When Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in a student play

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1967
Image caption At the time of their Oxford sojourn Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were probably the world's most famous couple

It is 50 years since Hollywood superstars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor took time out of their busy schedules to perform for no money in a student production. What was behind the grand gesture and what do people remember of these unlikely events today?

Now, it would be the equivalent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ditching the glamour of their A-list existences for the modest stage of a local amateur dramatics club - and the British couple's return to the UK was described by the BBC at the time as providing a dose of "knockout voltage" glamour.

Burton had agreed to play the title role in Oxford University Dramatic Society's February 1966 production of Dr Faustus to thank Prof Nevill Coghill, who two decades earlier had championed Burton's acting talent when the young Welshman had a brief stint studying English at the university's Exeter College.

Remarkably, Taylor's non-speaking role in the play as Helen of Troy marked her stage debut.

Image caption Jackie Keirs was a choreographer and dancer in the play with Burton and Taylor, and also appeared in the film version as a sprite

During the week the play was staged, the celebrated couple, who had married two years previously, welcomed their undergraduate co-stars into their social world.

"They took over a floor of The Randolph [hotel] where they would entertain every night, and that was great fun," said Jackie Keirs, a student choreographer and dancer in the play.

At the time Taylor described her involvement in the production as "sort of like a giggle, really, for me to do".

Image caption Taylor described her involvement in the play as "like a giggle"

"She would come into the wings with her wardrobe lady, her hairdresser, her make-up lady, her bodyguard - then she would come across the stage, Burton would kiss her, [then she would] come out of the other wings and be carried back to her dressing room by the same group of people," said Keirs.

The atmosphere surrounding the event was "electric", said Don Chapman, former drama critic at the Oxford Mail.

"Everybody wanted to get a ticket for it."

Image caption Burton agreed to perform in the production to thank Prof Nevill Coghill (right), an early champion of the Welsh actor's talent

However, for the production's assistant director Nicholas Young there was a certain amount of apprehension.

"I sort of wondered whether you could ever ask Richard to sort of 'move stage left', or whether from a great actor it just came naturally," he said at the time.

"Like a stage-struck 18-year-old, I was keen that I should have some role or other in this," said Richard Carwardine, who played Cornelius and the Pope.

"I don't think I appreciated at the time just how unusual this was."

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Media captionThe film version of Dr Faustus was poorly received by critics

"Elizabeth, who did have a fiery temper, was a very, very kind person," said Carwardine, who is now president of Corpus Christi College.

"Richard was gracious, amusing, full of anecdotes."

"They had an aura about them when they were together," Keirs said of the golden couple.

Carwardine said there was "great excitement, a lot of speculation as to which of the male undergraduates would be able to get closest to Elizabeth Taylor".

Image caption Burton and Taylor welcomed the undergraduates into their social world, holding court at their hotel, The Randolph

Chapman made it clear in his review of the production that, despite the fact she had no lines, Taylor was the real star of the show.

"Say what you will, it is the presence of Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy - as much as that of Richard Burton in the title role - that will make the Oxford University Dramatic Society's production of Dr Faustus live in the memory," he wrote.

Carwardine recalled how the generous-spirited Burton "took me under his wing" during the production.

Burton said of the students at the time: "The enthusiasm of course of my boys, as I like to call them, at Oxford is infectious and suddenly I feel much younger than my grey and 40 years."

Image copyright Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images
Image caption Burton and Taylor were married twice during the course of their 15-year on-off relationship

The students' brush with fame was to continue when they were flown to Italy to appear in the film version of the play that summer.

"I remember vividly coming out after the rushes of our first scenes and he [Burton] put his arms around us and said 'boys, you did really well'," said Carwardine.

He added: "I did go to the premiere - several of the undergraduate members of the cast had their voices dubbed by professional actors, so it was a huge relief to me to discover what I heard coming from the screen was my own voice."

The film was poorly received by critics but proceeds from the stage play were used to create the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford, which is now a popular venue for student, fringe and children's shows, and a permanent reminder of the time Hollywood came to Oxford.

Hollywood's golden couple

  • Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor met on the set of Cleopatra in Italy in 1961 - at the time they were both married to other people
  • Their affair made headline news around the world
  • They married in 1964 and appeared in many films together over the next 10 years, including The V.I.P.s, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Tempest
  • Known for their turbulent relationship and frequent break-ups they divorced in 1974
  • Finding it difficult to live apart they remarried 18 months later
  • They divorced for a second and final time in 1976
  • Burton and Taylor reunited professionally for a final time in 1982 for a stage production of Noel Coward's Private Lives
  • The Welshman died two years later, aged 58, while Taylor died in 2012 aged 79
  • Their on-off relationship was the subject of a BBC Four drama staring Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West in 2013

Source: BBC Four - Burton and Taylor

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