Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood's star-crossed lovers return

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor couldn't live with each other, and couldn't live without each other. Now Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are playing them in a TV drama. The duo tell Gerard Gilbert how they channelled the superstar couple

Noel Coward's 1930 play Private Lives is currently enjoying a West End revival with Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor as Elyot and Amanda, the divorced couple honeymooning with their new spouses in adjoining rooms in the same hotel in Deauville. Jonathan Kent's production has earned the sort of glowing notices entirely absent from the 1983 Broadway revival in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – he newly sober, she constantly half-cut on booze and pills – took the lead roles.

The Boston Globe described the 51-year-old Taylor's performance as “perfectly terrible… a caricature of Coward's heroine, inside a caricature of an actress, inside a caricature of Elizabeth Taylor”. Not that the reviews hurt business because the American public flocked to the chance to see art mirror life as the world's most famous divorcees portrayed the abusively co-dependent Elyot and Amanda. As it was, Taylor had problems holding it together, arriving drunk at rehearsals, ferociously mugging to the audience and hoping against hope to win back her (twice) ex-husband. There's a great New York magazine article from the time, headlined “The Liz and Dick Show”, which can found on the internet, and now there's also a surprisingly enjoyable BBC4 biopic, Burton and Taylor, about this troubled theatre tour.

I write “surprisingly enjoyable” because, while Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter were superficially great casting as the famous lovers, I feared they might also be entirely wrong. In the event both actors are terrific, although Bonham Carter admits to having had serious misgivings. “Potentially it was a very stupid thing to do,” she says when we meet. “There's lots of ways to get it wrong. A really good friend of mine [Victoria Brynner, daughter of Yul Brynner] was Taylor's goddaughter, so I phoned her up and asked her if I should do it. It's a basic respect thing… I didn't want to offend anybody who knew her.”

Bonham Carter, who began her career as a Merchant-Ivory poster girl after her 1985 breakthrough in A Room with a View, but who has since blossomed in far more unpredictable directions – from Fight Club to Planet of the Apes by way of Les Misérables to the last four Harry Potter movies (in which she played the villainess Bellatrix Lestrange), while becoming her partner Tim Burton's gothic muse.

The 47-year-old actor says she buried herself in “countless biographies… I'm a bit of a swot,” but also took the unusual step of consulting an astrologer. “She's really good at distilling people's characteristics and said, 'the problem you're going to have is that you're a Gemini and you're all about air and thinking. Elizabeth Taylor was Pisces through and through… all that liquid…”

All that liquid indeed. Back in 1983, Taylor was just months from checking herself into the Betty Ford Centre. Burton on the other hand, was a year away from his early death from heart failure. He was also sober, in a new marriage (to make-up artist Sally Hay) and obsessed with playing King Lear rather than being paid $70,000 a week to be gawped at in “The Liz and Dick Show” (Bonham Carter mischievously dubs this BBC4 biopic, with the Wimbledon Theatre standing in for Broadway, “Liz and Dick on the Cheap”).

West is an actor who has consistently made brave choices since returning to the UK from his six-year stint as Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty in HBO's The Wire – not least his serial killer Fred West in ITV's Bafta-winning Appropriate Adult. He is unexpectedly moving as Burton, and convincing too, even from behind, slouching down the street in a mink coat. His biggest hurdle, he says, was Burton's voice. “It's the one thing everybody knows him for. In fact the only time I ever really got the voice was after a night's heavy drinking and smoking.”

Indeed, on the eve of one day's dubbing in the editing suite, West says he got deliberately inebriated in order to help him re-produce Burton's basso profundo. “I went to Wimbledon [for tennis] and tried to get as pissed as I could,” he says. “Pimm's… I don't suppose Burton would drink Pimm's.”

West didn't bother perfecting a Welsh lilt. “In fact I was always in danger of doing it too much because Burton had a funny accent,” he says. “He came from Wales obviously, but it owed much more to Olivier's Richard III than the Valleys. So he had this weird sort of Oxford accent and I never got it right.” He did however visit Burton's childhood home of Pontrhydyfen in the Afen Valley. “You sort of got the romance of his being a miner's son and being one of 13 children and his mum dying when he was two and coming from this place to be the biggest star in the world and married to the most beautiful woman.”

William Ivory's deft script brings out Burton and Taylor's deep but destructive love for each other, but also Burton's yearning for something more worthy – a longing, says West, that he recognised. “My mum always wanted me to do RSC and Shakespeare and stuff, and I grew up very in awe of that Fifties generation of Olivier, of which Burton is a protégé. [I understood] his conflict of coming from the British tradition of theatre and doing a tour on Broadway of Private Lives instead of doing King Lear.

“Embodied in their relationship is the fact that she was Hollywood and he was a great Shakespearean.”

But while Burton had the theatrical pedigree, he also understood that, at her best, Taylor possessed the cinematic instincts. Or, as West's Burton says wistfully of their most famous celluloid appearance together – in Joseph L Mankiewicz's insanely grandiose 1963 epic Cleopatra: “I was acting Antony… she was Cleopatra.”

West and Bonham Carter have an easy, jocular chemistry – the latter at one point producing a battery-operated “voice box”, which broadcasts raucous hilarity and applause at the flick of a switch and which the actors used while filming scenes from Private Lives to an empty auditorium at the Wimbledon Theatre. They cheerfully disagree on several matters, including the extent to which Burton and Taylor needed the attention of their celebrity. “They couldn't live without publicity,” says West. “I disagree,” cuts in Bonham Carter. “I think that she really didn't.”

Bonham Carter herself is one half of a Hollywood glamour couple – partner of director Tim Burton since 2001 and with homes in London and LA. “No, we're quite different,” she says of their level of celebrity in comparison to Burton and Taylor's. “There are paparazzi around, but not like that. We don't need to have bodyguards.”

Contact lenses were used to turn Bonham Carter's brown eyes violet, but how did she manage to look quite so voluptuous? “I didn't wear padding,” she says. “I played the Queen Mother (in The King's Speech) and someone said, 'I loved the way you fattened up'. I didn't… I just ate, and the thing I love about Elizabeth is that she wasn't afraid of being curvy. She loved chicken and mashed potatoes and buckets of chocolate Toblerone. The voice was harder to get. She had a million different ones… there were lots of Elizabeths going on.”

Bonham Carter quickly realised how few of Taylor's movies she had actually seen. “I kept going back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” she says, referring to Mike Nichols's 1966 film of Edward Albee's play about warring spouses in academia, for which Burton was nominated for, but Taylor won, an Oscar. “That Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was interesting,” interjects West. “She didn't go to pick it up because he wasn't going to win it and she was, and she wanted to shelter him and his male ego [from] being bruised by mega-stardom.”

So, I wonder, after all her research and horoscope readings, did Bonham Carter end up actually liking her subject? “I've got a great friend who's a biographer,” says Bonham Carter. “And he just prays that by the end of seven years that he takes to write the thing that he still likes the person. And often it doesn't happen. But the more and more you found about her, you just adored her more and more and had more and more respect for the woman.”

West believes, rightly or wrongly, that, for viewers under the age of 30, none of this will matter because few of them will have even heard of Burton or Taylor. “That's the nature of fame, I guess,” he says, not looking too unhappy about it. “You're the most famous person in the world for 20 years and nobody's heard of you 10 years later.

'Burton and Taylor' is on Monday at 9pm on BBC4

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