‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar’: Elizabeth Taylor’s description of the fabled romance

‘To begin at the beginning,’ intones Richard Burton with a voice like warm treacle at the start of the 1971 film Under Milk Wood. It’s hard to imagine an actor more obviously influenced by his own beginnings. The epigraph to this double biography is ‘The damp, dark prison of eternal love’, a line borrowed from Quentin Crisp. And if that’s an accurate assessment of Burton’s on-off-on-again relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it’s an even better summary of his childhood in Wales. Born Richard Walter Jenkins to a barmaid mother and a coal miner father (a ‘12-pints-a-day man’ who sometimes disappeared for weeks on end to drink and gamble), as

Letters: Stop talking, Rishi – and take action

Sick note Sir: Kate Andrews illuminates how, for us British, the successful diagnosis of a major medical condition is frequently a matter of chance and, even then, usually occurs later than it should (‘Why are the British so anti-doctor?’, 2 September). The near asymptomatic nature of many serious conditions combined with the cultural pressures of stoicism and reluctance to be the bearer of bad news allows many cancers, for example, to run free for years before discovery. In addition, while treatments from the NHS can be brilliant, they vary enormously across the country in terms of accessibility and availability. James Wilson  South Beddington, Sutton Spare the Rod Sir: I was

Complicated and slightly creepy: the Bogart-Bacall romance

Whenever an actor and an actress begin an affair on the soundstage they like to believe they are the new Burton and Taylor. Actually they’ll be lucky to resemble Christopher Timothy and Carol Drinkwater, who had a fling on that vet programme – and now here are Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to live up to as well. Of their love story, William J. Mann avers: ‘It was wonderful; it was passionate; it was complicated.’ Also, it was creepy. Bacall was 19, Bogart 45. There was a ‘significant power differential between them’ when they met in 1944 during the filming of To Have and Have Not. Mann is probably pointing

A stunning work of art: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One reviewed

Blockbuster action movies are designed to stun the audience into submissive acceptance. Complexity, humanity, emotion and beauty are reduced to a few flickering lights in the swirling darkness of death and destruction. This is not a criticism. Great art has sometimes been like that and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is certainly art, though perhaps not great. Anyway, I, for one, was stunned. The film is certainly art, though perhaps not great, and I, for one, was stunned For context, this is the seventh Mission: Impossible movie. The first was in 1996 so the hero Tom Cruise, aka Ethan Hunt, is now in his sixties. The fact that

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Queens on screen: a cinematic guide

When Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth I of Scotland) began her reign on 6 February 1952 (after the premature death of her father George VI) the British Empire was still very much in existence, with more than 70 overseas territories, despite the independence of India/Pakistan (‘The Jewel in The Crown’) in 1947. But, in the words of Harold Macmillan, there was soon an inevitable ‘Wind of Change,’ as the UK relinquished its colonies and embraced the woolly concept of The Commonwealth of Nations (formerly The British Commonwealth). Aside from the United Kingdom, the Queen is Head of State in 14 other nations – although, as recent Royal tours of the Caribbean have

How to save the Oscars

This Sunday’s Academy Awards will be a litmus test of whether Hollywood can uncouple itself from the political agenda of young woke radicals that is proving so unpopular in the US. Joe Biden had a stab at it during his State of the Union address, criticising the ‘defund the police’ movement for fear of a Democrat wipeout in the midterms, and the New York Times did an astonishing volte-face last week, publishing an editorial in defence of free speech. A bit rich from the paper that recently forced out its most distinguished science reporter at the behest of its junior staff for using the n-word in a discussion about the

Ten films set in Russia

With Russia back in the news yet again, it’s interesting to note how comparatively few English language movies set in the country there actually are. Admittedly in TV there’s been an uptick, with two recent series on Catherine The Great in youth/middle age, the Andrew Davies Pass Notes version of War & Peace, McMafia and the multi award-winning Chernobyl. But in terms of film, there are a handful of classics and older movies such as Dr Zhivago (1965), War & Peace (umpteen adaptations) the musical Fiddler On The Roof (1971), and two comedies – Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs (1970) and of course Woody Allen’s Love & Death (1975), but the

The time is up for long films

‘Programme starts at 3.45, so the film will start at 4.15, and it’s two hours and 43 minutes long, so we’d be out just before 7 p.m.’ This is the No Time to Die calculation, and I think many of us are doing it and wondering: ‘Can I face it?’ A dark afternoon spent in a state of total surrender to the longueurs imposed on us by a self-indulgent director? Thirsty from too much popcorn, leg muscles seizing up, not allowed to look at your phone, pressure on the bladder, Daniel Craig never smiling and the end nowhere near in sight? After a year and a half of becoming accustomed

No Time to Die is a compelling mess

Times being what they are, James Bond can no longer just be the main character in the Bond films. He’s also had to become a defiant metaphor for them. Since Daniel Craig took over the role, Bond has regularly been told that he’s badly outdated. Yet, by the closing credits, he’s once again proved how much the world still needs him. That this has been reflected at the box office is, I’d suggest, largely down to one neat trick: Craig’s Bond films have thrown in just enough gruff emoting to get people to go along with the pretence that his Bond is a radical reinterpretation, while still essentially sticking to

10 football films to get you in the mood for kick off

When many people think of films about ‘The Beautiful Game’, a few, (mainly mediocre) movies tend to spring to mind, usually headed by John Huston’s 1981 folie de grandeur Escape to Victory. As you may recall, the film cast Sly Stallone, a noticeably chubby Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow and real-life football legends Pelé, Osvaldo ‘Ozzy’ Ardiles and Bobby Moore in a ‘soccer’ themed homage to The Great Escape (1963). But there are a surprising variety of other motion pictures about the sport and some are well worth checking out. Of course, there are some real stinkers as well, most recently the Sky Cinema Original Final Score (2018), a lame attempt to

Insane and fascinating: BBC World Service’s Lazarus Heist reviewed

The narrative podcast remains a form in search of a genre. The template set by the hit show Serial — enterprising American journalists with janky piano theme tune shed new light on tantalising murder — still predominates seven years on. To this we can add the format pioneered by S-Town (initial murder investigation subsides into rich human detail) and, more recently, the excellent Wind of Change (intriguing what-if maps cultural and macropolitical shifts, with bonus CIA window-dressing). I remain sceptical about the form’s usefulness as a way of breaking hard news. Caliphate, the New York Times jaw-dropper on the Islamic State, is less gripping now its key source has been

Alfred Brendel the Dadaist

How many people are celebrating the fact that, last week, one of Europe’s most inspired writers about music, modern art and aesthetics celebrated his 90th birthday? The answer is relatively few, which might seem surprising. He is a world-renowned authority on the grotesque and the absurd — territory through which he darts mischievously in his poems, originally composed in his native German. But you have to turn to his essays written in English to experience his refined sarcasm, which is either delicious or mortifying, depending on whether you feel incriminated by his strictures against intellectual laziness. He is quirky and rigorous — a combination associated with his beloved Dada, a

The legend of Marlene Dietrich

How to sum up the legend of Marlene Dietrich? She was an actor, a singer, a style icon, even a war hero. A retrospective is under way at the BFI, where more than a dozen of her films are being shown throughout this month. Many admirers saw only the shimmering legs and forgot the sharp intellect, the wartime gallantry. But it would be wrong to deny that body image was central to her success. It was with this in mind that the critic Robin Wood christened Dietrich ‘the Venus de Marlene’. Like the statue alluded to, Dietrich is a monument of Western culture, her image cast not in stone, but

Six spy films to watch this weekend

As Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, time-travelling espionage extravaganza Tenet finally makes it to British cinemas (America, amusingly, has to wait a while longer) and with the much-delayed release of the new James Bond film No Time To Die apparently just a few months away now, big-budget films dealing with glossy espionage in all its forms are very much in demand. Yet cinema of the past couple of decades has found numerous different ways to portray spying, from the banal to the glossily explosive. It has encompassed literary adaptations, unrecognisable resurrections of Sixties television shows, deconstructed Cold War sagas and even sly updates of classic Seventies films. Here are half a dozen

The best Independence Day films to watch on 4th July

Jaws, Amazon (To rent or buy) Nothing says ‘Murica’ quite like insisting the beaches stay open – killer shark or no – because it’s the 4th July weekend. It’s why – during his brief libertarian phase – Boris Johnson once declared that Larry Vaughn, the Mayor of Amity, was the movie’s true hero. Apart from the now rather obvious clunkiness of ‘Bruce’ the mechanical great white, the film still stands the test of time – the jump scare when they investigate the sunken fishing boat; the memorable scene where Quint describes his experiences after the USS Indianopolis was torpedoed; the literally explosive climax. duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… Independence Day, iTunes

7 Christopher Nolan films to watch while you wait for Tenet

This August, if all is well, Christopher Nolan’s eleventh film, Tenet, will be released in cinemas around the world. The storyline apparently involves aspects of time-travel, predetermination and espionage. As usual with Nolan, the details are shrouded in mystery. But it sounds as if it combines many of his usual tropes: a mixture of household name stars (Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh) with up-and-coming actors (led by John David Washington), beautifully filmed global cityscapes and innovative, gravity-defying action scenes. Practically the only change from before is that his regular collaborator Hans Zimmer, unavoidably detained by other work, will not be contributing a score, which will instead be supplied by

Not nul points but it’s no Spinal Tap: Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga reviewed

This comedy stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic duo whose biggest dream is to represent their country at Eurovision and win. An open target, you would think. Spoof heaven, you would think. But while this is sporadically funny and features some wonderfully good bad songs with those hooks that you can’t shake off — like kicks to the shin, they linger for ages — it is also over-long, drifts, and is ultimately too familiar, predictable and gooey. It’s not nul points. It’s not the Norway of cinema. Particularly as it also stars Pierce Brosnan attired in Icelandic knits and Dan Stevens as the super-camp, super-vain, leather-trousered Russian

There’s no point in bishops – Covid has shown us so

It is a relief to parents that young children are allowed out a bit now as the length of the lockdown has wreaked havoc with tempers. Birthdays have been particularly difficult. Zoom parties, with every guest in their little on-screen box like stamps in an album, are a poor substitute for a roomful of overexcited kids eating jelly. My granddaughter was eight last week and at last could meet her best friend, who lives next door, in the new paddling pool. They have managed uncomplainingly via walkie-talkies through a window so this was a joyful reunion. But what about the other would-be dressed-up party guests, not to mention gift-bearers? Allow

In the Covid era, age isn’t just a number

When I told my seven-year-old granddaughter, over Zoom, how much I missed being with her, I added: ‘Maybe it won’t be much longer before I can see you.’ But she said that it would be some time, as ‘the government are going to stop old people seeing anyone because of the virus’. Asked what was meant by ‘old people’, she said: ‘I think anybody more than 54.’ Clearly some misunderstanding. At nearly 25 years beyond 54, I am correctly classed as old; some days I feel it, most days I don’t, but I am well, have most of my marbles and am working hard. Age is just a number. Except