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Archive on 4 - review

Antonia Quirke is enthralled by the story of the making of Richard Burton.

An enthralling edition of Archive on 4 (11 August, 8pm) examined Richard Burton’s diaries, which will be published in October. Melvyn Bragg – one of RB’s biographers – presented, nicely describing the actor’s voice as “deep and Delphic” but retaining a touch of the “harshness of the schooling imposed on him by his guardian Philip Burton”.

One of 13 poor children in a mining village in southern Wales, his mother long dead and his father a truly chaotic drunk, the young Richard Jenkins was in effect adopted by his teacher Philip Burton and took his name (there is evidence to suggest that Richard was sold for £50 to Philip by his father, although Bragg does not mention this).

Philip set about remoulding his charge. From a very young age, RB had been considered ex- ceptional and teachers were forever trying to raise him up but it was only Philip who succeeded. There were recordings of PB speaking about the years he spent with RB, forcing him out on the hills to project Shakespeare until the boy wept with exhaustion. Nothing was more fascinating than the image of the harsh but suc- cessful coach.

If the Olympic Games in London confirmed one thing, it is that coaching is now thoroughly where the prestige is. In gymnastics, men stood on the mats yelling as another elf flung itself at the bar, the one adult on a bouncy castle. “Fight smart, fight smart!” screeched the judo coach, impudently – right there in shot! “The British girl’s got nothing!” So when PB recalled the teenage Burton’s voice being “raspy and uncontrolled [and] he had no range”, you found yourself really longing for (no, more expecting) the montage training sequence that would show us that pre-Burtoned voice melting, through hard work, to liquid.

One can scarcely imagine it, so thorough was the transformation, although clips of Burton speaking in the 1980s have him more booze-collapsed and Welsh-sounding than in the days when he was yelling Hamlet across the Afan Valley with tears in his eyes while Morgan Freeman, I mean Philip Burton, rapped his knuckles, again and again and again, keeping time.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality