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Despite being acknowledged as an excellent actor both on stage and in films, Richard Burton is largely remembered for his tempestuous marriages to Elizabeth Burton, and his enormous capacity for alcohol.  Melvyn Bragg’s excellent biography delves into his life, to reveal that there was far far more to Burton – that he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, a voracious reader, that he was plagued by guilt over his children, and generous to a fault.

Burton’s notebooks (essentially a diary) which he started during his life with Elizabeth Taylor were released to Bragg by Burton’s widow Sally, and here they appear (albeit abridged) for the first time in print.  After describing Burton’s tough but loving childhood and adolescence, and marriage to first wife Sybil, Bragg wisely lets his own writing take a back seat to Burton’s words, as he reproduces large sections of the notebooks.  (It is worth noting that the notebooks have since been released in their entirety as The Richard Burton Diaries; I have a copy of this and intend to read it very soon, but Bragg’s biography is useful in that it provides context.)  I thoroughly enjoyed reading Burton’s words – he was incredibly witty (I laughed out loud on several occasions, particularly when he described social situations), certainly wry, and often melancholy.

The biography is clearly meticulously researched, and while Bragg is never sycophantic, he is always respectful of his subject.  What I did find unusual at first, was that in many ways, it was also a study of Burton the man.  Bragg would offer his own opinion as to Burton’s motivations for certain actions, and it felt as if he was trying to understand certain events in this very interesting life, rather than just relate them.  However, this did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, and actually demonstrated the author’s great interest in his subject.

The book was written with the collaboration of many of Burton’s family and friends, and refreshingly, does not just focus on the more scandalous areas of his life; it concerns itself equally with Burton’s Welsh family, his career, his life after ‘the Elizabethan period’ and of course, his premature death at a time which tragically came at a time when he seemed to have his life back on track.

It’s a thick book – 600+ pages – but so well written, and so very interesting, that I found myself reading huge chunks at a time.  Anybody interested in Richard Burton, or indeed in acting in general, should certainly read this – I strongly recommend it, and will definitely be keeping it to read again in the future.

(For more information about Richard Burton, please click here.)

 

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