Time Out's tribute to Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve after a long illness. The Nobel Prizewinner was a titanic figure in theatre, a man of integrity who was not afraid to speak his mind. The Londoner appeared numerous times in Time Out's pages, so here we pay tribute to his remarkable legacy
There was a traditional game to be played whenever a new production of a Harold Pinter was announced. The PR would ring up and ask if we were interested in covering it and I or one of my predecessors would instantly say we would love to talk to the playwright. ‘No, no,’ the response would invariably be, ‘he’s not doing any interviews.’ Then, in 1993, just after Pinter’s first new play for 15 years, ‘Moonlight’, had opened at the Almeida and as his production of David Mamet’s controversial attack on political correctness, ‘Oleanna’, was moving into the West End, our long campaign paid off. We were told that Pinter would speak to Steve Grant, a fellow lover of cricket, whose enthusiasm for theatre had been inspired by listening to Pinter plays on the radio, and whose treasured possession was a well-worn LP of ‘The Caretaker’ with Donald Pleasence.
At one point during the long interview, they stood in Pinter’s lavatory studying the pictures on the wall, which included a painting of Sir Len Hutton, Ashes hero and Pinter’s favourite cricketer; a photograph from the mid-’60s when Pinter had ‘The Caretaker’ and ‘The Homecoming’ playing simultaneously at theatres across Broadway. And, smack over the seat, a poster: a commemorative poem by John Berger sitting underneath a photograph of one-time Socialist Chilean Defence Minister, Orlando Letelier, tortured, exiled and car-bombed in Washington DC in 1976. Cricket. Theatre. Politics. It was all there.
It was typical of Pinter that once he had agreed to talk he was generous with his time. When Grant asked Pinter whether Mamet’s pauses differed from his own, the man who famously once told an actor he was playing a two dot pause when the text called for three, replied ‘Well, he certainly comes to a dead halt in his own inimitable way. I think that every pause is different anyway, in any play, different from that which follows it and that which precedes it.’
Mamet was one of many playwrights who Pinter went out of his way to help. When the American sent him a copy of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ asking for comments, Pinter was so impressed that he passed it on to the National Theatre and was rewarded with a dedication in the published version. He came to the defence of Sarah Kane when the Royal Court premiere of her play ‘Blasted’ was attacked as ‘a disgusting feast of filth’ on the front page of the Daily Mail. He also had a strange affection for the American political playwright Donald Freed, whose plays were surely only staged here because Pinter was prepared to direct them.
Many years later, our film editor, Dave Calhoun, talked to him in connection with ‘Sleuth’ for which he wrote the film script in 2007. By then Pinter had been diagnosed with cancer and, more happily, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. At the interview, he was in good form and, focussing on his career in film rather than theatre, was happy to describe his relationship with Joseph Losey with whom he made his best films and to talk about those directors such as Buñuel, Carné and Cocteau who excited him in his youth.
I never interviewed Pinter but my chance to meet him came when he won the Critics’ Circle Award in 1999. As I was then about to become the Circle’s next President, I sat on the same table as Pinter and his wife, the historian Antonia Fraser. Beforehand, I confessed to being nervous to Pinter’s biographer and The Guardian critic, Michael Billington, who unexpectedly reassured me that Pinter was ‘a pussy cat’. I wouldn’t go that far – there was a definite frisson when I blurted out some nonsense when we were introduced – but the mood was decidedly jolly and memorable for me not least because he crackled with a prickly, sexy energy. No wonder all the actresses who appeared in his plays adored him so much. Pinter was very alive to the irony of being given an award by a bunch of critics, a profession that had not always been the first to appreciate his work.
He inevitably told the story of ‘The Birthday Party’ and of how the reviews of the first production at the Lyric Hammersmith were so bad that the play was taken off on the first Saturday. But he gave full credit to Harold Hobson whose admiring review appeared the following morning with the words ‘The most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London’. Until Hobson came out, Pinter said, he had pretty well decided to give up the theatre altogether. If that had happened, we might today be mourning Pinter the novelist and poet rather than Pinter the playwright.
After ‘Moonlight’ in 1993 came a number of short new plays including ‘Party Time’, ‘Celebration’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Some of the credit for this renewed energy should go to Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid who during their time running the Almeida Theatre presented more plays by Pinter than any other playwright including the first London revivals of ‘Betrayal’ and ‘No Man’s Land’. They persuaded Pinter, who was no mean actor, to play Hirst in the latter, the part currently being played in the West End by Michael Gambon. It was during the run of ‘No Man’s Land’ that Pinter had a dream that led to the writing of ‘Moonlight’.
Reviewing these later plays always struck me as a minefield. It was hard to go to a Pinter premiere with an uncluttered mind. On the one hand, he was constantly attacked by the likes of the Daily Mail (its nasty obituary of the playwright runs true to form). It didn’t like his outspoken criticism of American foreign policy and he was dismissed as a Champagne socialist who lived in Holland Park and was married to the upper-class Antonia Fraser. On the other hand, the atmosphere in the audience at a Pinter opening could be excessively reverential, fatally bringing out the cynicism in a journalist. Some time needs to elapse before we can get the measure of the later work, although ‘Party Time’ in which people drink and make small talk (‘How is your regime?’ takes on a sinister double meaning) as others are beaten up outside, is highly pertinent to our times.
But there can be little doubt about the classic status of the older plays such as ‘The Homecoming’, ‘The Caretaker’, ‘Old Times’, ‘Betrayal’ and ‘No Man’s Land’ and it’s pleasing that the playwright lived to see them revived, rediscovered and given their due. If the women sometimes seem to be made up of little more than feline sexuality, the subjects of territory, insecurity, time and memory are all fascinatingly explored in a spare dialogue that is both everyday and poetic.
For Londoners, many of these plays also recall the city of Pinter’s youth with its coffee shops, cinema and jazz clubs and smoky pubs. He was brought up in a time when Jews were attacked in the East End by Mosley’s black shirts. He was evacuated during the War and returned home in time to experience the Blitz. No wonder he was determined to use his talent and authority to fight tyranny wherever he saw it. Even though I didn’t always agree with him – how could he have supported Milosevic? – I hope that others will be inspired to take his place as a campaigner. As a playwright, of course, he was unique and can never be replaced.
Pinter in Time Out
‘I can’t be sacked, you see, because I haven’t got a job. Therefore, I’ll continue to say whatever I like.’ 1993
‘I believe the United States is a truly monstrous force in the world, now off the leash for obvious reasons.' 1993
‘To say that I’ve been doing fuck-all for 15 years is a slight exaggeration.’ 1993
‘Hollywood, mainly, is a kind of shithouse. But out of this shithouse, they’ve produced the most surprising films.’ 2007
‘In the ’80s we set up a group of pretty intelligent people who wanted to discuss what was going on in this country. That’s all! And people found it absolutely disgusting! Also they found it laughable that intelligent people could meet and try to talk about the society in which they live. I think that, perhaps, there’s a change because I have to tell you that since I made that Nobel speech, I received thousands of letters, and lots of them from Americans by the way.’ 2007
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