Saddleworth Players

A story that inspired a lifetime interest in theatre

Hi I’m David Plowright.

The BBC reports this week that, 50 years ago, the world's then most famous celebrity couple descended on an English university to star in Marlowe's Dr Faustus, alongside a student cast and crew. Richard Burton took the title role and his new wife, Elizabeth Taylor, made her stage debut. Interest in the production, both in press and university, was intense. As technical director of the university dramatic society, I was bound to be heavily involved. But with my finals only a term away, I reluctantly resigned.

The show was, of course, an immediate sell-out but, regrettably, poorly received. Bernard Levin called Burton's performance 'shallow' while The Times savaged the show as "..a sad example of university drama at its worst". Its most electric moment, when the audience held its breath, was the appearance of Taylor, filling (if not overflowing) her non-speaking role as Helen of Troy. Her entrance was planned to be on a lift, through the stage floor, but safety/liability concerns down-graded this to a walk-on from the wings in a billow of dry-ice 'smoke'.

The Burtons threw a splendid last-night party at the Randolph Hotel. I remember sitting alongside Liz Taylor, cadging cigarettes from her, while she held court to an enthralled group of students. Richard was at the other end of the room, drinking with his brother and a group of Welsh friends.

That summer, most of the cast and crew headed to Rome to make the film of the play. (It too was heavily slated by the critics; to The New York Times, under the heading 'Faustus Sells His Soul Again: Burtons and Oxford Do the Devil's Work', it was "...of an awfulness that bends the mind".)

Meanwhile I was on tour with a show, involving, among others, the Burtons' understudies Bob Scott (later to do so much for Manchester's cultural and sporting heritage - more on this another time) and Sheila Ruskin (more Twiggy than Taylor), and 'sponsored' by the Burtons. They said they might come to see it; they never did, but this 'carrot' was used with good effect to maintain press interest. The show transferred from the Edinburgh Fringe to a year's run at the Fortune Theatre in the West End, where I handed over to a professional stage manager and went off to do a "proper job" (as universities, employers and parents tended to say in that era...).

My love of theatre hasn’t stopped and Saddleworth Players keeps it going.

David Plowright, Feb 16, 2016