Will we miss the BBC4 biopic? Judging by Burton and Taylor, yes, I think we will

Come on Tony Hall! Trim a few salaries from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and you'll be a hero: it's that simple.

Burton and Taylor
BBC4
 
So, farewell then, the BBC4 biopic – unless the high-ups wake up and give you a reprieve. (Come on Tony Hall! Save the BBC4 biopic, get Test cricket back on the BBC, find a way to trim the salaries of Jeremy Clarkson and a few others, and you’ll be a hero: it’s that simple.) Will we miss you? Yes, I think we will. 
 
Naturally, there have been a few misses. I wasn’t mad about Christopher Eccleston doing John Lennon (creepy), and it was hard to care too much when Trevor Eve played the TV host Hughie Green, magnificent though his performance was. But there were tons of hits, too. My highlights: The Long Walk to Finchley, starring the scuttling Andrea Riseborough as a young Margaret Thatcher, and Fantabulosa! in which Michael Sheen, flared of nostril and tight of trouser, was a dead ringer for poor, sad Kenneth Williams.
 
The last ever BBC biopic starred Dominic West as Richard Burton and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor (22 July, 9pm). Wow. I didn’t entirely buy Bonham Carter as Taylor, though her acting was superlative (film-star spoilt is harder to play convincingly than you might think). But West, I totally bought. It was like watching Burton only . . . better. West is a more accomplished actor than Burton, or at any rate, a less hammy one, and he is twice as sexy, if you ask me. The voice – coal wrapped in velvet – was perfect (“the theatrical equivalent of a big cock,” said this version of Burton, when Taylor praised it), and the manner was suitably retro: Terry-Thomas meets Dylan Thomas. I can’t believe there is a man alive who looks better in a camel pea coat than West.
 
The best biopics are built around an extended moment, not the entirety of a life. In this case, its writer, William Ivory, had landed on 1983, when Burton and Taylor, already twice married and twice divorced, appeared together on Broadway in a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The production was a commercial smash hit – the crowds longing, as Burton put it, “to see us happen in front of them” – but a critical disaster, the press lining up to laugh at Taylor’s bizarre accent and weird posture (she was addicted to various pills by this stage). 
 
Shortly after the production ended, Taylor was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic for rehab. Burton, meanwhile, retreated to Switzerland with his new wife, Sally – where, nine months later, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of just 58. 
 
Ivory’s writing was great. I’ve never had a problem understanding why Taylor was attracted to Burton; he was a real man – “You’re all the men who ever lived,” as Ivory had it – and he wouldn’t let her get away with stuff. But only as I watched this film did I grasp why he kept coming back for more. As Ivory had him explain, he was able to trust Taylor with his most abject side – being such a mess herself, she was not one to judge. And the best stage actor of his generation admired her way with the camera. He felt, unlike some, that she really could act. In one scene of the biopic, he told his assistant about Cleopatra, the 1964 picture on which he and Taylor first met. She was, he recalled, “all tits and make-up” and she seemed, as they said their respective lines, hardly to be moving at all: “I thought she’d had a bloody stroke, or something.” But then he saw the rushes, and he realised that she didn’t have to move. “She just became Cleopatra.”
 
Somehow, you believed this line, for all that it followed an excruciating rehearsal scene in which Taylor appeared with her entourage and promptly admitted that she hadn’t yet read Private Lives. (Burton was exasperated by this but not for his own sake so much as for hers: he knew she was about to make a fool of herself and couldn’t bear it.) 
 
But perhaps this feeling – one’s sense that Burton’s fondness for Taylor was realitybased and ongoing rather than a romantic fiction – also had something to do with the fact that, naughtily, the BBC costume department had made Bonham Carter look more Taylor circa 1973 than Taylor circa 1983. No cliff-sized shoulder pads, no megaperm, no radar-sized dangly earrings: this was a good taste version of Eighties Taylor and it made you feel sad for her, rather than – as was really the case – ever so slightly repulsed.
 
Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West as Burton and Taylor. Photograph: BBC/Gustavo Papaleo.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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