I had a delicious dinner on Saturday night at The Bear Hotel in Woodstock, which will be the subject of my restaurant column in a few weeks’ time. During the meal, I thought more than once of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who were regular guests at the hotel. There are various mentions of the place in The Richard Burton Diaries (just published by Yale, at £25, and highly recommended for their honesty and wit). A typically ‘starry’ visit occurred in October 1967 when the couple sped straight there after landing in their private jet “by special permission” at RAF Abingdon.
Burton was due in Oxford that weekend for two days of high-profile academic activity of the sort that punctuated his life during his years of fame. It was a long-held conceit of his that he would one day give up his hard-drinking, jet-setting ways and settle down as a don here. It was never to be.
At the time of his death in 1984, I invited readers of The Oxford Times to consider just how much he had done for the university and city. There was, of course, the cash for the Burton Taylor Theatre beside the Playhouse, and another well-publicised gift of £100,000 to St Peter’s College, one of whose dons, Francis Warner, was a close pal.
Burton lunched with him at The Bear (the diaries record) on November 21, 1975. This was an interruption in a day that was otherwise spent at the Playhouse and in giving students a seminar on William Shakespeare at St Peter’s, as depicted in the photograph above.
I sat in on the discussion, and later interviewed Burton about it. I recall the occasion vividly — and especially the presence of a pushy radio reporter who, in the arrogant way of many broadcast journalists, tried to barge in on the interview by shoving her microphone under his nose. “Can’t you see I am talking to this gentlemen,” he snapped. “Wait your turn.”
What Burton was telling me about were his plans to star the following year in a production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the Playhouse and the year after that in King Lear. Though I dutifully reported this, neither show was destined to take place.
His academic duties that day completed, Burton was joined at a party in the evening by Miss Taylor, whom he had married for the second time the month before at a game park in Botswana. They marked their reunion by cutting a special cake at St Peter’s.
The Oxford Times’s picture of the event (see right) was borrowed for use by one of the student newspapers, which had not been represented. The undergraduates repaid the favour by captioning the picture (in Private Eye style) “spot the social climber”. That climber — sipping wine behind the Burtons in a horrible 1970s suit — was me.
Barely a blip in the actor’s eventful life, the whole event is tersely described in his diaries: “Cheap. Everything very shabby. Clothes [my suit?], cars etc. Students unattractive. Beer warm. Depressing. Glad to get to bed.”
As for that warm beer, none was drunk by Burton who at that time was strictly on the wagon, a condition of his remarriage to Miss Taylor (who was herself glugging scotch on the rocks).
There were, in fact, long periods of sobriety for the actor (which is when he tended to keep his diary up to date). A few weeks before the St Peter’s visit, though, there are six consecutive one-word entries reading simply “booze”. The day seven entry reads: “Went into clinic late afternoon”.