I started reading Pinter when I was about 12, and found his work strangely reassuring, for here was the dialog of the adults all around me, full of peopled silences and casual menace. Whether it was The Caretaker or The Birthday Party, it all seemed so normal, only as I gained a year, did I realize that perhaps it wasn’t meant to be so normal after all.
Pinter observed and refracted the world around him through the prism of his experience - a repertory actor caught in digs, mixing with landladies, traveling salesman, became The Room, The Basement, and The Birthday Party. As Pinter told his biographer, Michael Billington:
“I went to these digs and found, in short, a very big woman who was the landlady and a little man, the landlord. There was no one else there, apart from a solitary lodger, and the digs were really quite filthy ... I slept in the attic with this man I’d met in the pub ... we shared the attic and there was a sofa over my bed ... propped up so I was looking at this sofa from which hairs and dust fell continuously. And I said to the man, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “Oh well I used to be…I’m a pianist. I used to play in the concert-party here and I gave that up.” ... The woman was really quite a voracious character, always tousled his head and tickled him and goosed him and wouldn’t leave him alone at all. And when I asked him why he stayed, he said, “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Or, the start of family life, married to the actress Vivian Merchant, living together in a threadbare flat in Chiswick, the location which inspired The Caretaker:
“a very clean couple of rooms with a bath and kitchen. There was a chap who owned the house: a builder, in fact, like Mick who had his own van and whom I hardly ever saw. The only image of him was of this swift mover up and down the stairs and of his van going . . . Vroom . . . as he arrived and departed. His brother lived in the house. He was a handyman . . . he managed rather more successfully than Aston, but he was very introverted, very secretive, had been in a mental home some years before and had had some kind of electrical shock treatment . . . ECT, I think . . . Anyway, he did bring a tramp back one night. I call him a tramp, but he was just a homeless old man who stayed three or four weeks.”
Then there was his sexual and romantic relationships Landscape, Silence, Betrayal; and even his influences - a moot point that without Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, he wouldn’t have written The Homecoming.
In 1963, Pinter wrote an essay about his theater and his plays:
I’m not a theorist. I’m not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that’s all. That’s the sum of it.
I’ve had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week, and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say, “Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash,” the text would read, “Look, dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, dot.” So it’s possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes, and that’s why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.
Nigel Williams directed this superb two-part film biography on Harold Pinter for BBC’s Arena strand, which explores:
Pinter’s life, work, and political passions - from his East End childhood to his work as an actor, his experience of both early critical rejection and adulation, his screenwriting, and his love of poetry and passion for cricket.
Part One explores Pinter’s key theme - the room - through the very rooms in which he wrote his first great series of plays. Arena reveals the links between the plays and places, and meets the people who live there now. We visit the East London terraced house room where Pinter grew up and first wrote poetry; the theatre dressing room where he began to formulate his ideas about playwriting and language; the sitting room in the London cold-water flat where he wrote his first hit, The Caretaker, and his study in the bow-fronted house in Worthing, where he lived in the sixties with his first wife Vivien Merchant, and wrote The Homecoming.
Harold Pinter has given Arena exclusive access to personal recordings in which he talks frankly to his biographer Michael Billington. Presented for the first time on television, they tell Pinter’s story in his own words, as he remembers it.
In part two of this film biography, Arena explores the relationship between the public and private dimensions of the famous playwright and actor’s life and work; the intimacy of his plays since the seventies; his work in films and television drama; his passion for poetry; and his fervent ‘political engagement’.
Arena accompanied Pinter for two years to film plays and events in America and all over Europe. The wildly funny Celebration features a group of friends celebrating in a restaurant and, over the course of the evening, revealing details of their private lives in this very public space.
Arena reunites members of the cast, including Lindsay Duncan, Andy de la Tour, Susan Wooldridge and Indira Varma, who discuss their working relationship with Harold Pinter.
Other contributors include his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, journalist John Pilger and Pinter’s biographer Michael Billington.
Part 2 of this excellent documentary on Harold Pinter, after the jump…