Falling Stars

Alan Coren

  • Richard Burton by Paul Ferris
    Weidenfeld, 212 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 297 77966 4
  • Peter Sellers by Alexander Walker
    Weidenfeld, 240 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 297 77965 6

It is not easy to determine which is the better book. Richard Burton was printed by Butler and Tanner Limited, Peter Sellers by the Fakenham Press, and since the one establishment is in Somerset and the other in Norfolk, it is fair to absolve both of them from the sort of catchpenny opportunist hustling which these days has the publishing world of London by the throat. They are merely carrying out orders; they do not know what is going on.

At first glance, the Fakenham book seems better: Peter Sellers has a larger and more attractive type face, is more elegantly laid out, and far more securely bound. Richard Burton, on the other hand, has a truly tatty old Plantin type, a ghastly monolithic headline face, and is so appallingly stitched together that its gatherings lie between the covers like the contents of a particularly irregular club sandwich.

However, since the effect of these two manufacturing processes has been merely to ensure that the Sellers volume looks more readable, we would be unwise to jump to any value-judgments lurking in that word ‘better’: my personal view is that, given the quality of the two texts, a responsible printer would have gone out of his way to make them as unappealing as possible to the browsing bookshopper, and with this premise, the better job is unquestionably the little Somerset number from Butler & Tanner.

Costing must have figured in this Weidenfeld quality-control decision: since both books are being shovelled out at £7.95, it follows that the publishers must have taken shrewd squinnies at the relative profit-margins. More money has been spent on Sellers, because Sellers will shift more copies. This is partly because Sellers is dead, and when the little-old-lady market pulls out its hankies, money falls to the floor, and the little old ladies gladly cough up the wherewithal for a memento mori to carry home and stick under a short harmonium leg.

Many of them, of course, will read it, which may also explain why the Sellers type face is larger: the text may be read through tears, undistorted. I know this, because I have tried it, and the fact that my own tears sprang from other sources than grief in no way invalidates the findings of the experiment.

Had I been Paul Ferris, I should certainly have waited until Burton had popped his Gucci clogs: not only would such patience have been rewarded by an exponential expansion of the little-old-lady market (not to say the dirty-old-lady market), it might also have resulted in the discovery of things to write about Richard Burton. One of Mr Ferris’s major problems, apart from having to work out the always-tricky equation between reputation and rent-money, was that people didn’t really want to talk to him about Richard Burton. This wasn’t just because Richard Burton is so numbingly boring that anything written about him should be marketed not alongside books but alongside Valium: it was because Burton’s associates clearly couldn’t trust themselves to say anything while the great man still walked this earth, in company with his bodyguards and lawyers.

Poor Mr Ferris actually gives us a list of people who wouldn’t talk about his hero: these include Claire Bloom, Alexander Cohen, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Sir John Gielgud, Hugh Griffiths, Joseph Losey, James Mason, Vincente Minnelli, Mike Nichols, Rachel Roberts, Daphne Rye, Jean Simmons, and three of his wives, Sybil Christopher, Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Hunt. I particularly enjoyed the parenthesis Mr Ferris appended to Hugh Griffith’s name in the list of non-runners – ‘Hugh Griffith (who said no before he died)’ – clearing up, as it did, any confusion in the minds of those of us who always thought that Hugh Griffith said no after he died.

The list, you will notice, contains a large number of people with whom Mr Burton has slept, albeit fitfully, and it is therefore a pretty damning sort of a list to find on the preliminary pages. Most of us reading the biography of a film star do not give a monkey’s about whether he was any good at rugby or which part he mouthed in his first school play: we want to know what he was like in the sack. Here we are, after all, presented with an international superstud who keeps on marrying the most voluptuous lady in celluloid history, do we not have the right, for £7.95, to know whether he could cut the mustard?

Not, mind, that in the case of Peter Sellers such slivers of pillow-watching as come Mr Walker’s way bring us much closer. Indeed, there is a strong suggestion that the isobutyl nitrate he was taking to help weld the nocturnal bond between him and the sprightly Britt Ekland contributed directly to that first heart attack which led, as they sadly will, to that last heart attack. If this biochemical nugget is as accurate as it seems, the story is so fraught with moral object lessons as to be totally imponderable.

Why is their sexual record the only thing sensible people wish to know about film stars? It is because there is nothing else that sensible people need to know. That is why their biographies are almost invariably rotten. Actors are, by trade, people who open and shut their mouths in order that other people’s words may get out: if their public performances work, there is nothing else about them which is of any real consequence whatever. Biography should be about those whose private lives have shaped careers which have influenced the course of history, the pattern of a society, the texture of a culture, written in such a way that the biographer establishes the relationship between the hitherto veiled life and the parallel public career and influence. Biography is about horseshoe nails, and it is worthwhile only if the elucidation is, in every sense, significant. With actors, it has no significance at all: Napoleon and Garrick both suffered from haemorrhoids, but only Napoleon’s were important.

Both Ferris and Walker go to great lengths to explain what lay behind the lousy films of their two subjects, but need we give the matter a moment’s thought? Certainly, good actors, good interpretations, good performances are essential to a healthy culture, but the private hells or happinesses that may have made them so are of no consequence whatever to anyone but doting fans.

And to fans, as to anyone else wading through them and treating them simply as narratives with characters, these are two intensely depressing books. Decline of any talent through obvious mismanagement is of course always dispiriting, and, personally, if anyone was going to decline I should prefer it to be actors rather than, say, writers or surgeons, for the reasons hereinabove set down, but at the same time it must be said that there is something singularly gloomy about the public spectacle of deterioration, and nobody over the past few tabloid years has been either more public or more deteriorated than Sellers and Burton, as their emotional and physical dismemberment has been dragged past the flash bulbs from one VIP airport lounge to another.

Especially as it is not always easy to share their self-pity: that, in their depths, both Sellers and Burton were racked with nostalgia for the great days of Major Bloodnok and Henry V, and also with regret at having come so far to have arrived nowhere as good, is something with which we can only briefly sympathise: a moment later, we cannot help but find ourselves asking why, if that was the case, Sellers and Burton did not give up Hollywood and return to BBC Radio and the Old Vic. Burton even seems to suffer spasmodic sadness that he was ripp’d untimely from the womb of the Welsh coalfields: but given that he must, by now, have collected enough capital to buy himself a pick and helmet, there would seem to be nothing standing in his way should he wish to take positive steps to remedy that early error. He is not too old: there are plenty of 50-year-old miners coughing their lungs up, down below.