Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Inner Voices- the Burton Diaries

Radio Arts Feature

BBC Wales , Radio 4 and i-Player , August 15, 2012
Radio Arts Feature by BBC Wales "Inner Voices- the Burton Diaries” is a mesmerising hour. It soars for a simple reason. Radio focuses on what made Richard Burton great, his voice. It is a commonplace, repeated here, that the Burton films cumulatively are a hopeless collection. A persistent, plummy voiced questioner at a press conference here declares that the young Burton was hailed as the greatest stage actor that England [sic] has ever produced. Not only is he rapped sharply by a feisty Elizabeth Taylor but there is Burton’s own impatience with the stage: “Theatre is not my first love, I snap.”

“Inner Voices- the Burton Diaries” has a string of enlightening commentators, Philip Burton, John Gielgud, Emlyn Williams, Harold Hobson, Michael Billington, Dai Smith and others. Melvyn Bragg was first shown the diaries nearly thirty years ago. His script is a good job in the hands of a writer. The young Burton on stage has “the piercing wide-apart, blue-green watchful eyes, the fine warrior head, the fierce mouth, his confidence, his anger, the sudden lapses into nervousness, his charm”. The programme’s last interviewee is Andrew Sinclair. Of the voice he speaks of its “mysteries and graces and depths…I think he will live forever on his radio recording of “Under Milk Wood.”

Producer Jeremy Grange has one considerable advantage. That is the voice of actor Josh Richards. He animates the dairies with a voice whose imitative intonation is perfect. In Bragg’s words the Archive, now held by Swansea University, “throws light on a more considered, compassionate, insightful, self-aware man”.

The Diaries are due for publication this winter. From Josh Richards’ reading their literary qualities are considerable. Burton himself voices his motivation: “it clears my mind, it straightens me out, about various things, various aspects of the human condition.”

Much of the life may have been spent in Switzerland’s Celigny but Wales’ presence is eternal; “our voices were born with coal dust and rain and some sort of authentic mystery from those dark and tortured valleys.” He states that Chapel provided a home for many with acting ability. In the pulpit “you stood hovering like a great bird of prey…and said “let me examine your soul.”

Listening to a male voice choir he writes “this hymn is driving me melancholy mad...revive me with a breeze from Calvary “ The entry for 24 July 1969 reads “There is no going back, there is no Isaiah's burning coal to cauterise a lifetime of self-indulgence…Go home said George Moore to John Millington Synge, go home I've got news for you, Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home no more.”

News of Burton’s death precedes bulletins from 1984's Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The day of the programme’s transmission has a timeliness to it in that Burton's preparation has an Olympic fixity of purpose to it. The talent may have been innate but the training was gruelling, “two years of hell.” Schoolwork would be over by four in the afternoon. Philip Burton’s tuition then lasted until ten at night: “that sitting room became a place of terror.”

Bragg recalls that the last fragmentary diary entries include “our revels now have ended”. The programme’s first recording is from Hamlet. “What is this…quintessence...of dust?” is phrased with deep pauses to riveting effect.

The BBC in 2012 had a bad Jubilee. It made good with the Olympics. But doing the big commercial events is just a part of public service broadcasting. It breathes by a thousand small glories; this is one of them. It is a pity that the contribution made by Josh Richards has been wholly erased from the corporation’s website.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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