent freely and often generously. However, the older generation were more disapproving, dismissing him as a self-romanticising show-off. Not just the London theatre establishment either – plenty of his fellow Welsh (including my own Taid, as it happens) thought he was an awful bullshitter. Of course both views were correct.

In any event, he still seems pretty stupendous to me. One of the most impressive bits of film acting I’ve seen is in Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger where, in the course of one of his rants, Burton’s Jimmy turns away from the camera and towards the fireplace; he simply puts his hands on the mantel-piece and rolls his shoulders. You don’t hear anything and you don’t see very much at all, but it’s enough for you to understand that Jimmy is scared, something he’s desperately trying to hide, from himself as much as anyone. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that it’s this gesture that makes the play work: if Jimmy doesn’t have the audience’s sympathetic pity, he’s merely a bully and the play becomes unbearable (as it often is).

Rather incredibly there was considerably more to him than the talent that made him rich and famous. He was a scholar with a prodigious memory and great critical sensitivity: Neville Coghill, his tutor at Oxford, reckoned he’d taught only two students of genius, WH Auden and Burton. He also played first class rugby for Aberavon when not much older than a schoolboy and was reckoned by some, including, reputedly, the great Bleddyn Williams, to have been good enough to play for Wales.

So much for the good fairies. Unfortunately, the bad fairy also gave him a susceptibility to alcoholism, like his father. Burton was only 58 when he died; we might have had much more from him. His understated performance as O’Brien in the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which manages to be both chilling and avuncular at the same time, could have been the start of a brilliant late-flowering:

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11 thoughts on “Richard Burton and the Kings of the Underworld

    March 12, 2012 at 20:38

    They don’t make them like that any more. There are rumours that Michael Sheen – just as great an actor in a different way – is going to play Burton…

  2. Gaw
    March 12, 2012 at 20:45

    I hadn’t heard that rumour. They’re both from Port Talbot, which also produced Anthony Hopkins (and Rob Brydon, who might well be bracketed with them if he were leading man material!). Strange that.

    John Halliwell
    March 12, 2012 at 21:32

    He was a magnificent actor. Was he the finest of his generation, with only Brando, in terms of film, able to challenge such a claim? But did the film studios fail to use that prodigious talent to their, and his, optimum benefit, or was it more a case of Burton seeing film acting as the poor relation to stage acting; a source of great income but artistically less satisfying, and therefore failing to inspire his finest work? He was brilliant in Look Back in Anger and, remaining in that period, I bet he would have made an even more convincing Joe Lampton in Room at the Top than Laurence Harvey. I would have queued twice round the block to hear Burton do battle with a working class Yorkshire accent.

    I was not too familiar with the rugby angle, but is it true that he played for Wales against England at Cardiff Arms Park in January 1951 and that it was his sole appearance? And then only because he just couldn’t resist taking it on himself to give a rousing speech in the pre-match Welsh huddle on the half-way line:

    ‘I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot;
    Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
    Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!’

    England, suitably inspired, and having been massive underdogs prior to kick-off, apparently went on to win 48-3. When asked why he hadn’t substituted Wales and Owain Glyndwr for England and Saint George, Richard shrugged: “You can’t bugger about with Shakespeare. I am a classical actor, you know.” It all sounds a bit far-fetched to me….

    • Gaw
      March 12, 2012 at 21:41

      I think Melv Bragg in his bio of Burton makes the point that he would have enjoyed a more critically acclaimed film-acting career if he’d been born ten years earlier: young working class actors were spoilt for good roles in the ’60s by which time he was too expensive – and probably too Hollywood-ized – for them.

      Nice fantasy there! And one Burton might have shared as he maintained he would have swapped it all to have played for Wales. Believe him if you will…

      Anyhow. Back to worrying about next Saturday’s result.

    March 13, 2012 at 16:36

    The film “Where Eagles Dare” is of course complete tosh, but will remain immortal simply for Burton’s delivery of the words “Broadsword to Danny Boy… Broadsword to Danny Boy”.

    Only James Mason had a better voice.

    Toby Ferris
    March 13, 2012 at 17:31

    extraordinary – what a man. Imagine being able to claim without fear of contradiction, on television, that your father could bring down twenty tons of coal with a single blow of the pick, like a hero of the Mabinogion.

    Perhaps it was true, of course.

    March 13, 2012 at 19:12

    I blow hot and cold on Burton. He had a wonderful voice and commanding presence indeed – hard to miss really – but sometimes it all got a bit much, especially in the later years. A little more understatement in style might have served him better, I reckon. And he did squander his talents on glitzy schlock (what was that whopper diamond about?) whilst maintaining a lofty superiority over those less well-endowed with creative artistry. I remember him on some TV interview show complaining about having to perform in the theatre where the vulgarity of the ‘blue-rinsed lady’ in the audience particularly displeased him. The previous day he’d been photographed on a triumphal return to his native land, wearing his full-length mink coat.

    • Gaw
      March 13, 2012 at 20:46

      He did have a rather aristocratic and insouciant attitude to the world, which, as the interview clip suggests, may have been inherited. Apparently, during the Liz years there wasn’t a hotel they stayed in that wasn’t shat all over by their pack of lapdogs.

  7. Gaw
    March 13, 2012 at 20:47

    Incidentally, there’s another great story from the Bragg bio of his father coming home after one of his days-long benders accompanied by a mangy greyhound on a piece of string and declaring, “Boys, our troubles are over!”.

    March 23, 2012 at 17:07

    I agree with Frank Key about the Mason voice. Watching a Burton film, my inner voice usually followed a pattern thus: isn’t this fella’s voice great, wow what charismatic stuff, the presence, absolutely spellbinding, oh I don’t know, the voice is beginning to get on my nerves now, come on a little too much surely, oh for god’s sake can’t he give it a break, why doesn’t someone tell him to put a sock in it.

    Listening to Mason on the other hand, one was spellbound all the way to the end of the film.

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