By Steve Howell, reporting from Los Angeles
The setting was movie star – a Beverley Hills mansion with lavish lawn and pool – but the cast and content was steeped in Wales.
The launch in Los Angeles last Thursday of the Richard Burton diaries could have been a metaphor for the life of a man who charmed Hollywood with talents shaped by his home country.
Burton won seven Oscar nominations from performances in films as diverse as Becket and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was known for his tempestuous relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. And he was fond of extravagant purchases of jets, diamonds and lavish homes.
Yet the diaries, published this month by Yale University Press, tell of a man generous in his support of the arts, sensitive to the issues of the day and so patriotic he displayed a Welsh flag on his briefcase and supported Germany against England in the 1966 World Cup final.
Opening the LA launch, the editor of the diaries, Professor Chris Williams from Swansea University recalled how another great actor, Sir John Gielgud, had said Richard Burton ‘came from nowhere’.
“That remark, if it is true, illustrates a failure of understanding on the part of Sir John,” said Professor Williams. “We know that Richard Burton didn’t come from nowhere, he came from a South Wales the rich texture of whose culture is evident in the first diary that Richard Walter Jenkins wrote as a fourteen year old growing up on the shores of Swansea Bay.
“The entries constitute a remarkably un-self-conscious commentary on the cultural and social world of the future Richard Burton, well before he could have had any inkling of what awaited him in life.
“What emerges very strongly from his schoolboy diary is Richard’s intense competitiveness, his brash self-confidence, his rootedness within a full sense of community. And his ambition.”
The diaries span the period from 1939, when Burton was 14, to 1983, the year before his death, and run to some 390,000 words. They were given to Swansea University by Richard’s widow Sally in 2005 as part of an archive that also includes correspondence, photographs, books, film posters, recordings, scripts and cuttings.
Swansea University Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Davies told the launch that Burton was one of a long line of Welsh actors, poets and authors who had been acclaimed globally.
“To understand them you need to understand where they have come from,” he said. “We have archives at Swansea University to be able to research the backgrounds of these iconic Welsh men and understand more clearly their literary and artistic contribution.
“And then we want to be able to take this out to the world because these are global figures. We’re pleased to be able to take some of Wales out to the world.”
The launch saw extracts from the diaries being brought to life by people who have followed in his thespian footsteps: Andrew Howard, Ioan Gruffudd and Kate Burton, Richard’s daughter.
Hosted at the home of the British Consul in Los Angeles, Dame Barbara Hay, it was sponsored by the Welsh Government. The book is available through bookstores, online booksellers and at www.yalebooks.com