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Chris Williams, Welsh historian best-known for editing Richard Burton’s bestselling Diaries – obituary

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 08:40:26 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 08:40:26

Williams shared a love of rugby with Burton and readers were delighted to see the actor’s writings treated to his scholarly editing Professor Chris Williams, the Welsh historian who has died aged 61, attracted little attention outside academic circles until he was thrust into the limelight as the editor of Richard Burton’s diaries, which were published in 2012 to transatlantic excitement

Williams shared a love of rugby with Burton and readers were delighted to see the actor’s writings treated to his scholarly editing


Professor Chris Williams, the Welsh historian who has died aged 61, attracted little attention outside academic circles until he was thrust into the limelight as the editor of Richard Burton’s diaries, which were published in 2012 to transatlantic excitement.

The 693-page doorstopper covered 15 scattered years in the great actor’s life, starting with a schoolboy’s pocket diary in 1939, and ending in 1983, a year before his death from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 58. The original notebooks had been kept by his widow Sally in a tea chest. Melvyn Bragg had drawn on them for his 1988 official biography, Rich, but otherwise they had never been seen.

The revelation of Burton’s skill as a writer, with a flair for melancholy and acerbic bon mots, delighted the public: Rex Harrison “wears clothes as only a coat hanger can”; Mia Farrow has “a laugh as false as a dentist’s assurance”; actors are “gods in their own mirrors. Distorted mirrors”; he misses Elizabeth Taylor, even “when she goes to the bathroom”.

Williams, as the author of serious political histories such as Democratic Rhondda: Politics and Society, 1855-1951 and Capitalism, Community and Conflict: The South Wales Coalfield, 1898-1947, was an unexpected choice to edit the diaries. 

As a schoolboy he had seen Burton starring with Clint Eastwood in the adventure film Where Eagles Dare and had read an article by him on rugby. But his academic research had taken him nowhere near show business, and instead into the sooty, damp recesses of the hard-drinking, rugby-playing Welsh mining life that Burton had left behind.

The task fell into Williams’s lap as head of the Richard Burton Centre at Swansea University, to which Sally Burton donated the diaries in 2006. He set about paring down the 400,000 words by a quarter for publication.


Williams had expected Burton to be pompous and self-important, but found him appealingly reflective, and a compulsive reader whose heroes were Orwell, Camus, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. In Gstaad in 1971, Burton recorded in his diary: “Heard … this morning that Julie Andrews is in town, also that John Kenneth Galbraith has just left. Wish it were the other way round.” Williams called him a “frustrated scholar”.

He found further common ground with Burton in their love of rugby, and gave due (some thought idiosyncratic) prominence to sport throughout the diaries, footnoting which teams had played and what the score had been.

Williams was at his best dissecting Burton’s “professional Welshness”. The actor wasted no opportunity in interviews to beat the drum for Wales, but he never lived there again, preferring the simulacrum of his house “Le Pays de Galles” in Switzerland. 

His Welshness, according to Williams, was  “reduced to a series of labels, badges, boxes to be ticked: coal-mining and class politics, alcohol, Welsh male voice, rugby, a sometimes shaky grasp of the Welsh language and Welsh history, a reverence for the greats of Welsh literature. But it was not a living entity. It was frozen in time, static, stagnant, ossified.”

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Williams’s abundant footnotes attracted some criticism: “Typical notes inform us that Hemingway, Kafka and Tolstoy were novelists, that Lausanne is a city in Switzerland,” observed the New York Times reviewer, who wondered “whom the book is aimed at: schoolchildren, illiterate fans or other unlikely purchasers”.

Others, though, saw the scholarly treatment as an honour that Burton, who took fervent pride in his six-month stint as an undergraduate at Oxford, would have savoured. 

“My ‘first love’ (God how many times have I read that?) is not the stage,” Burton had written. “It is a book, with lovely words in it.” His diaries, published by Yale, ended up shifting more than 100,000 copies.

At the diaries’ launch in Los Angeles, Williams had half an hour to kill, and asked himself what Richard Burton would have done. 

The vice-chancellor of his university found him with a whisky in the bar, and Williams recalled frantically sucking breath-freshening mints in the back of the taxi on the way to the British consul-general’s residence.


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