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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear