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

SSPL/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war