[ people - december 05 ]
Gabriella Drake, a good actress, a RADA gold medallist, and a friend, called me one morning. ‘You know Harold. I’m up for the role in his play and I really, really want the part. Could you talk to him and tell him about me, please.’
I had to confess that I had very little (read zilch) influence with Harold on his plays, casting, writing, directing or whatever. Gabriella did get the part (I can’t remember which play now) and began rehearsals. I bumped into her a couple of days later and asked how it was going.
‘Nerve wracking,’ she said. ‘It’s a wonderful role but he’s always there, somewhere in the back row. When I spoke one of his lines, he shouted at me, “Miss Drake, do you know what a comma is?” I stuttered yes, Mr Pinter. “There is a comma in that sentence, and I placed it there for a purpose. Please repeat that line and remember the comma”.’
I wasn’t surprised by her experience, either with Harold’s work or Harold’s demand. That humble comma was one of Harold’s famous pauses. It probably added menace to the line, and changed the whole meaning. However, what I hadn’t told her was that despite my friendship with Harold, there was one unbreakable law that everyone knew. Never talk to him about his work. The delicate relationship would be snapped off, and you were excluded from his entertaining company. And yet, everyone who knew him had questions, praise, disagreements teetering on their tongue tips in his presence. What does that mean? you wanted to ask, and never did. If you did you’d get the same reply as one woman who boldly stopped him and asked. Harold replied ‘it’s about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.’ And left her none the wiser.
We met, many years ago, on the cricket pitch in Gunnersbury Park. On every first Saturday of July the Guardian XI had a grudge match against the Harold Pinter XI. Harold loved, adored, worshipped cricket, it was his altar. He had commented once that cricket was ‘a wonderfully civilized act of warfare... the greatest thing that God ever created ... certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either’.
But he could not play it at all. The game, with all the nuances, the finesse, the intellectual challenges, the elliptical shape of a match-in-progress which drew him to the game, eluded his mastery. He could not bat, he could not bowl, although he possessed the finest kit of us all. His bat barely had a mark of red anywhere on it. He was extremely well coached which showed when he did bat. His sharply angled elbow pointed at the bowler, his feet were correctly distanced and his forward defensive was beautifully executed. Runs, however, eluded him. He told me much later that, growing up poor in a Jewish family in London’s east end, he had never played the game as a child but had loved watching it. When he became an actor (as David Baron) in his early 20s, he decided to learn the game. Cricket, like any sport, needs to be mastered as a child. If you come to it late in life, those reflexive instincts can never be developed, and no sport can be learned no matter how much you’re coached.
But still, this was his team. Tom Stoppard kept wickets, Simon Gray would hover around deep fine leg so he could step over the ropes for a sip of his gin and tonic, actors, directors, writers and always one or two ringers who were very good cricketers, were precisely placed in their respective positions by their captain. Harold would play mid-off. This gave him only a short walk to discuss strategy with the bowler and move his fielders around like chess pieces.
He isn’t a tall man, around five nine and a muscular build, with curly black hair and, in those days, wore horn-rimmed spectacles. He also smoked an astonishing 90 Gauloise, yes Gauloise, a day. When we played squash he would stop to cough his lungs out after every third stroke, and turn red as tomato. One day, years later, when I saw him, I said, after a long study, ‘there’s something missing, Harold’. He laughed. ‘I stopped smoking.’ He did have an iron will. He had a ready smile and laughed easily, but like his plays, they often camouflaged a barked command or an impatience with you or someone else that you weren’t jumping to obey. He always spoke quickly, in almost staccato sentences.
Of course, we all knew he wasn’t a good cricketer but no one questioned his right to captaincy. In one of the many annual matches, he came to the crease when I was bowling. He was precise in his guard, surveyed the fielders and prepared to receive. I bowled an off-break, a good length but a bit wide of the off stump. Harold stylishly shouldered his bat. The ball bit, turned and spun past him. It continued to speed down to fine leg. Harold looked back, even as his partner shouted ‘Run’. Harold then looked to me, then at him. ‘I f***ing can’t. I’ve been bowled.’ The ball had removed the bails and he marched up to me. ‘Tim, that was a f***ing freak. It hit a stone and spun.’ I laughed. ‘Harold, that’s what you call an off-spin and it’s a turning wicket.’ He strode back to the pavilion, disappointed at his duck (which happened fairly frequently) but he was right. I didn’t turn another ball so much again in that match.
Often as not, the Harold Pinter XI won these annual matches only because of his ringers. The Guardian XI remained steadfastly Guardian men only, but in later years, as this became a matter of pride, we too roped in a ringer or two. Even as journalists who rubbed shoulders with prime ministers, presidents, tycoons and movie stars, these matches were very special to us. We were rubbing shoulders with Harold. This was an event and he treated it as such too, being a Guardian reader. His team always brought along their wives, girlfriends/mistresses, some celebrities in their own right, to sit in the deck chairs just beyond the ropes and bring their glamour to this public park in Acton. The Guardian‘s girlfriends and wives, mistresses barred, turned up too though they never ever showed for any other game. The match would start precisely at 2.30. Harold was punctual and would herd us onto the field. It would end around 8.30, the beautiful summer evening light still good enough to play in. After the match we always ended up the The Plough, a pub by Kew Bridge on the river.
I must have impressed Harold with my performance at that very first match as he invited me to play for his other team, the Gaities. The Gaiety was a theatre which had folded many years ago, but the name lived on. The Gaieties were a far more serious side with semi-professional cricketers (I suspected paid by Harold to play), many leagues above the Guardian XI, and we played all-day matches every Sunday. Harold was still captain. These matches began at 11.30 and Harold, who didn’t live far from me, would pick me up in his Mercedes. Even then it wasn’t the latest model, almost an antique, but it was his great pride. (I think he still has it too). On the way to the ground, usually far from home, we’d talk. Never about his plays which I had read avidly and seen and so admired the precision of his dialogue and stage directions. We’d talk politics, movies or cricket. Politically, I was on the same side as him. But on movies we disagreed sometimes and he’d want to know why I hadn’t liked it or why I did. Naturally, I couldn’t discuss his films. He’d scripted two fine movies, ‘The Servant’ and ‘The Go-Between’ which I really admired. His Gaities team mates weren’t in any way in the media or the arts and often, in a pub after the match, when Harold was out of ear shot, they’d comment on his plays which they had seen out of loyalty. ‘Don’t understand a f***ing word of any of them,’ they’d confess. ‘What are they about, for chrissake?’ I’d try to decipher his plays for them, leaving them none the wiser.
Sometimes, his son, Daniel would join us. Daniel was a teenager, a graceful boy, and on one of our long drives he and his father held a half-hour conversation on socks that was pure Pinteresque. (A word now in the OED, that has come to mean an intoxicating cocktail of menace, erotic fantasy, obsessive jealousy, family hatred and mental disequilibrium). I suspected that Daniel was sending up his father by being deliberately obtuse about his socks. It was entertaining but I never did find out the outcome. Did they exist? Harold wanted me to coach Daniel and I did once, one afternoon, as we got on well enough but he didn’t have his father’s obsession with the game.
When my first novel, The Marriage, was published to fairly good reviews, Harold congratulated me (though hadn’t read it) and asked what I was working on. I replied ‘a play’, and he looked a bit angry. ‘Tim, make up your mind what you want to do. You can’t be a journalist, a novelist and a playwright. It has to be one only.’ Of course, I didn’t listen to his good advice. Harold never wrote prose, apart from one novel, his first work. His plays were consistent in theme as well as in style. I had seen one of his finest, Betrayal, (based on his affair with a TV personality), and would have loved to discuss it. How did he dissect a relationship backwards so cleverly, and grippingly?
In those early days, Harold was married to the actress Vivien Merchant. She was Daniel’s mother. Vivien had acted in many of his plays, including The Homecoming. But Harold was in pursuit of the historical writer Lady Antonia Fraser, then married to Sir Hugh Fraser, and had a brood of kids. Harold wasn’t her only suitor. The satirical magazine, Private Eye, snidely commented that ‘Pinter is batting at number eleven in his pursuit.’ We knew about the relationship and one July, we had word before our annual match that he’d not be captaining his team and for us to meet in another pub after the match.
That Saturday, when we looked to the pavilion we saw Vivien Merchant watching and waiting for Harold to appear. She paced and then prowled the boundary, circling us, unsettling our concentration as we sensed her pain, her humiliation of holding on. She was a slim, small woman with the intense features of a tragedian. Antonia was the exact opposite, blonde, Rubenesque and exuberant. He finally split from Vivien and won Antonia, who then became a fixture at our annual matches. Vivien Merchant died some years later of alcoholism, bitter about her divorce.
I haven’t seen Harold for a few years now. We last met at a cocktail party thrown for me by the American novelist, and Pulitzer winner, Alison Lurie to celebrate the opening of my film The Square Circle. Harold and Antonia came with a group of other literary figures. He was so pleased to see me and Antonia gave me a warm hug and a kiss as if she’d only seen me a week before. Harold and I talked about cricket, of course. We’d both stopped playing and, coincidentally, taken up tennis with a passion. ‘You were really a fine cricketer,’ he said as he was leaving, and I wished I could have returned the compliment.
I know he had dreamed of playing for England, or even a minor county, but I’m sure the Nobel Prize more than compensates an unfulfilled dream for such a great writer.