Goodbye to a good egg

Sifting through the on-air tributes to Elizabeth Taylor.

“There's £100m here, set aside to repair potholes," said a BBC 5 Live presenter during the Budget special. "But, first, the headlines at one. Tributes are being paid to Elizabeth Taylor, who has died of heart failure at the age of 79 . . ." An immediate cut to the moment in Cleopatra when Taylor - wearing a swimming cap covered in electrodes, with sweat on her bazookas like a hot, peach ice lolly - begs Richard Burton not to tarry in Rome ("I don't want you to forget me, pleasssse!").

Elsewhere on the BBC, it was the same clip and same promise - of tributes that we never quite got to hear. "Tributes have been pouring in . . . In the many tributes to Elizabeth Taylor": it was as if there was an unspoken agreement between listener and station that luncheon simply was not the moment to sift though the chums lining up to flatter.

But Heat FM was all over it, with Elton John and similar exotica crowding the lawns. Alexandra Burke said Taylor was "the last of the Hollywood greats". George Michael said: "We have lost a Hollywood giant." Never have the terms "bona fide icon", "genuine star" and "the real deal" been so deployed across all networks.

On Radio 4's PM, Martha Kearney spoke to the actor John Standing, who gave the impression that he had been leaning against the fireplace fulminating since dawn: "I'll never forget this ravishing girl, this bona fide star. All through dinner, she complained about getting gas." "That doesn't quite fit," sniffed Martha. (In reality, Taylor's arse was a catastrophe. Burton used to call her "Bumsy" because of her haemorrhoids.)

On US radio, the scope was headier. The Americans particularly cherished the detail that, as a young woman, she had formed a club called "Slob" with a friend - "Single, Lonely, Obliging Babes". Back on Radio 4, Sarah Montague spoke to Angela Lansbury on Today. (Lansbury: "She was a good egg. Do you know what I mean by that?" Montague: "But did you like her?") On the World Service, mysteriously little was said. Taylor only made it in as the 15th news item on Europe Today after a report on Hennessy cognac's takeover of Bulgari. At least they were brands that the actress loved.

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 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?