Richard Burton diaries reveal actor's passion and shame

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a scene from the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Image caption Richard Burton helped his wife Elizabeth Taylor win an Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, according to Melvyn Bragg

He was the boy from the Welsh valleys whose rugged looks and voice of gold made him a star of stage and screen.

Elizabeth Taylor was already a Hollywood star. And when she and Richard Burton met, their love both on and off camera became a global sensation.

The passion and the turbulence between Burton and Taylor is laid bare in his diaries, to be published in the autumn.

He wrote more than 400,000 words in pocketbooks, desk diaries and loose paper until just before his death at the age of 58 in 1984.

Unsurprisingly, they include much about his volatile relationship with Taylor, which included marrying her twice. He is also frank about his drinking, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent and the career that brought him such success.

The Burton-Taylor story began in 1963 when they met on the set of Cleopatra, at the time the most expensive film ever made.

Just like the parts the played in the film, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, they became the most famous couple on the planet.

They were the pinnacle of the 60s jet set - Burton even bought Taylor a private jet - yet their temperaments and talents were in constant conflict with the passion they aroused in each other.

He was gifted son of a Welsh miner whose escape to Oxford helped him become a man of erudition, insight and self-knowledge, as well as a hell-raiser.

In Taylor, he met his match, and someone who could bring him to heel.

In November 1968, he wrote: "I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a model man but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody's fool.

Image caption Burton said Taylor was his 'greatest luck of all': They married twice

"She is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and wilful, she is clement and loving. She is Sunday's child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her and she loves me."

The following year, he wrote: "I awoke this morning at about 7 o'clock. I stared at Elizabeth for a long time. I held her hand and kissed her very gently. Probably no woman sleeps with such childish beauty as my adorable difficult fractious intolerant wife."

Burton's generosity extended to more than just buying his wife expensive treats. It also included helping her towards the Oscar he was never able to win, according to one of his biographers, Melvyn Bragg.

In his hour-long BBC programme on the man and his writings, Inner Voices - The Burton Diaries, Bragg notes that it is obvious to those who look carefully how Burton coaxed an Oscar-winning performance from his wife when they played opposite each other in the 1966 drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Burton and Taylor were married first from 1964 to 1974 and then again from 1975 to 1976. He married five times in all.

His diaries were left to Sally Hay, who Burton married in 1983, the year before he died in Switzerland in 1984. She gave them to Swansea University in 2005.

'Secretly ashamed'

They contain references to a claim that dogged him throughout his life - that he had somehow squandered his talent by working for the big bucks of Hollywood when others would have preferred him to continue on the stage, in London and not on Broadway.

In August 1971, he wrote: "My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total. All my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.

"And I think it resolves itself into a firm belief that the person who's doing the acting is somebody else."

Like his father, Burton died from a cerebral haemorrhage. He died at his home in August 1984.

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Professor Chris Willliams, of Swansea University, will be published by Yale University Press in October.

More on this story

Around the BBC