This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 20th July 2013.
BURTON AND TAYLOR
Monday, BBC4, 9pm
Tuesday, BBC3, 10pm
As an avid connoisseur of BBC4 biopics – that magical domain of dubious wigs, variable impersonations, straining budgets and questionable authenticity – I feel authorised to judge BURTON AND TAYLOR as one of their better efforts. While the casting of Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter, who bear scant physical resemblance to the legendary Dick and Liz, initially takes some getting used to, their commanding performances eventually ease any doubts.
Despite being a backstage melodrama of sorts, it largely avoids camp – which, given their famously volcanic on-off relationship, would've been the obvious, lazy route – in favour of a more melancholic tone. Set during the troubled production of their final professional collaboration, an early 1980s Broadway adaptation of Noel Coward's Private Lives (oh, the irony!), it finds Burton, aching and ageing, struggling with sobriety, while Taylor descends further into a spiral of substance abuse.
It blatantly suggests that Taylor organised the Broadway run simply as a means of spending time with the great love of her life. Burton, meanwhile, is portrayed as the consummate professional, eager to treat the play with respect, whereas his maddening and endearing ex-wife can't resist playing up to her adoring audience.
The great unwashed are portrayed in an amusingly unflattering light throughout: a pack of baying hyenas who've come, not to enjoy Coward's caustic wit, but another boisterous bout of 'The Dick and Liz Show' (which is, of course, what we're effectively watching ourselves).
While exploring the conflict between the art of “proper” acting and the trivial trappings of fame, Burton and Taylor is an ultimately rather sad study of a doomed, turbulent love affair.
Despite some heavy-handed moments, it's suffused with an effective sense of wistful regret. Key to its appeal are West and Bonham-Carter, who never slip into caricature. Granted, scenes of a drunk and maudlin Burton quoting Shakespeare soliloquies in the lonely dead of night skirt with kitsch (West resembles a despondent Michael Portillo), but one gets the impression that Burton probably did behave like this. He was An Actor, after all. And if Bonham-Carter's Taylor, with her diamonds, minks, and yapping pooches, feels at times like a parody of a film star, that's because she practically invented the cliché.
Both actors capture the yearning vulnerability and mutual adoration of their charismatic alter egos: despite being multimillionaire superstars, you're left with the impression of them as tragic, sympathetic lovers who couldn't live with or without each other. It's a surprisingly affecting drama.
Sadly, it's also the last hurrah for BBC4 drama, which was recently axed as part of the BBC's (COUGH) Delivering Quality First cost-saving initiative. But at least it bowed out with dignity.
Three-man sketch troupe Pappy's take another stab at TV glory with BADULTS, a tiresome flat-share sitcom that tries and fails to be a modern-day Goodies by way of The Young Ones (Or Filthy, Rich & Catflap: take your pick).
Despite being broad, silly and eager to please, the gags are uninspired and obvious, and the three of them seem to be playing the same noisy idiot character, albeit pitched at slightly different volumes. Its daffy spirit and intent are commendable, but no amount of good intentions can compensate for such weak material.