Nice Guy

Michael Wood

  • The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington
    Faber, 414 pp, £20.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 571 17103 6

Rehearsing his part in a production of The Birthday Party at Scarborough, the young Alan Ayckbourn asked Harold Pinter for a little more information about the fictional character. Pinter said: ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’ It’s a good answer, and Ayckbourn no doubt took it kindly and got the point. But it bothers Michael Billington, who can’t tell the story without cleaning it up, indeed turning it into a testimonial. ‘That was not brusqueness or rudeness – Ayckbourn testifies that Pinter was an extremely nice guy – but simply an absolute belief in the self sufficiency of the text.’

There’s not much hope for a biography whose subject can’t be brusque or rude, and Billington’s relish for stereotypes doesn’t help us much either. This is a world of bedrocks and watersheds, where people stay the course and stick to each other through thick and thin. Shocks are seismic, memories photographic, deaths sad, suicides tragic. If anyone creates it’s at white heat. ‘Pinter’s openings are always good,’ Billington writes; ‘this one is no exception.’ Spot on.

Billington gives a coherent account of Pinter’s career, from his early days in Jewish Hackney through Hackney Downs Grammar School, Rada and an acting job with a touring Shakespeare company in Ireland, a job with Donald Wolfit, a few years in rep, attention as a playwright for The Room (1957), and The Birthday Party (1958), sudden and extravagant fame for The Caretaker (1960). Pinter married the actress Vivien Merchant in 1956; they had a son, Daniel, in 1958. Pinter wrote short plays for radio and television, a novel, several screenplays, notably for Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963). The Homecoming (1965) is widely regarded as Pinter’s masterpiece. Among his later plays are Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975), Mountain Language (1988), Moonlight (1993) and Ashes to Ashes, which opened at the Royal Court in September of this year. Pinter divorced Vivien Merchant in 1980 (she died two years later of alcoholic poisoning) and married Antonia Fraser. During the Sixties, Pinter had, we now learn, an affair with TV presenter Joan Bakewell, which Billington, before finally coming clean, presents to us with remarkable coyness. We are first told that Pinter ‘began a serious extra-marital relationship that was to last for seven years’; then that he had ‘an ongoing affair with a prominent TV journalist’; then that he and Joan Bakewell were ‘close’; finally that they had ‘an affair’: what a relief.

Billington is informative about the reception of Pinter’s plays and often perceptive about the plays themselves. He has a particularly good chapter on Pinter’s still unfilmed Proust Screenplay, one of the greatest imaginary movies ever written. But Billington’s piety about Pinter is all but crippling, turning what might have been a portrait into a long obeisance. When Pinter writes a truly dire poem about the Gulf War, the sort of rant you would have to turn down for the school magazine, and which was refused by the Independent, the Observer, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books and (surely not) the London Review of Books, Billington not only prints and defends the poem, he is entirely convinced that its rejection ‘offers melancholy proof that hypocrisy is not confined to governments and politicians’. And not, for instance, the more cheerful proof that the mere name of Harold Pinter doesn’t destroy critical faculties everywhere. When Pinter is challenged to name two Nicaraguan poets and does so, Billington regards this as a complete vindication of Pinter’s knowledge of Central American culture, not pausing to ask whether knowing two names, or even the work of two poets, is quite enough to put the real question to rest.

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