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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

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis