DVD Review: Pinter at the BBC

Harold Pinter (1930-2008) was one of the foremost British playwrights of the twentieth century, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. Although his reputation was first made on the stage, beginning with the one-act The Room in 1957, he was soon working on radio and the then-growing medium of television. He also wrote for the cinema, though all his work for that medium was adaptations rather than original work, beginning with the film of his own play, The Caretaker, in 1963, He had fruitful collaborations with director Joseph Losey, beginning with The Servant (1963).

With just two channels to choose from (three from 1964), the late 1950s and the 1960s were a golden age for the single play, and they could be an event, with audiences over ten million talking about what they had seen, the next day. This box set from the BFI collects ten of Pinter's plays made for the BBC between 1965 and 1988. It's not a complete collection: it's missing, for example, a 1981 production of The Caretaker, with Warren Mitchell as the tramp Davies, which I saw at the time. Also missing are two feature-length adaptations from the work of others, Langrishe, Go Down (1978) and The Trial (1993). However, this present release is an essential item for anyone interested in Pinter and in British television drama of the time.

That golden age also marked the rise of the Angry Young Men (and a few women), writers from regional backgrounds, often working-class ones, keen to bring new perspectives and a new relevance an increasingly hidebound theatre. Pinter's early work doesn't really fit that mould, though there are similarities, in the seedy rental-houses and shady characters which first inspired him. Yet from the outset, Pinter – whose first writings, at school, were poetry – showed different concerns. Motivations were often ambiguous, and he also explored themes of time and memory, and how memories can contradict each other. There was also a political consciousness, there from the outset but later more overt. His dialogue – making poetic use of the repetitions, and evasions of everyday speech, and in particular its pauses and silences (one play is actually called Silence) – soon became his much-imitated trademark.

Pinter was born in Hackney, London. As well taking part in school athletics and cricket, his interest in the theatre and cinema began early. He started as an actor (sometimes using the name David Baron) but also begin writing plays. He wasn't yet thirty when his first full-length play, the three-act The Birthday Party, premiered in 1958. Its London run in May of that year attracted strongly negative reviews, and it closed after eight nights, but Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times hailed it and its writer as a significant force in British theatre – unfortunately after that first run had ended. Pinter began writing for radio with A Slight Ache (1959) and A Night Out (1960), both on the Third Programme, Radio 3 as was. The latter also became Pinter's first play for television, just a month later in the same year, on ITV. That was a particular success, with an audience of six million, the most-watched programme on television that week. Both of these plays were later produced by the BBC on television, of which more below.

Continuing to work for the small screen, Pinter contributed four plays to ITV's Television Playhouse strand 1960 and 1961: Night School, The Collection, The Dumb Waiter and The Room, of which the first two are lost. In 1963, ITV showed The Lover. There were also productions of his plays for foreign television companies. By 1964, with major stage plays like The Caretaker and The Homecoming behind him, Pinter';s reputation was secure. And then the BBC approached him. I'll discuss the ten plays in this box in chronological order, which isn't the order they are presented in this box set.

Pinter at the BBC, Tea Party

Tea Party (25 March 1965, 76:14)

In 1965, Sydney Newman, who had been the producer of Armchair Theatre, which had run A Night Out, was now the BBC's Head of Drama. Also, Michael Bakewell, who had produced much of Pinter's previous radio work, had become the Corporation's Head of Plays. They commissioned Pinter to write a play for The Largest Theatre in the World, in which the then thirteen countries making up Eurovision would make their own versions of the play in question. The result was Tea Party, first broadcast on BBC1. Pinter based the play on his own short story, which had been published in Playboy in January the same year. He later adapted the play for the stage.

Disson (Leo McKern) is a self-made businessman, chairman of a sanitary engineering company. A widower, he is about to marry Diana (Jennifer Wright) but is anxious that his brother-in-law-to-be Willy (Charles Gray) is aiming to usurp him. And he struggles with an attraction to his secretary Wendy (Vivien Merchant).

Tea Party was not Pinter's favourite of his own work, partly because Disson is set up for a fall from the outset. If the 1960s were a golden age for television single plays (on the BBC, The Wednesday Play especially, which became Play for Today in the 1970s) that implies that they were always writer-led. Often they were – this was the era where Dennis Potter, David Mercer and others made their names on the small screen – but there were also directors making their marks before in many cases moving on to the cinema. Tea Party is a combination of both. Pinter's work in the cinema before now, and his lifelong love for the medium, had inspired him to include cinematic elements into his work. Also, with Charles Jarrott, he had a director clearly sympathetic to his aims. So we get tracking shots, big close-ups and, towards the end, subjective camera with the screen going black to simulate hysterical blindness.

The soundtrack is heightened as well: not least the emphasised rasp of her tights every time Wendy crosses her legs. Vivien Merchant originated many of the female roles in Pinter's early plays, and she had married him in 1956. They had a son two years later, though by the mid-1960s their marriage was in decline. (Pinter had a seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell, which inspired his play Betrayal. Pinter and Merchant separated in 1975 and in 1980 he married Lady Antonia Fraser. Merchant died, aged fifty-three, in 1982, due to alcoholism.)

Pinter at the BBC, A Night Out

A Slight Ache (6 February 1967, 57:42)

A Night Out (13 February 1967, 59:46)

The Basement (20 February 1967, 54:38)

BBC2 was launched in 1964, intended as a minority channel. It was soon producing its own drama, often a little more challenging than that produced on BBC1. One such strand was Theatre 625, so named because the new channel broadcast exclusively on the new standard of 625-line PAL, in preparation for colour, which duly arrived in 1967. It also rather emphasised the fact that you needed a more expensive dual-standard television set to receive it, given that BBC1 and ITV were still broadcasting in 405-line. In 1967, it gave Pinter a showcase, with three hour-long plays on consecutive Monday nights. Two of them had previously been broadcast on radio, with A Night Out also having been produced for ITV. The Basement had its first outing in this slot.

A Slight Ache concerns middle-aged couple Edward (Maurice Denham, who had played the role in the radio production) and Flora (Hazel Hughes) in their country house, and the presence of a silent matchseller (Gordon Richardson). The latter does not speak a word throughout the play. In the radio production, he is literally a silence (though credited jokily in Radio Times to David Baron, Pinter's early acting stage name), leaving open the question as to whether he is real or not. On television, he's certainly present, and Pinter juxtaposes language and silence as both Edward and Flora try to communicate with him, would-be dialogues that remain monologues.

A Night Out had attracted a large audience on its original ITV production (which survives). That's understandable as it's one of the most accessible and least ambiguous of Pinter's plays,least on the surface. Tom Bell had played the lead role previously, but here it's Tony Selby as Albert Stokes. Albert lives with his mother (Anna Wing) and willingly or not clearly hasn't progressed beyond childhood. She's reluctant for him to go out in the evening, not even when two of his work colleagues take him along to the office party. Wrongly accused of touching up one of his female colleagues (a close-up shows us the real culprit), Albert leaves the party and has a meeting with a prostitute (Avril Elgar). Although it dates from sixty years ago, A Night Out is resonant in the age of MeToo and Incels: while Albert is treated sympathetically, it's clear that there's a violence within him, one brought about by his own frustrations.

There's a case to be made that Pinter's work changed when his fame and fortune, not to mention his relationships and later second marriage, took him away from the dwon-at-heel settings and people who had inspired his early work. However, an interest in time and memory,had been there from the start. But for whatever reason, after The Homecoming (1964), his work often took a more abstract turn, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work. You can see this in The Basement. The set-up is straightforward: Stott (Pinter, in a rare but not unique example of his acting in his own work) pays a visit to Law (Derek Godfrey) in the latter's basement flat. They knew each other in the past, or did they? With Stott is Jane (Kika Markham). What follows is a battle for dominance, in terms often for Pinter: a male rivalry with a woman in the centre.

The Basement is a story of one person overwhelmed by another. There are flashbacks – or did they really happen? How much of this is real and how much fantasy is left for you to decide, and it seemed to have puzzled more than a few audience members in 1967. It's a compelling if not entirely explicable play. The director was again Charles Jarrott (Christopher Morahan directed the other two Theatre 625 plays), and as with Tea Party the design by Eileen Diss plays a large part. From a technical point of view, this was the first Pinter television play to have filmed inserts as well as the video-shot studio material. This is used for some location-set scenes, and a later scene involving a fish tank, pre-filmed for special-effects reasons.

Monologue (13 April 1973, 20:10)

As a television form, the monologue is often these days associated with Alan Bennett, but he certainly wasn't the first to use it. Many of Pinter's two- or three-hander plays are really competing monologues, with little or no apparent interaction between the characters. But here is a one-hander, and it is simply called Monologue. Henry Woolf (a schoolfriend of Pinter's) sits in a chair and addresses an absent friend, who is represented by an empty chair. The two men were close friends, but a woman came between them, and went with the friend. Or did she? As before, it's possible to read this as an account of people who may not actually have existed, or maybe the two friends are different parts of the man. Christopher Morahan directs simply, cutting back and forth between Woolf and “reaction” shots of the chair. Two years later, Pinter played the role on Radio 3.

Pinter at the BBC, Old Times

Old Times (22 October 1975, 75:10)

Old Times, premiered in 1970, was Pinter's first full-length (two-act) stage play for six years, following the two-acter The Homecoming. The only new stage plays in between were two one-acters, Landscape and Silence, often double-billed, of which more below. That's not to say that Pinter hadn't been busy in that time, but his work was mostly for the cinema: screenplays for The Quiller Memorandum (1965), and two films directed by Joseph Losey, Accident (1966) and The Go-Between (1970). He had also written an adaptation of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a likely four-hour film with Losey intended to direct. The film was never made, though Pinter's script was published as The Proust Screenplay.

We're in the home of Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper). They're a well-heeled couple: he's in the film industry. They are visited by Anna's former roommate Anna (Mary Miller). What follows is a tussle over Kate by the other two, with their competing memories of London of twenty years earlier, a London Pinter himself had known very well. The play continues the move towards inwardness and abstraction in Pinter's work: despite the references to it, there's no outside world as such, and what we see is the inner world of one or more of the characters. Old Times is an enigmatic piece which takes more than one viewing fully to unpick.

Another tradition of the time, particularly on the BBC, was to broadcast television productions of stage plays, more or less intact. On one hand, the likely audience was far greater than would ever see the play on stage, but on the other you ended up with something which was neither one nor the other, television or theatre. Some other notable directors worked this way: Alan Clarke, for example, who made two for the Play of the Month strand, The Love-Girl and the Innocent and Danton's Death. Old Times follows the same pattern, using the stage device of Anna standing in shadows at the back of the set until she makes a sudden entrance into the play. The director here is Christopher Morahan, who is generally self-effacing, but making use of television's possibilities of close-ups and (discreet) camera movement and focus.

The Hothouse (27 March 1982, 111:26)

The Hothouse was an early play, written in 1958, but put aside after the initial failure of The Birthday Party. Pinter did however draw on it for other works: a bizarre interrogation scene (“Are you virgo intacta? Have you always been virgo intacta?”) forms the basis, almost word for word, of the short sketch Applicant (see below). Pinter revisited The Hothouse two decades later, and it had its stage premiere in 1980, a production he directed himself. This television production followed two years later, also directed by Pinter.

The play is set in the institution of the title, which could be a care home or an asylum, with the patients (or residents) known by numbers rather than names. The longest play in this set, somewhat overlong, it's a black satire on authoritarian control. It's an early indication of Pinter's political conscience, though he observed that it was fantasy when he wrote it but when it was eventually produced reality had overtaken it. As television, it's as powerfully acted as you would expect, though in Pinter's directorial hands it's more in the tradition of Play of the Month than other more approaches to drama, with his direction emphasising the characters' power dynamics through changes in framing.

Landscape (4 February 1983, 45:01)

Landscape has a little place in broadcasting history. Written in 1968, this one-acter was Pinter's first stage play since The Homecoming four years earlier, and it shows his move into a more introspective, minimalist and abstract, with the emphasis on time and memory and their conflicts, and who ultimately owns our past. A middle-aged married couple, Beth (Dorothy Tutin) and Duff (Colin Blakely) sit at either end of a kitchen table. The play effectively comprises two monologues, one from each character, with almost no interaction between the two characters. Beth remembers a romantic interlude - with Duff or another man?. Duff talks about more practical matters, but it's clear this is, like many men, a front to avoid emotion, and an anger soon comes to the surface, a frustration.

The  Lord Chamberlain (then legally in charge of theatre censorship) refused the play a licence unless Duff's line “fuck all” was changed. Pinter declined, and so Landscape had its premiere on BBC Radio 3 on 25 April 1968. While Kenneth Tynan had notoriously said the word on live television in 1965 (and Joe Moran's excellent book Armchair Nation identifies two earlier occurrences), this was the first use of the word in scripted drama on the BBC, several years before the Corporation allowed it on their television service. (Deeley's use of the same phrase in Old Times became “sod all” in 1975, presumably with Pinter's consent.) The Lord Chamberlain's powers of theatre censorship were abolished later the same year, and so Landscape appeared on stage in 1969.

It is often double-billed with Pinter's next play, the shorter and even more abstract three-hander Silence. I saw this television production of Landscape on its broadcast in 1983, for which the BBC2 continuity announcer neglected to advise of the strong language (tut tut). Directed by Kenneth Ives, it's again in the Play of the Month tradition of favouring the text and the actors, ultimately a stage work recorded for TV. However, Ives does make use of the possibilities of the small screen, the use of close-ups emphasising the separation of the two characters, even though they're not that far apart in space.

Pinter at the BBC, The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party (21 June 1987, 107:28)

As this was the play which first made Pinter's name (and it had been filmed in 1968, directed by William Friedkin), it was probably inevitable that it would receive the BBC treatment. And so it was, as part of the Theatre Night strand, devoted to television productions of stage successes. This three-act play (with fades to black where the intervals would be) takes place inside a boarding-house in what appears to be a seaside town. Stanley (Kenneth Cranham) is a longtime resident, treated with an affection at times flirtatious, at times maternal, by his landlady Meg (Joan Plowright). It's Stanley's birthday. But soon to arrive are two mysterious men, Goldberg (Pinter) and McCann (Colin Blakeley).

As so often some expository details are left ambiguous. Stanley may or may not be a concert pianist. Goldberg and McCann are to take him away as he has betrayed the “organisation”. That undoubtedly threw many audiences when the play was first staged, but nearly thirty years later, it's par for the course, and the power of the piece is undoubted. Subtexts are there to be had: Goldberg and McCann may be the instruments of whatever authority Stanley is to submit to, but they are themselves members of persecuted groups, Jews and the Irish respectively. Julie Walters, by then over a decade into her career, already an Oscar nominee and more often associated with comedy (though this is a comedy of a blackish kind), appears in the smaller role of neighbour Lulu, who becomes involved in Stanley's party as the evening progresses. The director is Kenneth Ives again, and with a less static, less introspective, play, produces something that grips like a vice on the small screen.

Mountain Language (11 December 1988, 20:32)

As the 1980s progressed, Pinter's political engagement continued, to the extent that he claimed that a largely right-wing media was trying to marginalise him by painting him as increasingly angry and intemperate, implying that his sanity was at stake. Mountain Language, four scenes and twenty minutes long, was his response to a visit to Turkey and to the situation of the Kurdish people there. The play is set in an unnamed country, in a prison overseen by a Sergeant (Michael Gambon), with inmates including two women, one younger (Miranda Richardson), and one older (Eileen Atkins) and the former's husband (Tony Haygarth).

Pinter has always opposed language off with silence, but here silence is enforced, as the prisoners' native language (the mountain language of the title) is banned. Mountain Language premiered (on the stage two months before this television production, which Pinter directed) in the same year that the then Conservative government brought in its Broadcasting Ban. That prevented the voices of Sinn Fein and their supporters from being heard on television, which broadcasters circumvented by either dubbing or silence with subtitles. Mountain Language is linguistically brutal, upping the strong-language tally in this set to an extent not then common on television. The play is short, sharp and has a considerable impact.

Pinter at the BBC, The Basement


Pinter at the BBC is a set of five PAL-format DVDs, all dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. Mountain Language gives this set its 15 certificate; all the other plays have been passed at 12. Disc One contains Tea Party and The Basement, Disc Two A Slight Ache and A Night Out, Disc Three Monologue, Old Times and Landscape, Disc Four The Hothouse and Mountain Language, Disc Five The Birthday Party.

As you would expect from television of this vintage, all ten plays are in the ratio of 1.33:1. Tea Party is transferred from a 16mm telerecording, while the others are from the 625-line broadcast tapes, black and white in the case of the Theatre 625 plays, colour thereafter. Inevitably there are occasional flaws, such as scratches on the Tea Party telerecording, and some dropouts on the video-sourced productions, but there's nothing distracting and no better source would be available.

The soundtrack is the original mono in all cases, rendered as Dolby Digital 2.0. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing and given how linguistically precise a writer Pinter is, I'm glad to say that I didn't spot any errors.

The extras begin on Disc One, with an interview with Benedict Nightingale (46:34), recorded at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1984. part of a series of Writers in Conversation events that that venue held. This isn't on the same disc as Mountain Language but is relevant to it, as Pinter discusses the situation in Turkey. However, much of the interview is centred on his then-new stage play One for the Road.

On Disc Three is Pinter People. In 1959, Pinter wrote a series of revue sketches. Five years later, the BBC Third Programme broadcast nine of them, three at a time at fortnightly intervals. Five of them were made into short animated films by Gerald Potterton and four are included here: Trouble in the Works (4:14), Request Stop (3:06), The Black and White (4:40) and Applicant (which gains a definite article in the menu that it doesn't have in print, and there's no onscreen title, 4:11). These are two-or-three-hander dialogue pieces, not the most essential Pinter, but essential for completists. Applicant has a particular relationship to The Hothouse, written around the same time, as mentioned above. There are no credits onscreen. A fifth film, Last to Go, was not available for this release.

On Disc Five, there are two extras. First is a 1997 episode of Face to Face (39:07), the BBC's revival of the famous interview series of the late 50s and early 60s. The camera stays on the interviewee, with interviewer Sir Jeremy Isaacs offscreen, with the intent to dig deeper than usual for this kind of programme, digging into Pinter's life and the events which shaped him as a person and a writer. Also on this disc, as a second audio track, is an interview (72:40), recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1996. The interviewer was The Guardian's longstanding theatre critic Michael Billington, also Pinter's biographer. Inevitably this discussion concentrates on Pinter's cinema work, and it says something of his standing that of the scripts he had written, only two had not been produced.

Billington opens the BFI's forty-page booklet with an overview of Pinter's television work. As Billington points out, Pinter arrived at a time when television was hungry for new writers, and, shot of money at the end of the 50s, he jumped at the chance to meet the then head of drama at Associated-Rediffusion, the company which had the ITV London franchise on weekdays at the time. Billington discusses the ten plays in this set, and his essay is followed by essays by writers on nine of them. (The exception is Landscape, which appears to have been a late addition to this set.) So, Billy Smart discusses Tea Party and The Basement, Amanda Wrigley A Slight Ache and A Night Out, Lez Clarke Monologue, John Wyver Old Times and The Birthday Party and David Rolinson The Hothouse and Mountain Language. The booklet also includes full credits for all ten plays, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.

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