Stodgy drama: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra

Aged 14, Richard Burton, the 12th son of a Welsh coal miner, confided to his diary: “I am practically certain of being in the school play.”

A dozen years later, he had moved to Switzerland for tax reasons, as he was now one of the richest actors in the world.

Burton kept a diary on and off from the age of 14 to the age of 58, a year before he died.

The adult diaries are dominated by – in no particular order – drink, money and Elizabeth Taylor. These three elements seem to have been inseparable, each feeding off the others.

Every now and then, Taylor pitches in with angry comments, having peeked at a diary entry with which she disagrees. For instance, in April 1966, Burton ends an entry with: “I may have to work tomorrow. I look forward to it”, and Taylor pipes up: “You ill-tempered bastard! So do I – at least you’ll be out of my hair!”

It is almost impossible to read the diaries without picturing the two of them as the warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – locked in an endless cycle of drinking, fighting, making up, drinking, fighting, making up.

‘I went mad which ended up with Elizabeth smashing me around the head with her ringed fingers… We are fighting and have been fighting for over a year now over everything and anything,’ he writes on one particular day.

On another day he mentions that he drank three bottles of vodka before he began his evening’s drinking. “It is not a good idea to drink so much,” he scribbles.

He sometimes voices remorse, particularly after he has drunkenly lashed out at his daughter: “I wanted to cry or slit my jugular.”

But for the most part he either cannot remember exactly what happened, or doesn’t want to, and spares himself the details.

Burton’s friend Kenneth Tynan offers a detailed picture in his own diaries of the actor drowning in wealth, drink and Taylor. At the end of 1966, Tynan goes to Rome to interview him for the BBC. Over the course of the day, Burton drinks about five bottles of wine and then invites Tynan to dinner at the villa he is renting.

“Richard directs his wolfish grin at me and says: ‘How do you think Elizabeth is looking, Ken?’

“Fine,” I say, inwardly meaning “Fat.” Pause: still eyeing me, he says: ‘How would you like to go to bed with her?’ A no-win situation, as they say: to answer: “Very much” is to lech after the host’s wife, to answer: “Not at all” is to stigmatise her as unattractive.’

Tynan attempts to wriggle out of this sticky situation by saying he’s not sure he’d be able to rise to the occasion. Burton then shouts to Taylor, who comes teetering “a little unsteadily” into the room.

“‘Do you know what our friend Ken just said about you?’ ‘No, dear.’ ‘He said he didn’t think he’d be able to get it up for you in bed.’ Elizabeth turned blazing eyes on me. ‘That,’ she said noisily, ‘is the most insulting thing that has ever been said to me. Leave my house!’

“So here I am being ordered out of a house for not having made a pass at the hostess.”

The next day, flowers are delivered to Tynan’s hotel room, with a note begging forgiveness.

“But” concludes Tynan, “the scene sticks in the memory, not inspiring affection.”

This all happened during a month when Burton chose not to keep his diary, possibly because he was too drunk. The entry for some days simply says “Booze”. One week in May 1975, it is the single entry every day from Sunday to Friday, and then Saturday’s reads: “Went into clinic late afternoon.”

Why did Burton keep a diary? He once told his solicitor it was “merely a daily exercise in the obviation of frustration”. But it was an exercise in other things, too: he was bored by acting (“sheer drudgery”) and yearned to be a writer. Keeping a diary was a sort of practice run, and every now and then he sets sail on a passage of youthful autobiography, or a long, wonderfully detailed description of encounters with the hyper-famous, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, or Andy Warhol, with his “face made of funny putty by an inept child”.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Taylor and Burton were so famous they acted as a magnet for other celebrities. Or perhaps a Venus fly-trap might be a better analogy, as his pen had teeth. Anyone who is anyone seems to buzz all too willingly into their bright, perfumed world, only to be scrunched and swallowed with a kind of furious irritation.

Laurence Olivier is “a shallow little man with a very mediocre intelligence”, Princess Margaret “infinitely boringly uncomfortable to be around”, Lucille Ball “a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour”, Tennessee Williams “a self-pitying pain in the neck”, Maria Callas “a bit of a bore. She is riddled with platitudes”, and Marlon Brando “that sober self-indulgent obese fart”.

One might have expected Burton at least to be in awe of poets, but not at all. Their presence serves only to make him sharpen his gimlet eye, and accelerate his vituperation. At one point, he describes a poetry reading with WH Auden in Oxford: “The standing ovation I got… left a look on his seamed face, riven with a ghastly smile, that was compact of surprise, malice and envy.”

Of the misanthropic Welsh poet RS Thomas, he writes, with beautifully timed comic precision: “I think the last tight smile he allowed to grimace his features was at the age of six when he realised with delight that death was inevitable.”

Though he despised the press, he had a nose for scandal. In one entry, he remembers Bobby Kennedy having a speedy fling with Margot Fonteyn in the back bedroom of a Beverly Hills mansion, and in another he says of the illustrious film producer Sam Spiegel, “poor Sam can only get excited if a woman defecates on his face”.

He is particularly obsessed by Rex Harrison and his wife Rachel Roberts, who form a sort of cut-price, shop-soiled even more sozzled version of the Burtons. Of Roberts, he records: “She insulted Rex sexually, morally, physically, and in every way. She lay on the floor in the bar and barked like a dog.”

Burton has the type of self-awareness that finds obscure comfort in self-loathing, but he never offers an explanation for his and Liz’s shared obsession with the making and spending of money.

One day in 1967, he buys Taylor the jet plane they flew in the day before. “It costs, brand new, $960 000. She was not displeased.”

They then set off for a premiere, with eight guards, because Taylor is wearing jewellery worth “roughly $1 500 000”.

He is constantly totting up their earnings and spendings. “I have worked out that with average luck we should, at the end of 1969, be worth $12 million between us.”

This intelligent, cultured man cheerfully enters into what he calls ‘a Battle of the Rubies’ with Aristotle Onassis, buying a diamond at auction for $1 100 000 after Onassis “chickened out” at $700 000. And so it goes on.

“I can be just as vulgar as he can, I say to myself.”

But why all this spending, financed by increasingly rubbishy films? He never offers an explanation.

I wonder if it sprang from an unconscious desire to rid himself of everything adult – his money, his fame, his reputation – and to return to those simple, far-off days in Port Talbot, when the very summit of happiness was to be offered a part in the school play. – Mail On Sunday