So buzzworthy was the former Cleopatra that, as BBC Four’s recent witty drama argues, it was probably the promise of a Burton & Taylor off-stage romance that filled seats in their 1983 revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. An apt title, if there ever was one; for who bared their love of booze and diamonds more openly than these two?
Helena Bonham Carter is terrific as Taylor, all kitten-eye and Coca Cola. As she whips up her dish of childishness and bitter pride, humanity and heartbreak, we can only gaze in awe at the fearsome talent that’s been brushed under Tim Burton wigs and gothic make-up for the past decade.
When she approaches Richard, after their second divorce, to star together on stage, it’s hard not to feel sympathy at her thinly-veiled attempt to rekindle her fondest romance. Cut to two-thirds in when Liz is crying in a limo, having been cut more savagely by the media than she ever could’ve predicted, and you’ll be carving BAFTAs out of anything you can find.
The Hour‘s Dominic West, meanwhile, nails that infamous Burton voice – “the theatrical equivalent of a big cock”, he muses at one point. But it’s not mere imitation that earns him points here; it’s his handling, thanks in no small part to the script by William Ivory’s (Minder, Made in Dagenham), of a character who is both infatuated and infuriated with a woman he can’t help tearing apart.
In fact, Ivory and director Richard Laxton deserve praise for steering well clear of the soapy mess this could have been, instead choosing to create sparks between the protagonists with the flints they keep in their pockets.
Kudos must also go to Ben Collins and Sophie Chowdhury for their marvellous design work, which adds yet more class to this stylish drama.
Those who’ve seen the real Burton & Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, essentially airing their liquor-stained laundry on screen, will likely yearn for that level of intensity, and find it conspicuously missing here. However, if what you want is to see a great double act play a great double act, this is just the ticket.
Released on DVD on Monday 26 August 2013 by BBC Worldwide.
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