Episode 93: Writing and cricket: two matching crafts for Harold Pinter

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

The 2009 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack contains a beautiful tribute to Harold Pinter. It was written by the academic and musician Ian Smith, his friend and teammate in the celebrated Gaieties Cricket Club. Ian traces Pinter’s deep dedication to cricket and its influence on his life and work, as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast. In Peter’s absence, Roger Alton is co-presenter.

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Ian gives an entertaining account of his first meeting with Pinter in the late 1980s. Then principally occupied as a musician with the Ink Spots (“performing Whispering Grass for audiences of pensioners”), he was invited to play cricket for The Times Literary Supplement against The Publishers, a highlight of England’s cricket and cultural year. Waiting nervously in the bar, he introduced himself to a stranger in pursuit of a bottle of wine – whom he discovered to be Harold Pinter. He blurted his admiration for Pinter’s tribute to his Gaieties colleague Arthur Wellard, of Somerset and England, fast bowler and legendary six-hitter. haroldpinter.org/cricket/wellard.shtml

This broke the ice, and after both he and Pinter made runs for the TLS, Pinter invited him to join the Gaieties – emphasizing that they played a good standard of cricket. This was important to Pinter and distinguished the Gaieties from the social teams often celebrated by other English cricket-loving writers. 1-3 minutes

Often mistaken for obsessive competitiveness, Pinter’s seriousness about cricket reflected deep engagement with the game: Ian compares this with his conversation, often thought abrasive and confrontational, which sprang from a deep interest in other people. It pained him to hear words used unkindly or even ineptly, as when he had to listen to an actor describing the “scatological” play he planned to write. 5-6 minutes

Ian makes a telling comparison between Pinter’s approaches to writing and cricket – both activities with the power to turn chaos into order and structure, but both therefore requiring meticulous craftsmanship which can be undone by a moment’s carelessness.  7 and 47 minutes

Ian describes the career of Arthur Wellard and why he came into the Gaieties. He traces the roots of his friendship with Pinter, again emphasizing Pinter’s determination to master the fine detail of cricketing performance. Pinter’s essay dwells especially on Arthur’s experiences with great players of the 1930s, including Harold Larwood and Walter Hammond. 8-11 minutes

Pinter also wrote evocatively about Len Hutton, intercutting his performances with memories of what Hutton had meant to him in his younger life. He drew on Hutton for some of his strongest dramatic characters. He regarded Hutton as an artist who deserved respect and defended him fiercely against critics who dismissed his lack of style. To Pinter, style was never to be admired from its own sake. In cricket as in his own work it was the servant of function. He set himself to be as efficient a technician in writing as Hutton was in cricket. One area in which he achieved this was his ability to cut (as a writer, as a batsman he was more renowned for his straight drive), particularly in his many screenplays. 11-16 minutes

One of these, The Go-Between, gave him the opportunity to write a major dramatic cricket scene. Ian gives a vivid account of its filming, when Pinter secured a role for a leading and notably profane Gaieties player as a substitute for Alan Bates as a batsman. He delighted both Pinter and the director, Joseph Losey (an American with no knowledge of cricket) by smiting two identical and noisy straight sixes off the bowling of Edward Fox. 21-28 minutes

Ian recaptures Pinter’s boyhood cricket with his friends, in an era before football replaced it as the informal game of choice, and his long journeys to watch Frank Woolley and other greats of the 1930s – possibly with a responsible adult but equally possibly based on his encyclopedic knowledge of London bus routes and his early mastery of fare-dodging. Pinter’s deep reading of cricket began very early in his life. 16-21 minutes

Ian describes his own play I Don’t Think We’ve Met, a comedy based on the career of Colin Cowdrey, which owes much to lessons from Pinter in the arts of getting an audience to laugh, but which also moved audiences and critics in two special performances in London. theguardian.com/stage/2022/mar/11/i-dont-think-weve-met-celebrate-ian-smith-colin-cowdrey

The play captures the changing face of English cricket during his long career and Cowdrey’s ambiguous relationship with the English class system. It contrasts Cowdrey’s self-effacing personality with his assertive and authoritarian contemporary Peter May. Ian has hopes of an extended tour for the play. 31-35 minutes

Ian reflects on his experience of class divisions and networks of privilege in English cricket, in forty years as a player and longer as a student of the game. He is scathing about the view that they will be dispelled by commercialism and market forces and importation of a culture of sledging and aggressive onfield behaviours. 35-42 minutes He is even more scathing about the claims of television to have been the saviour of cricket: he views it as a scavenger. 43-46 minutes

Ian’s book Pinter In The Theatre was published by Nick Hern Books. He is at work on a successor. nickhernbooks.co.uk/pinter-in-the-theatre

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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