Burton's village pays tribute to 'exiled' actor

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The Independent Online

The Welsh village of Pontrhydyfen lies in a hollow rather than a valley. It is a cosy toad-in-the-hole sort of place, surrounded by wooded hills and crossed by two tall viaducts built in the industrial age.

In the shadow of one of the structures stands the terraced house where Richard Burton was born. Two tiny plaques record the fact of his birth inside a recently built glass porch at the front. One, barely visible, pays tribute to a "world star".

It has been an unprepossessing, unsatisfactory memorial to one of the greatest actors - and Hollywood hell-raisers - of the past half century, a man whose on-screen performances and off-screen love affairs kept millions in thrall. But yesterday, at last, Burton's family attempted to give a focal point for the hundreds of fans who make the pilgrimage to the village every year.

A new stone in black marble, etched in Welsh, was laid on the family grave commemorating not only Burton's parents, but the great man himself, who is buried at Celigny, overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he had made his home. Among the 100 or so friends and family who attended a memorial service amid gentle drizzle on a hillside cemetery at Jerusalem chapel in Pontrhydyfen yesterday, one person was absent.

Thousands of miles away in California, as the male voice choir sung Welsh hymns, the ailing 74-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time, would have been thinking of events in the Welsh village.

Burton was, according to the much-married Taylor, the love of her life. Indeed, she has let it be known that she wants to be buried alongside her former husband - in Switzerland if necessary, but preferably in Wales. There has even been talk that the Welsh actor could be disinterred and reburied in his home village, but Graham Jenkins, his last surviving brother, will have none of it. His reasons are as practical and down to earth as the suggestions are romantic.

He points out that his brother was buried in Switzerland for tax reasons and repatriation of the body could still have financial implications for his estate. He believes that stories of Taylor's intentions are not credible - and he still speaks to her occasionally and exchanges Christmas cards. "Don't forget she was married to other men after Richard," he points out. Mr Jenkins, 79, a former BBC producer, hopes the new memorial will end calls for his brother's body to be brought to Wales.

Sian Owen, an actor and one of Burton's nieces, believes that visitors to the village needed a focal point for their pilgrimage. "I don't think he'll ever come back, although that was his wish earlier in life," she says.

This part of south-west Wales has not only produced coal and steel, but showbiz glitterati by the bucketload. Among them was Ray Milland, one of the first British actors to win an Oscar, and Anthony Hopkins, who caught the world's attention as Hannibal Lecter.

Pontrhydyfen, however, is not given to blowing its own trumpet. A few miles up the Afan valley from the steel-making coastal town of Port Talbot, the village was a place where working-class families spoke Welsh, where English was an intriguing intruder which had to be mastered.

Some, like Burton, took to the tongue with distinction. But his was not a promising beginning. He was born Richard Walter Jenkins, one of 13 children to Edith and Dick Jenkins, a coal miner. His mother died when he was an infant and he was brought up by a sister. His stage name came from Philip Burton, his teacher and mentor who in effect became his adoptive father.

After studying at Oxford University, he became the star of the Old Vic, then moved into films.

Periodically, Burton would go back home, top up with Evans Bevans Best bitter and distribute cash to local children through the window of a Rolls-Royce.

The family hopes yesterday's memorial ceremony and the new gravestone will achieve "closure" over calls for his repatriation. Some at the service felt he had finally come home, but others said privately that the great actor needed to return to Wales.