Skip to main content


The night Hollywood came to Oxford

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Dr Faustus. Columbia Pictures/Getty

In 1966, I starred in a student theatre production with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, says David Wood in The Oldie. The play was Dr Faustus. Burton, then 40, had agreed to perform as a favour for his old tutor, who was retiring. “I thought since Professor Coghill started me off,” he said, “I should finish him off.”

They arrived at rehearsals “in their splendid green Rolls-Royce”. Taylor, then 34, was sensational. She joked that she knew every line of her non-speaking role and modestly suggested that, as Helen of Troy, she should appear masked from head to foot – “because it wasn’t easy to show a face that would launch a thousand ships”. She was kind, too. One evening at the pub, she noticed I was wearing a particularly frayed jumper. “You can’t go around like that,” Taylor declared. “Richard’s got lots of sweaters. I’ll bring you one.” She brought two.

Burton was more studious. He knew his lines, always remained calm – and was constantly smoking. Whenever he needed to light up, he would simply place a hand over his shoulder and his trusty bodyguard Gaston would tuck a cigarette between the actor’s outstretched fingers and light it from behind.

Onstage, the couple were extraordinary. The theatre director Maria Aitken, who back then was just a student actor playing the Good Angel, remembers watching eagerly from the wings. “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.”