By Jill Apperley
One’s life has many compartments
When Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve in 2008 his obituary described him as ‘one of the greatest of modern dramatists’ whose plays ‘decisively shaped the medium in which he worked’.
Pinter’s influence on twentieth century drama is almost incalculable and it’s not too much of an imaginative leap to state that Pinter’s career may never have been fully realised had he not lived for a short period of time in a small flat at 373, Chiswick High Road.
373 Chiswick High Road; photograph Lucinda MacPherson
Harold Pinter was born on the other side of London from Chiswick, in Hackney on 10th October 1930. His Jewish grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and the theme of the persecuted individual is a recurring trope in Pinter’s plays. He was always attracted to acting and his political activism was evident from an early age when, in 1948, he refused, as a conscientious objector, to do National Service. Nearly 50 years later he refused a knighthood from John Major, saying he was ‘unable to accept such an honour from a Conservative government’.
At first Pinter seemed destined for life as an actor. After attending drama school, he began a career as a repertory actor, using the stage name David Baron when he joined a touring company in 1951. It is unlikely Pinter would ever have found fame and fortune through acting alone. Like most out of work actors, he undertook a variety of odd jobs: doorman, dishwasher, door-to-door salesman, waiter, bouncer and snow shoveller! But as Michael Billington comments in his biography of Harold Pinter, ‘nothing for a writer is ever wasted; and, if Pinter’s early plays and sketches show a deep familiarity with a raffish London sub-culture and a sympathy with dossers, down-and-outs and derelicts, much of that stems from his odd job period’. Pinter’s speciality when he was in work as an actor appears to have been playing heavy villains, clearly paving the way for the many sinister, menacing characters that would populate Pinter’s own plays.
Pinter was appearing in rep in Bournemouth when he met the actress who was to become his first wife, Vivien Merchant. Merchant was born Ada Thomson in 1929 in Manchester. She called herself Merchant because her much loved brother was in the Merchant Navy, and Vivien because of her admiration for Vivien Leigh. Tragically, there are parallels between the two Viviens; beautiful and emotionally fragile, Merchant would later suffer from depression and alcoholism and die at the far too young age of 53. Back in happier times, Pinter and Merchant fell in love in the course of the Bournemouth season and married there on 14th September 1956. Getting married to a non-Jewish girl on the day of Yom Kippur was not received well by Pinter’s family.
Pinter’s career as a playwright began with a production of The Room in 1957, closely followed by The Birthday Party. These early plays have subsequently been classified as ‘comedies of menace’. The titular birthday party is far from a joyful celebration. Instead, it is filled with foreboding and menace, sinister strangers and a sense of fear which is never explicitly identified, but always present. A breakfast of cornflakes had never seemed so terrifying! Pinter’s writing career was beginning to flourish, but his personal life was beset with difficulties. Vivien had given birth to a son, Daniel, in January 1958, after a particularly difficult birth. Life was not improved by the fact that the Pinters were living in a dismal basement in Notting Hill Gate which Pinter described as ‘virtually a slum’ where they were living rent free in exchange for doing the laundry and stoking the boiler. It was at this point, thanks largely to the generosity of a friend, the Pinters moved to a small flat in Chiswick High Road.
Timothy Spall in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker; photograph: The Old Vic
It was here that Pinter wrote the play that was to catapult him to fame as a playwright. The Caretaker opened in London on 27th April 1960, running for 444 performances. It has gone on to be Pinter’s most universally performed play, frequently revived, filmed and televised. Yet Billington writes the play ‘had its origins in the specific circumstances of life in 373 Chiswick High Road’. The flat was owned by a builder who seems to have been the prototype for the character of Mick in the play. Pinter writes, ‘the only image I had of him was of this swift mover up and down the stairs and of his van going …..vroom…..as he arrived and departed.’
Vroom, vroom – van in front of 373 Chiswick High Road; photograph Lucinda MacPherson
Like Aston in The Caretaker, the builder had an introverted and secretive brother who lived in the house and brought home a tramp one night who stayed for three or four weeks. The spark for the characters and situation for The Caretaker had been ignited to become Pinter’s famous psychological study of power, innocence, betrayal and corruption. Billington comments, The Caretaker had started with him (Pinter) pausing on the stairs one day at 373, Chiswick High Road and glimpsing a spatial relationship pregnant with meaning. Out of that came a play that triumphantly showed how an intimate personal drama can explore the dynamics of power and how a work rooted in the local and specific can achieve universal application.’
Film adaptation of The Caretaker (1963)
The Caretaker was Pinter’s springboard to success as a dramatist. His next major play The Homecoming in 1965 secured his reputation as a playwright with a unique style. Many noteworthy plays followed in the sixties and seventies. In particular Silence (1969), Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal in 1978. The originality of his dramatic style led to a new adjective to describe his work. ‘Pinteresque’ is a coinage which has come to mean drama which is characterized by ‘implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses’ (OED). The basic elements of Pinter’s works are always an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. Pinter also achieved considerable success as an adapter of other writers’ works, notably The Go-Between, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
After the success of The Caretaker Pinter and Merchant became something of a golden couple in the London theatrical community with Merchant appearing in many of his plays. The Caretaker brought success and acclaim and Pinter was a prolific writer for television and radio. He continued to act, took up directing and was showered with awards. He was frequently interviewed on tv and radio, relishing the opportunities to talk about his dramatic methods. He also, after years of hardship, gained financial security which meant the Pinter family were able to leave the small flat in Chiswick and move in the summer of 1960 to Fairmead Court in Kew. The actor Donald Pleasence drily remarked that, ‘he acquired all the trappings of a successful bank manager while at the same time being an extraordinarily brilliant playwright.’ Three years later the family moved again to a bow fronted Regency house in the seaside town of Worthing and then to a grand house in Hanover Terrace in Regents Park.
But professional success was accompanied by an increasingly turbulent marriage. From 1962 to 1969, Pinter was engaged in a clandestine affair with the journalist and tv presenter Joan Bakewell, thought to be the inspiration for his 1978 play Betrayal. He also had an affair with an American socialite who he referred to as Cleopatra and, most significantly an affair with the historian Antonia Fraser, wife of the Conservative politician Sir Hugh Fraser. Pinter and Merchant had both met Antonia Fraser in 1969 when working together on a programme about Mary, Queen of Scots. Six years later in 1975, Fraser and Pinter started their five-year affair. On 21st March 1975 Pinter confessed to his wife that, I’ve met somebody’ and moved out of the family home in Hanover Terrace. Merchant was devastated by her husband’s infidelity, expressing her distress to the tabloid press. She also resorted to making unflattering remarks about Antonia Fraser, memorably commenting, ‘he didn’t need to take a change of shoes. He can always wear hers. She has very big feet, you know.’ Tragically Merchant became deeply depressed after the end of her marriage to Pinter. They were divorced in 1980 and she died of alcoholism at the age of 53 on 3rd October 1982.
Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser married on 27th November 1980. Rather bizarrely the reception preceded the ceremony as Merchant had delayed signing the divorce papers. Billington writes that Pinter did everything he could to support his ex-wife, deeply regretting her descent into alcoholism and his subsequent estrangement from his son Daniel. Daniel changed his name from Pinter to Brand, the name of his maternal grandmother, and was never reconciled to his father. Despite this sadness Pinter’s second marriage was a happy one, enjoying family life with his six step-children and seventeen step-grandchildren.
Lady Antonia Fraser in St Michael & All Angels Church at The Chiswick Book Festival 2020.
Towards the end of his life Pinter observed, ‘I’ve never been able to write a happy play, but I’ve been able to enjoy a happy life’. Pinter was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in December 2001. Despite frail health for the last seven years of his life he rarely stopped working. In October 2006 he memorably performed the title role of Samuel Beckett’s one-act monologue Krapp’s Last Tape for the fiftieth anniversary of the Royal Court Theatre. He also continued to be a vociferous critic of British and American foreign policy. He died on 24th December 2008. His funeral was a quiet, private, secular ceremony. Readings from actors such as Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton paid tribute to his own works, James Joyce and his love of cricket. At the end of the service Antonia Fraser, at the graveside, quoted from Hamlet.
‘Goodnight sweet prince
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
During his life Pinter received over 50 awards and prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005 and the French Legion d’honneur in 2007. He remains a hugely important figure. His plays are still frequently staged and his dramatic style continues to be enormously influential. When Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, Horace Engdahl, Chairman of the Swedish Academy said that Pinter was an artist ‘who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms’. In Antonia Fraser’s words: ‘He was a great. He will never be forgotten.’
Jill Apperley is a former English Lecturer at Petroc College of Further Education
Huge thanks to Michael Billington’s excellent biography: The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, Faber & Faber, 1997
Find out more about the cultural history of Chiswick
The house where Harold Pinter lived is one of over 20 sites of literary interest on the Trail of Books & Writers, produced by Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival.
Download the trail here: Trail of Books & Writers
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