London, Sept. 21: Richard Burton is to “return from the dead” to perform the lead role in a new BBC production of one of his favourite plays, even though it is being produced almost 20 years after his death.
The late Welsh actor will star in a new version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood for Radio 4, which is being aired to mark the 50th anniversary of the writer’s death.
BBC producers have used new technology to take Burton’s performance from a 1963 radio version of the play and blend it with the voices of an entirely new cast, many of whom were not alive at the time of the original recording.
The result is a new version of the classic work which, the BBC says, sounds as if it were made with the full and active co-operation of the Welsh star.
It is the first time a performance by a dead actor has been revived and included in a new production, although images of stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, have been used fleetingly in films and commercials made after their death.
The play’s producers hit upon the idea of resurrecting the 1963 performance after they realised that they would find it impossible to find a living actor with the same vocal range and dexterity as Burton’s.
To incorporate Burton’s performance in the new play, BBC technicians used computer technology to cleanse the original recording. In addition to removing all the hissing that had built up over the years, they also removed other unwarranted distractions, which although acceptable when the production was first broadcast, would spark complaints now.
These include the sound of Burton clinking change in his pocket, the noise made by a microphone stand falling over and fellow cast members shuffling about in the background.
Engineers have also re-recorded Burton’s voice in cinema quality surround sound for an internet version of the play that will go online next year.
Alison Hindell, a producer for BBC Wales, which is responsible for the new production, said: “When I first approached the BBC with the idea of a new version of the play they said ‘thanks but no thanks’.
They said that they were rather fond of the Burton version because, after all, what is Under Milk Wood without Richard Burton'
“I thought about that for a while afterwards and said: ‘Fine. If we can’t have a production without Richard Burton, we will have one with him’.”
She added: “I like to think he would have approved of what we are doing. It was a project he loved a great deal and one he performed on many occasions. If you listen to the old 1963 production, Richard stands out from the rest of the cast, who sound very old fashioned.”
“It was the second time he had done the play for radio and his voice had improved enormously from what it had been 10 years earlier. He sounds totally at home alongside the new cast.”
Under Milk Wood, also known as A Play for Voices, tells the story of the inhabitants of a tiny Welsh fishing town called Llareggub (a typical piece of Dylan Thomas humour: the name reads backwards in English). The play explores and contrasts the secret desires and daily experiences of more than 60 inhabitants over one day.
Sally Burton, the actor’s widow, welcomed the new production. “I think it is a wonderful idea,” she said. “I must admit, however, when the BBC called me about doing a new version, my heart sank. I thought: ‘Oh no, they want to hand over Richard’s crown to someone else’. I was thrilled when they said it was going to be a new version with Richard in it. It is such a wonderful tribute. I think the thing Richard would have loved most is the fact that he will be appearing alongside a new and wonderfully talented Welsh cast.”
She added: “Dylan Thomas was such an important influence on Richard’s life and work, and of course they were great friends. I know when he came to London and met Dylan it was the most productive period of his life. They had become firm friends who would do their recordings and then proceed to fall into the pub together.”
A spokesman for Equity, the actor’s union, also supported the decision to use Burton, even though it had prevented another actor taking the part.