Obituary: Philip Burton

Graham Jenkins
Saturday 11 February 1995 00:02

Philip Henry Burton, teacher, writer, producer, director: born Mountain Ash, South Wales, 30 November 1904; MBE 1945; died Haines City, Florida 28 January 1995.

Philip Burton, teacher, writer, director and an expert on Shakespeare, was the mentor and guardian of the actor Richard Burton. Their association began in Port Talbot Secondary School, where Philip Burton was the mathematics and history teacher. He also taught drama and gave the young Richard Jenkins (as he then was) his first real stage opportunity.

The Burton productions were staged at the local YMCA and were the highlight of the school year. Every budding young actor wanted to be in the cast. In November 1942 Richard played his first major role, Owen Brown, youngest brother of John, in Gallows Glorious; a part with an emotional tribute to the hero of the American Civil War which Richard made the most of. His arms outstretched, he proclaimed the glory of the Lord. Philip pleaded for restraint - ``You don't have to use a sledgehammer, a gentle tap will do the trick'' - but he was impressed and gave Richard his first broadcasting role in his own play Youth at the Helm, written for the BBC Welsh radio.

Philip Burton was born in 1904 in Mountain Ash, South Wales, of an English father and a Welsh mother. His father died in a pit accident when he was 14 and largely as a result of his mother's influence he graduated from the University of Wales in 1925 with a double honours degree in history and mathematics. During the war he was Commanding Officer of the Port Talbot ATC, 499 Squadron.

Burton was in need of a young hopeful who could fulfil, by proxy, his frustrated dreams of acting. His first protg, Owen Jones, was a clever young actor who had won a scholarship to RADA and appeared in West End plays and films before joining the RAF as a fighter pilot. His death in the Battle of Britain was a bitter blow to Burton, whose sadness for a lost talent was compounded by a strong affection for the boy. Richard Jenkins appeared as a godsend: Owen Jones all over again, but with a greater potential talent.

Philip wanted to adopt Richard, the 12th of 13 children of a coal-miner, but was 20 days too young for the requirement of being 21 years older than his adoptee. Instead Richard became his legal ward and took Burton's name by deed poll.

The young Richard's last school role was as Professor Higgins in the school production of Pygmalion. He tackled the part as an exercise in elocution for himself as much as for Eliza; the schoolmaster Philip Burton was the real-life Higgins.

Richard had his lessons on the mountains overlooking Port Talbot, and later described them as ``sheer hell''. Philip worked his pupil hard, teaching him all he knew about literature and drama, pointing the way to great writers. He showed, by rigorous elocution training, how English vowels could hone down the Welsh accent and make yet more memorable an already splendid voice. These were the only formal voice lessons Richard Burton received and within 10 years they had taken him to Stratford-upon- Avon.

After the war, Philip Burton was disappointed not to get the headship at the Secondary School, but this was to prove fortuitous as he left to become a successful BBC drama producer. In the late Fifties he moved to New York, where he became director of the American Music and Dramatic Academy and eventually an American citizen.

Philip Burton's great moment came when Richard was playing in the first production of Camelot in 1960 in Canada. Moss Hart, the show's director, collapsed and at Richard's request Philip, at the 11th hour, took over. The production was a huge success by the time it got to the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in the same year.

Richard and Philip's friendship only suffered one setback - after the ``Elizabethan affair'' with Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Cleopatra, which resulted in Richard's divorce, they did not speak for nearly four years. The reconciliation was instigated by Elizabeth Taylor in Toronto where Richard was playing Gielgud's Hamlet in modern dress.

Philip Burton will be remembered mainly for his tuition of Richard Burton, but his own gifts should not be underestimated. He was an impressive man of great intellect. Richard Burton wrote of him: ``I owe him everything.''

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in