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Balance of Power: Harold Pinter at the BBC on DVD

  There's some credible claim for Harold Pinter as the greatest British playwright of the twentieth century, and his prolific quality means there's plenty of material from him to judge by. He eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature among his many awards, and ensured his work was widely seen by regularly involving himself not only in theatre, but in television and film as well. Born in Hackney, London in 1930 (he died in 2008), his style was marked by hard to define character motivations that seemed to be prompted by personal power games, sometimes sexual, sometimes thanks to a force of machismo, sometimes large scale, sometimes all three in the same piece. The BFI have released on DVD ten of the plays he adapted for BBC Television over the course of three decades.

First on the set is 1965's Tea Party, which features bathroom magnate Leo McKern, a self-made man, gradually undergoing a curious crisis of confidence over the course of the plot. The first scene is the trigger: prospective secretary Vivien Merchant (Pinter's wife at the time and a regular participant in his work) is interviewed, and admits she left her last job because she was sexually harassed, which appals and, though he cannot admit it, attracts the businessman. As he is getting married, everything from then on takes a sinister appearance typical to this author, leading to a disturbing conclusion where now-blindfold-fetishizing, the only way he can retain control of his life by shutting down his senses completely and imagining all sorts of sordidness about those around him.

Next is 1967's The Basement, the titular setting being a flat where Derek Godfrey resides alone until Pinter himself and Kika Markham show up in the rain one night and basically invite themselves in to use the bed, and then hang around for the following year. Beginning with a sequence that indicated any form of entertainment was frankly pathetic compared to having sex with a woman, a young woman preferably, as Godfrey offers them a drink and the jazz album he uselessly wants to put on, the time progresses and the woman switches loyalties between the men, then another conclusion is brought. Which is that even better than sex is man on man violence, as events come to a head with an impromptu and destructive indoor cricket match, then the relish of broken bottle attacks.

Third, and the second in the 1967's Theatre 625 entries, was A Slight Ache, which could have been subtitled The Wasp's Revenge as a genteel, older middle-aged couple (Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes) are having breakfast when they are menaced by said insect and drown it in the marmalade pot. It is then when they notice that match seller is back, hanging around outside their beloved garden, and they plot to move him on, ironically inviting him in to do so. If you think the silent, down and out seller is doomed, you may be surprised as Denham regales him with tales of his adventures in colonial Africa, and Hughes reminisces about a rape she suffered as a young woman she is apparently encouraging the seller to re-enact. Typically, the ending was irrationally uneasy.

The last in Pinter's contributions to Theatre 625 in 1967 was a play that had originally been on BBC Radio, then ITV's Armchair Theatre: A Night Out. That innocuous-sounding title concealed a story of gradually realised, seething resentment from its main character, a mother's boy played by Tony Selby who lives with his widowed parent (Anna Wing), an elderly woman who clings onto him as she has no-one else in the world to depend on. When he seeks to break free, he does so in the most banal manner possible, by attending his office party where he is fairly bored until one of his female co-workers accuses him of inappropriately touching her - he hasn't, the old geezer guest of honour secretly has. As much about the suffocation of inane small talk as Selby's suppressed madness.

Monologue from 1973 was precisely that, a one-person piece where Pinter's good friend Henry Woolf participated in what seems to be a man's reminiscences of his past, yet they are all addressed to a chair in front of him in a largely bare, empty room. The only other item of furniture, aside from his own chair, is a table which has a cup of tea he occasionally sips from between bursts of one-sided conversation where we have to pick out from the details he offers what has happened to leave him so alone. Here the famous Pinter pauses are deployed to melancholy effect, as the man, who has no name we are given, obviously aches for a time past he will never get back, but has no way to make the present any better - little wonder, if he spends his time conversing with an empty chair.

Christopher Morahan was the go-to guy to helm Pinter's plays for television at the BBC for some years, and in 1975 he brought us Old Times, a three-hander which like the above centred on memory and the comfort it can bring, as well as the problems. Barry Foster was the man married to Anna Cropper who has invited an old friend, Mary Miller, to their country cottage after a twenty year gap; they used to be best friends, but the friend moved to Italy and now is their chance to catch up. Except they don't catch up, they go over and over the past, initially warmly, but eventually with something akin to horror and sorrow as the conversation turns around the borrowed underwear the friend wore that caught the husband's eye: regret for the road not taken was the tragedy here.

Landscape hailed from 1983, though it had originated as a Samuel Beckett-style radio play in the late sixties, and again regretful looking back was the theme as a married couple (Dorothy Tutin and Colin Blakely), now in middle age, sit in a large, airy room as darkness descends and discuss their union. Or do they? They talk in turn, yet to demonstrate their lack of empathy for one another they don't actually conduct a conversation, she telling of a time she spent on the beach, drawing, and he rambling on various topics (beer, dog-walking) until he mentions, almost in passing, how he had an affair. Throughout it all Tutin remained composed and quiet, while Blakely, suggesting where Pinter's sympathies lay, blustered and got angry about trivial issues, not listening to her heartache.

The year before, Pinter directed one of his plays himself for the BBC, the satirical drama The Hothouse. He had been engaged with politics, and especially the politics of language, ever since his early days as a writer, often offering his opinion, and indeed opprobrium, on the totalitarian regimes of this world, and a work like this was a blatant attack on those same regimes. It told the story of a sanatorium of sorts where dissidents in an unnamed European country are forced to undertake "treatments", i.e. torture to make them talk or admit to crimes they have never committed. Derek Newark headed an impressive cast, including Angela Pleasance, as the chief whose determination to apportion blame for even the most nebulous offences leads to an orgy of murder and revenge.

In the same vein, Pinter by 1988 had become even more political, and in his railing against oppression, driven in part by his Jewish background that made him highly alert to any misuse of state power, he became a campaigner as never before, a thorn in the side of many an establishment since when Pinter spoke, people listened. Mountain Language from that year was a takedown of those governments inspired by a visit to Turkey and its violent suppression of the Kurds: here, denying expression through language is as violent as any baton to the head. Michael Gambon headed the authorities in a twenty-minute play, one of the author's shortest, and also appearing were Miranda Richardson trying to see her jailed husband, and Tony Haygarth as another inmate.

Last in the set is an adaptation of Pinter's first major work, The Birthday Party, famously a flop at its first staging that left critics and audiences scratching their heads. It was later filmed in 1968 under the direction of William Friedkin, which is the most widely seen version, but this incarnation had the bonus of featuring Pinter himself in the role of Goldberg, accompanied by Colin Blakely (his final role) who show up at a boarding house to take pianist Kenneth Cranham away for mysterious purpose. As well as being intriguing to see how an author interprets their own material, the rest of the cast were exemplary: Joan Plowright, Julie Walters among them, and the claustrophobia and violence of dialogue were keenly applied in a tale of forced conformity by the powers that be.

Also on that set are extra features, including extensive interviews with the fearsomely intelligent Pinter: Writers in Conversation, a video featurette from 1984, Face to Face, from the 1997 revival of the interview format with Jeremy Isaacs putting the questions, and much focus on Pinter's younger years; and an audio only discussion from 1996 with Michael Billington. A booklet of essays of new writing is also included. But most eccentrically, there is a collection of short cartoons made by Pinter titled Pinter People and directed by Gerard Potterton in 1969. These are brief vignettes of his dialogues brought to life in sketchy drawings, and fans of The Hothouse will be engaged to see a version of the modern day torture chamber sequence from that as the last one; the others are a worker-management dispute with unusual ending, a bus stop trauma and a chat in a café between two old ladies. All of this, from the main plays to the extras, paints a strong picture of Pinter's oeuvre, from his antagonistic characters to his overwhelming obsession with the uses of language, some of the finest work simply to listen to ever created - for TV or the stage.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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