Last Night's Viewing: Elizabeth Taylor: Auction of a Lifetime, Channel 4
Great British Menu, BBC2
It's a strange day when you find yourself grateful to Mickey Rooney for providing moral compass but, after 90 long minutes of Elizabeth Taylor: Auction of a Lifetime, that was where I found myself uttering an enfeebled cheer that someone, at last, had offered a tiny counterpoint to the programme's dazzled infatuation with glamour. Mickey, who was in at the start of Taylor's career on National Velvet, said that he thought her obsession with expensive trinkets was a bit "sad". A truly beautiful woman, he observed, doesn't really need precious stones. A truism, I guess, and not what I really hankered for, which was some Old Testament howl of rage at the shallowness of the rich (preferably backed up with a flame-thrower). But in the absence of anything better it had to do.
Elizabeth Taylor genuinely was beautiful, of course, and pretty spirited too, on the evidence of the archive here. "We haven't quarrelled in at least 48 hours," Richard Burton joked in a joint interview the couple gave. "Ha, ha..." she added meaningfully, "stick around." She also had an extraordinary presence on screen, when cast in the right things, and spoke out for people with Aids before the whole of Hollywood decided that it was a cool thing to do. But her fetish for high-end bling was surely the least attractive thing about her, rather than an added lustre to the legend, as most of the contributors here seemed to believe. "She would play with it the way a child would play with her dolls," one friend said, recalling her habit of spreading her loot on the bed and whiling away an afternoon trying it on.
There was certainly something infantile about her compulsive need for extravagant gifts and it made those who loved her almost as childish. "I get my hands on a few dollars occasionally," said her third husband, Mike Todd, "and I think there is no better way in the world of spending it than trying to spoil Elizabeth." What a cretinous failure of imagination that was. Nothing better to do with your millions than feed the acquisitive itch of a movie star? And yet this folly was so widely accepted as "glamour" that the prices achieved when her baubles were finally auctioned off vastly exceeded the Christie's estimate, based on intrinsic value alone.
Michael Waldman had constructed his film (quite effectively, it's only fair to say) around that sale, telling the stories behind the major lots, which offered a glittering aide-mémoire to Taylor's life and lovers. And it wasn't all a tedious bore. I quite enjoyed Ward Landrigan's contributions – Sotheby's head of jewellery back then and several times dispatched as bagman so that Taylor wouldn't even have to wait an extra day to get her latest trinket. When Burton bought her La Peregrina pearl (or pretended to buy it with her money), Landrigan had to deliver it to her suite at Caesars Palace, where she promptly lost it in the "Pepto-Bismol pink" shag pile. He noticed just in time that her lapdog was choking on a jewel that had been worn by Mary Tudor and several Spanish queens.
The moral tawdriness of all this couldn't go entirely unremarked even by a film as starry-eyed and uncritical as this. By the end of the Seventies, the voiceover noted cautiously, "the conspicuous consumption of their lives was veering on the decadent". Which is a bit like saying that the Hindenburg's arrival in New York didn't go entirely as planned. You did try, Mickey, but honestly, "sad" just wasn't enough.
What a feast of cliché Great British Menu has become. This year, apparently, the chefs have been "pushed to their absolute limit". They also had "so much to play for", feared that they might have "bitten off more than they can chew" and were using ingredients that "could make or break them". It's Michelin stars for the eyes, Pot Noodle for the ears.
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