Aged 21, David Wood was in a student play with two megastars – and got to kiss the most beautiful woman in the world
In 1965, when I was in my final year at Oxford, reading English, news came through that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were coming to town. They were going to appear in an Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) production of Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Burton would play Faustus. Taylor would play the non-speaking role of Helen of Troy.
The play would be directed by Professor Nevill Coghill, the Oxford don who had been Burton’s tutor during the war years, when he was at Exeter College. In November, a postcard arrived in my college pigeonhole, from Coghill, asking me to play Wagner.On 1st February 1966, Burton and Taylor rolled into Oxford, literally, in their splendid green Rolls-Royce, driven by Gaston Sanz, their loyal chauffeur and bodyguard.
We all trooped off to the ballroom of Oxford’s most famous hotel, the Randolph, and performed a run-through of the play. The Burtons watched with concentration and no hint of condescension.
I had the chance of exchanging a few words with Elizabeth, and was immediately hypnotised by her warm smile and friendliness. She joked that she knew every line of her non-speaking role. Burton told us that he knew his part, but not as well as he thought he did. He said that when working through them, a lot of Marlowe’s lines had started coming out as Burton’s lines!
When rehearsals started the next day, it became clear that Burton had indeed done his homework. Although he used a script, he used it more for writing notes than as an aide-mémoire. At first he spoke quietly and unemphatically, but his characteristically melodic tones were excitingly apparent.
Burton’s calm concentration involved a lot of smoking. Whenever he felt the need to light up, he placed a hand over his shoulder, whereupon the trusty Gaston would approach, place a cigarette between his outstretched fingers, then light it from behind.
Coghill, then aged 66, directed Burton quietly yet enthusiastically. Burton rarely questioned his blocking or interpretation. He was quoted as saying, ‘He is as near to a saint as any man I know.’ A few amendments were insisted upon.
No actor was allowed to get too close to him. Perhaps he knew he needed a magic circle of space around him to portray his power.
After rehearsal, we sometimes accompanied Burton to the Apollo pub across the road. He seemed very relaxed over a pint of bitter. It must have been a relief that there were no paparazzi clicking away, and that the pub regulars took little or no notice of him.
He took no chances, however. Gaston came too, and never kept his eyes off him, even escorting him to the Gents. Gaston paid for our drinks. We had already noticed that Burton, like royalty, never carried anything in the pockets of his camel jacket. Gaston looked after the cash and the cigarettes.
At one point, a photographer came in and was granted a shot, but Burton, clearly from experience, made quite sure that he was surrounded by undergraduates, both male and female, in such a way that the photo couldn’t be cropped to imply he was privately entertaining one young lady.
Later that week, Elizabeth came to rehearsal. Afterwards, she came to the pub with Richard and a group of us. Simply dressed in black slacks and jumper, wearing the minimum of make-up, she chatted to us in a happy and relaxed way. I found myself sitting at her feet. She noticed that I was wearing an old sweater, with my elbows poking out from frayed holes. A typical student sweater. I suppose I thought it was arty.
‘You can’t go around like that!’ laughed Elizabeth. ‘Richard’s got lots of sweaters. I’ll bring you one.’
The next day she brought me two, one beige and one a burgundy colour. One even had ‘Beverly Hills’ on the label. It was a very kind gesture. I don’t think I ever wore them, but maybe it is significant that I still have them, souvenirs of an unforgettable encounter.
I remember one afternoon going to collect Sheila Dawson – my girlfriend, understudying Elizabeth Taylor and playing one of the dancers – from the Burtons’ suite at the Randolph. Girlish giggles greeted me. I discovered Sheila and Elizabeth like excited schoolgirls, kneeling at a dressing table. Elizabeth was handing Sheila priceless jewels to try on. A necklace; some earrings. Elizabeth wasn’t showing off her possessions – rather enjoying the fun of a dressing-up game.
The Burtons had, in those few days, taken over our lives. It was a uniquely special time, yet Richard and Elizabeth had somehow made our participation in their rarefied world both natural and enjoyable. I wrote a card to my mother and stepfather: ‘The excitement continues – they both are very charming and sweet – very relaxed and natural – and she is very intelligent, I think – Sheila has rehearsed the Helen scene with him several times!! D.’
I was clearly bewitched!
Six days before opening night, we were all asked to attend the press conference, which took place on the Playhouse stage.
Sitting at a table in the centre of the stage sat Burton and Taylor. They were quite casually dressed, he in a light-coloured cardigan, she in black slacks and a fur wrap.
Richard graciously acknowledged Coghill. ‘I thought since Professor Coghill started me off,’ he said, ‘I should finish him off.’
He said that, in a few years’ time, he would like to play Lear, once he had gained a bit more weight. Elizabeth, who had so far said very little, leaned towards Richard and whispered in his ear. Richard reported that she had offered him some of her weight. They had only recently finished filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which Elizabeth had, for artistic reasons, put on extra pounds.
Elizabeth maintained a jokey attitude, saying that, as Helen, ‘All I do is kiss Richard and move around.’
She said she thought she should appear masked from head to foot, because it wasn’t easy to show a face that would launch a thousand ships. Her determination not to take herself too seriously was appealing and diplomatic.
Maria Aitken, who played the Good Angel, watched Burton and Taylor from the wings. She later said, ‘At the dress rehearsal, I can honestly say that when they kissed it was the single most electrifying moment I have ever seen in well over half a century of theatregoing.’
Opening night was on 14th February, St Valentine’s Day.
The audience did truly gasp when they saw Elizabeth. Jenny Moss, who played Lechery, wrote to me: ‘I learned that the secret of Elizabeth Taylor’s glowing make-up and smooth skin was ordinary Johnson’s Baby Powder – rubbed into the skin, it gives a subtle matt sheen.’
After each performance, the Burtons would host a reception in their suite at the Randolph. Sheila and I were fortunate enough to be invited regularly. The guests included members of the Burton family and other Welsh guests, including Harry Secombe and Stanley Baker.
On one occasion, Richard regaled the guests, in his unique, unforgettable voice, with the poem Chapel Deacon by Welsh poet R S Thomas. It has the memorable first line ‘Who put that crease in your soul, Davies?’ Also at the party was Gwydion Thomas, the poet’s son, who was in Dr Faustus, playing the 3rd Scholar.
All I remember from the week of performances was that we lived in a fantasy world, where everything revolved around the play.
Towards the end of the week, we students invited the Burtons to a celebratory meal after the show. We took them to La Cantina, a restaurant in Queen Street. It was a happy occasion, with little formality. The Burtons had become our friends.
Towards the end of the evening, Sheila didn’t feel well. Suddenly I felt a tap on the shoulder and turned to see an anxious Elizabeth. ‘Sheila’s puking in the john,’ she told me. ‘I’ve cleaned her up.’
Sheila and I were bundled into the Rolls, and driven by Gaston back to my digs in Little Clarendon Street, while Richard and Elizabeth walked back to the Randolph. A typically kind gesture.
Their generosity continued. After the final Saturday night performance, they threw a lavish party for us all. Back in the Randolph ballroom, where we had performed the run-through for them less than three weeks earlier, they entertained the cast and backstage team with free-flowing food and drink.
We sang a selection of our comedy songs, which seemed to go down well. Richard and Elizabeth said nice things, then listened as we told them we were preparing a new musical revue to tour and play the Edinburgh Festival.
We found ourselves asking if the Burtons would become our patrons. Not only did they agree, but they offered to give us £250, a tidy sum, towards our running costs. It wasn’t long before we had new letterhead paper, with the words ‘WSG Productions, Patrons: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’ proudly emblazoned at the top.
Well after midnight, realising that the dream was coming to its conclusion, everyone said their fond farewells. Sheila and I approached Elizabeth.
‘See you tomorrow,’ she smiled.
At first we didn’t understand, but then realised that she was talking about the planned recording taking place next day. HMV, the famous EMI Records label, had asked to make an LP record of the production. We explained to Elizabeth that we had not been called for the next day’s session in London. Sheila did not have a speaking role, and my few lines as Wagner were to be recorded at a later date.
‘But you must come!’ exclaimed Elizabeth. ‘See you there!’
The next morning, having borrowed enough money for our train fares, we set off for Oxford Station. This meant walking past my college, Worcester. I popped into the Porter’s Lodge to see if there was any post in my pigeonhole.
I found a note. It was from Morgan, the Burtons’ assistant agent. It asked me to ring him urgently at the Randolph.
‘Thank heaven I’ve found you!’ exclaimed Morgan. Elizabeth had given him instructions to offer to drive us to London. She had been most insistent, Morgan said. Not wanting to incur her displeasure, he had delayed his drive to town, determined to locate us. Sheila and I walked the short distance up Beaumont Street to the Randolph, where Morgan was waiting, with a very impressive Jaguar. As he raised the boot to drop in our modest luggage, we noticed it was lined with a deep pile of unopened Burtons’ fan mail.
Soon we were enjoying a smooth and comfortable ride to Hampstead, where we were warmly welcomed by Richard and Elizabeth and his brother Ivor and his lovely wife, Gwen, in their cosy house in Squire’s Mount, just off Hampstead Heath. The six of us enjoyed lunch and a relaxing chat before it was time to set off for the recording studio in Putney. It was in the home of the independent producer Denis Comper.
Gaston drove Richard, Elizabeth, Sheila and me in the Rolls. We rang the doorbell. Comper and his wife were staggered to find Elizabeth Taylor on their doorstep. Burton was expected, yes, but Elizabeth’s non-speaking role in the play meant they had never dreamed of her attending.
‘I’m here to make the sandwiches,’ announced Elizabeth. And she did. For several hours she entertained us in the improvised green room upstairs, while Richard and some of the student cast recorded excerpts from the play.
The climax came for me at midnight. The next day was my 22nd birthday. As midnight struck, Elizabeth Taylor wished me many happy returns and kissed me on the lips. I glowed with pleasure, and still glow at the memory of this spontaneous gesture of affection.
It wasn’t a sensual kiss, rather a sincere acknowledgement of the friendly and warm relationship that Sheila, my fellow student actors and I had enjoyed with this very special lady and her very special husband.
It marked the culmination of a magical, unique and truly unforgettable time.