By Andrew Sinclair.
In 1972, Dylan Thomas’s 1954 radio drama, Under Milk Wood, a “play for voices” about the inner lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub, a fictional Welsh village, was adapted for film. It starred Elizabeth Taylor; her husband Richard Burton, who had been in the original radio play; and Peter O’Toole. The director was Andrew Sinclair.
In her Shepperton studio dressing-room, while making her previous film, Zee & Co., she appeared somewhat dishevelled, if that were possible. She gave me three orders before starting Under Milk Wood. Firstly, her back was too bad to take the train to Wales; I would have to film her two-day shoot in London. Secondly, it had to be at the end of the schedule, as her movie was a long way from a wrap. And although she was playing the small part (for Dylan Thomas) of a Welsh whore called Rosie Probert, she would require three Parisian nightdresses, at the cost of £600 – half our costume budget.
The next time I met her was the coup de grâce. Richard Burton had invited me and the comic Ryan Davies, who played the Second Voice, for a drunken evening in his Camden house. After a few bottles, Richard decided we were his two best friends, and he presented each of us with a silver goblet, given by the Rotary clubs of Wales in grateful recognition of their favourite son and daughter, Elizabeth and Richard Burton, alias Jenkins. “I have to cut all the jewellery advertisements out of the glossy magazines,” Richard was confiding in us, “or I would be ruined. She loves the rocks.”
But he was unable to forestall the apparition that burst through the door – Elizabeth, in a yellow hot-pants wool suit, covered by a wild mink coat, the tails of the little beasts twirling on the floor. “Taraah!” she cried – and then she saw the silverware Ryan and I were holding. “What are you doing with my goblet?” Elizabeth screeched. I handed one silver cup back to Richard, Ryan handed him the other, and we left hotfoot into the London night. Behind us, a voice like a police siren rent the black air.
AT LEE STUDIOS, WE waited all morning for Elizabeth to appear. We had only two days to shoot her, for if she and Richard did not leave British shores by tomorrow midnight, their back taxes would have settled much of the national debt. I went to her dressing-room, and I put down a costly gold Egyptian serpent bracelet as a peace offering from my pocket. Unfortunately, she was making herself up as Cleopatra, all kohl and rouge and peacock eyelids. “That won’t do,” I heard myself daring to say. “You’re a Welsh sailor’s whore of the ‘fifties. You can’t look like that.”
“I always look like Cleopatra,” she said, and dismissed me.
She did not come on set until noon. I decided to turn her into Captain Cat’s wet dream, as in the text. “Grease the lens,” I told my cameraman, Bob Huke, who asked, “Do I make her look beautiful, or like the back end of a bus?”
I swallowed and gulped out, “Beautiful, please. She has picture approval.”
We laid her on the brass bed and bunged in three shots on the incredible violet eyes before lunch. I noticed that Bob was performing in front of the Brute lights, as the conductor of an orchestra, only his baton was a black ruler. When she was gone, I asked Bob what he was doing. “Hiding her three chins,” he said, “even when she moves. The thingy throws a shadow across her neck. We call it a Charliebar. Any Charlie can use it.” And indeed, for the full-length solo stills, because of her low-slung figure, Elizabeth insisted on being shot upwards by a photographer lying on the floor. On such a take from a worm’s eye view, she looked far taller and thinner, and a bouffant hairdo made her head a decent size.
AFTER PETER O’TOOLE HAD saved the picture by getting Elizabeth back on the bed after lunch, I made my only personal appearance and comment. I was the pair of hands in black gloves putting two old pennies on the defunct Rosie Probert’s eyes. I had solved the problem of having five different cemeteries in various locations, all pretending to be one at Llareggub, by travelling with a moveable gravestone as a cornerpiece in the shot; it bore the Probert name. I must say, Elizabeth left without saying good-bye, although she did write in Burton screen play, which he gave to me, that it had been a fantastic experience. Indeed, for both of us.
At lunch with Tony Curtis and Roddy McDowall some time later, I complained about Elizabeth’s behaviour, only to be sharply reproved by McDowall, a lifelong friend of Elizabeth’s; the two had starred in the 1943 film Lassie Come Home, when she was only 11. She was no Shirley Temple, but she was, he said, one of the few child actresses, after her breakthrough performance in National Velvet, who had grown and matured. The two were often working on films at the same time. By Californian state law, minors had to receive four hours of tuition daily between takes. Roddy came out of a lesson one day to meet Elizabeth, running into class.
“You’re late!” he cried.
“Wouldn’t you be,” she asked, “if you had just had Robert Taylor sticking his tongue down your throat?”
“You must forgive her,” Roddy told me at the end of his story. “She has lost all sense of reality. But child star to real star. that is a wonderful and rare thing to do.”
It was a wonderful and rare thing to do, as he well knew. And now she is done and I regret her passing. She truly leaves a void in extravagance and human nature.
Andrew Sinclair directed the film version of Under Milk Wood and did the cinematic adaptation of the work. He is also the author of several books, including Prohibition and reviewed Daniel Okrent’s Last Call for The Fortnightly Review in June 2010. He lives in London.