This Monday evening BBC4 will hand down a much-needed reminder of duty to shiftless famous people, while giving the civilian majority a glimpse of what we’ve been missing in this miserable excuse for a celebrity age.
This reminder is Burton and Taylor, starring Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter as the original celebrity couple. It’s set during Liz and Dick’s brief reunion in a 1983 stage production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Expect jealousy, expect jewels, expect boozy rows and a love affair as timeless as it is toxic.
We expect nothing of the sort from modern celebrity pairings. Mulligan and Mumford, Keira Knightley and her Klaxon even the otherwise exemplary Brad ‘n’ Ang insist on drawing a po-faced distinction between public performance and private romance. Their weddings are stingily limited to two or three in number and they refuse to divulge details of their love lives in interviews. An entirely dignified way to safeguard your sanity and relationship? Sure. But also a deal reneged on.
This deal, laid down back when men were Richard Burton and showmanship was a sacred creed, is this: you, the star, get to go to the swanky parties, wear the fabulous clothes and live in the extravagant mansions – in obscene contrast to our daily drudgery. In exchange, we, the hoi polloi, get something worth gossiping about.
So while for accountants, plumbers and nurses it may be considered unprofessional to take your romantic tribulations into work with you, for movie stars it is unprofessional not to. On-screen chemistry sells box office tickets and makes films fizz. This believable sense that a couple might be doing it in real life is notoriously hard to capture on screen. It helps if they actually are.
No doubt it was a solid sense of professional duty which prompted Burton to saunter over to Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963) and introduce himself with the words: “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” It can’t have been curiosity, since by then Elizabeth Taylor was a Hollywood veteran of 19 years, commonly referred to as “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
Naturally, a romance ensued. Both parties were already married to other people – a trivial detail that was no impediment to their passion, but it did lead the Vatican to condemn them both as “erotic vagrants”. Did you hear that, Kanye and Kim? Erotic vagrants! It’s the kind of spicy epithet that no amount of leaked sex tapes can buy you.
With such a bounty of material to work with, Burton And Taylor can’t fail to entertain. Enjoy it, but please don’t be so dazzled by the dramatic arts on display that you forget to consider the most salient question of all: Would Dominic and Helena ever do it in real life, or what?