Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from The Sandpiper.
Edited by Chris Williams
Yale University Press, $49.95
IT NEVER occurred to me I might have much in common with Richard Burton. However, we not only share a passion for bangers and mash but also are both ''unable to skip passages'' in long books. This would have been an invaluable asset in dealing with the 654 pages of his published diaries - and these cover only a dozen years of his turbulent life. Not that I wanted them longer, but there are frustrating gaps of years, even decades, and overall the pickings are rich enough to make one curious about those lacunae.
Despite prior misgivings, he comes across as a more engaging character than expected. These writings, and he loved to write, were intended for his eyes only or, at a pinch, for Elizabeth Taylor's. The first 60 pages, in their often clipped sentences, offer a disarming picture of the ordinariness and boyishness of the young Burton's life. He grew up in the household of an older sister and her uncongenial husband, but threw himself into rugby and books, enjoyed unrestricted movie-going, and treated Hitler and air raids as ''welcome'' excitements.
Apart from a brief series of excerpts in 1960, there's nothing more until 1965 and it is the ensuing decade that provides the bulk of the book, and ''bulk'' is the word. After a quiet start in British films in the late '40s, he was wooed and won by Hollywood and 20th Century Fox. In 1963, the lavish and disaster-prone Cleopatra all but brought Fox to its knees, but it brought Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to the world's headlines, which charted their scandalous doings. The whiff of scandal wore off but they remained one of the planet's most famous couples for a decade or more, helping to reinvent the cult of celebrity that the war had put on hold. He shows no false modesty about their notoriety, even after the respectability of marriage in 1964.
He liked being married to Taylor (''the eternal one-night stand'', in his words) so much that he married her again in 1975 after just more than a year's divorce. Inevitably, the diaries give a lot of space to their sometimes tempestuous relationship, but a real sense of their mutual passion does emerge, even when they're shouting obscenities at each other.
Accounts of slanging matches are apt to be followed by quite touching statements about wanting to be with her - and her alone - rather than with anyone else.
He was also, for most of the time anyway, a pretty good stepfather to Taylor's children by some of her earlier marriages, but he's not sentimental about this, either: he loves these kids, but children as a species bore him, he admits.
He is, in fact, quite easily bored, especially by filmmaking, and often longed to get away to indulge his love of reading. He had more head space for ideas than Taylor did and reflects at length on, say, the politics of whatever country he happens to be in, or the distinctions between being merely famous and actually talented. There is evidence of real intellectual curiosity about all sorts of things and openness to new places and people.
Mind you, if the people didn't measure up, they could come in for a smart slap about the chops. He drops names and sometimes these are bruised in the fall. After reporting that at first meeting they had got on ''famously'' with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he later has been ''stupendously bored'' by their soirees. ''Larry'' Olivier ''really is a shallow little man with a mediocre intelligence but a splendid salesman''. Brando (''old fatty'') and Sinatra get it in the neck - ''Gods in their own mirrors. Distorted mirrors.'' Rex Harrison and one of his later wives, Rachel Roberts, sound like a pair of drunken ravers, to be avoided at all costs.
It's not mere bitchiness that informs these diary entries but also impatience with the time and effort these people demand. I'm sorry, though, to learn Louise Allbritton, a beautiful and willowy blonde of my youthful film-going, had become ''a hopeless lush''.
Apart from its fair entertainment quota, what is the value of this huge volume? It does give some sense of the tribulations of filming and of the boredom and rewards of celebrity with huge sums of money at one's disposal, and it does give insight into Burton, who was a major figure for several decades. It is a scholarly editing job but rather wildly footnoted. If the adjective ''Chekhovian'' is used, do we really need to be told that this refers to Anton Chekhov? Or that Tolstoy was a Russian novelist? I expected to find a note reading: ''William Shakespeare (1564-1664), playwright'', in case we confused him with a tennis player of the same name.
But I don't want to quibble too much. A life, a fair slab of it, does emerge and, more than you might suppose, commands interest and even respect.
■ Brian McFarlane is writing a book about the lives and careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum.