Little Brown, £20; Yale, £30. Order both titles at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Vanished Years, By Rupert Everett, The Richard Burton Diaries, Edited by Chris Williams

With thespian memoirs, a teasing maverick outshines a stiff superstar

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory