Even at a time when the internet and social media have helped make public confession of private lives so much the vogue, there seems something flamboyantly behind-the-times about the publication of The Richard Burton Diaries. Is here, after all, anything left to learn, any intimate revelations due to be lifted from the closets of discretion almost 30 years after Burton's sudden death?
Admittedly, the actor's adulterous affair with Elizabeth Taylor, which flared to risky life while they were filming Cleopatra in the early 1960s, still attracts such hopeful headlines as "the scandal of the century". And the publication anywhere of adultery committed by the right starry people in all the wrong places can still induce frenzies of excitement. We have not lost our national need to be titillated.
It is though, Rupert Everett, whose Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins in 2006 signalled a remarkable talent to catch and convey the spirit of his own acting times, who reminds us that the writer's "I am a Camera" approach to life often proves more revealing than flagrant confession. The Vanished Years, which strikes me as a little, instant classic in the memoir field, sets a new standard for actors who wish to put their lives on the line. Everett, ironically inspired by a Noel Coward poem that sees the past as a source of comfort, looks back on his earlier days with eloquent melancholia, shafts of comic perception and insults directed against suitable targets.
Its chapters, in a clever unity of style, are interrelated by memories and each memory serves as a springboard for another, so that this beautifully written book moves back and forth between different time-frames. Life-long rebel with a good cause or two, especially when on his horrifying Aids-related charity visits to Cambodia and Russia, an impatient prima donna and fantasiser, Everett is a sort of ever-at-it character – loving, loathing and dreaming of becoming a superstar. He ruefully observes his dying father, his general past and those who were important in it, often during the worst of HIV-positive times, with a complex mixture of impassioned nostalgia, self-criticism, risky candour and deadpan amusement. I have never read a theatre autobiography that made me laugh and smile so much in appreciative delight.
Here he is trapped into a charity performance of The Apprentice, with Alan Sugar as the spitting image of Sid James. Everett's apprehension – a governing characteristic – grows as he joins his team (Alastair Campbell, Piers Morgan and Ross Kemp) but his pen strikes with lofty force "this band of brothers glistened with testosterone in the spotlights. The whole thing reminded me of school. Here were the same rugger buggers and bullies I had escaped all those years ago."
Escape seems to be one of Everett's driving motives. He literally does a runner from the Apprentice ordeal. He escapes more than once from public school for a little light gay bliss with a schoolmate who otherwise ignores him. He faces up to a six-month contract for Blithe Spirit on Broadway and almost at once is stricken by dreams of leaving and painful memories.
His chapter on this ordeal of long-time performance abroad paints a perfect, comic picture of demanding egotists, fantasists and narcissists – chief among whom is Rupert – while the burdens of this acting life weigh heavily down upon him. One among them is the octogenarian Angela Lansbury: "She has the eyes of an owl and the tenacity of a mountain goat," he notes, not altogether with admiration. That quality is reserved for another octogenarian, the remarkable Michael Blakemore.
Reading the Burton diaries, by contrast, amounts to a sentence of heavy labour without remission. How disappointing that there are no entries for that crucial period between 1961 and 1965 when Burton burst into the superstar heavens by falling in reciprocated love with Taylor. Scandal seekers will be dismayed that he confirms the couple, once married, settled into a decade of happiness and devotion with no major mishaps until time and alcohol draw their first union to a not very dramatic close. (Yes, he bought her the odd plane or yacht and diamonds worth millions.)
Where personal reflection or professional insight are concerned, or gossip and candour about the worlds of film and theatre, the increasingly alcoholic Burton offers just a few symptoms of significant malice and bad taste. "I love Larry [Olivier]," he notes in 1971 after the Lord has tried and understandably failed to have Burton recognised as his heir apparent for the National Theatre directorship. Even so, "He really is a shallow little man with a very mediocre intelligence but a splendid salesman."
To accuse the Duchess of Windsor to her face as "the most vulgar woman I have ever met" can be put down to drink. But to use your diary to describe the ever-slim critic Kenneth Tynan, whom he admired, as looking like "Belsen with a suit on" smacks of silly bad taste. The diaries may have been left for posterity – and the section in which the working-class schoolboy Burton reacts to the Second World War is historically valuable – but will posterity enjoy them? In the here and now, I suspect it will much prefer to savour Everett's Vanished Years.