Harold Pinter season at Chiswick Cinema – Natasha A. Fraser on the cinematic life of her stepfather

Image: Natasha A Fraser talking to Torin Douglas on Sunday; photograph Shelley Hassledine

Natasha A. Fraser speaks to Torin Douglas about her stepfather’s work

The Harold Pinter season at Chiswick Cinema runs until September with a series of films for which the late writer, who used to live in Chiswick, created the screenplays.

Much better known as a playwright, for plays such as The Caretaker, The Homecoming and The Birthday Party, Pinter wrote 27 screenplays for films in all, 14 of which were made into films.

‘Pinter was devoted to movies from an early age’ writes Michael Billington, the curator of ‘Pinter On Screen’, (and coincidentally another Chiswick resident).

‘As a schoolboy, he supported a Debating Society motion that film was a more promising art-form than theatre and, as a teenager, he was a member of a Hackney film club where he saw the best of French, German and Russian cinema.’

As a writer, Pinter worked with directors Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan and Karel Reisz.

Michael Billington has chosen six films for the series: Accident, screened on the launch night in April, The Pumpkin Eater, shown in May, The Quiller Memorandum, shown in June, and three more to come: The Comfort of Strangers, to be screened on Sunday 28 July, The Caretaker, to be screened on Sunday 25 August and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, to be screened on Sunday 15 September.

READ ALSO: Launch of Harold Pinter season at Chiswick Cinema

Harold Pinter’s stepdaughter Natasha A. Fraser discussed Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum (1966) with Torin Douglas, director of the Chiswick Book Festival, on Sunday (30 June).

‘Written after Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) and Jack Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Quiller was unusual for several reasons’ she said.

‘It was the first and last time that Harold adapted a spy thriller—“I was never asked again,” he told me; Harold wasn’t invited on set—usually film directors welcomed him—and Adam Hall resented Harold’s decision to change Quiller—his English hero—into an American.

‘With hindsight, it was wise. Who could compete with the very British and charismatic Michael Caine (Harry Palmer) or Sean Connery (James Bond)? Besides, George Segal (Quiller) proved to be excellent.’

Natasha explored the cinematic legacy of her stepfather in a piece first published on A Rabbit’s Foot on 29 June 2024. The Chiswick Calendar is grateful to them for their permission to reproduce the article here. She is the author of a memoir: Harold !: Ma jeunesse avec Harold Pinter.

The cinematic life of Harold Pinter

By Natasha A. Fraser

Harold Pinter blew into my life when I was eleven. He had run off with my mother, the writer Antonia Fraser. Albeit renowned for being ‘the master of menace,’ I had never met anyone who was so straightforward and respectful to kids.

It was 1975 and Harold had just written The Last Tycoon screenplay, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. Produced by Sam Spiegel, directed by Elia Kazan, the film starred Robert de Niro and featured Jack Nicholson, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, Donald Pleasence and Robert Mitchum. The highly anticipated movie flopped, but Harold bonded with de Niro.

Image: The Last Tycoon (1976); Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images / IMDb

The friendship does not surprise because my future stepfather treasured actors, appreciated their vulnerability and enjoyed their company. To such a point that the term luvvie sent Harold into a Thor-like rage. To his mind, it was insulting to “a courageous and passionate group of people.” He felt that protective.

I am often asked why so many of Harold’s screenplays got made—there were fourteen including Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1971) The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Betrayal (1983), Reunion (1989), The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and Sleuth (2007).

To my mind, several factors were afoot. Understanding actors obviously helped, as did relishing film and the company of directors. Harold believed in the importance of performance achieved in film—he was influenced by the actors of his youth like Robert Newton—and he was moved by films such as Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent classic.

With regard to his writing process which meant writing on long yellow legal pads, Harold spoke every line out loud. The words had to sound right. Having been trained as an actor, it made sense.

Image: The Quiller Memorandum

Prior to meeting Harold, I had seen all his Losey films such as The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between as well as Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eater. However, through him, I was introduced to the Marx Brothers, greats like Charles Laughton, Anton Walbrook, Raimu and all the early films of Carol Reed that were screened in the ground floor of his office.

In Harold’s play, Old Times, Reed’s Odd Man Out is referenced whereas Harold later admitted to Michael Billington that his first play, The Birthday Party was influenced by The Killers (1946) Robert Siodmak’s film noir.

Harold’s passion for film was infectious. I can still remember his excitement when BBC2 showed Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades (1949) with Edith Evans – “it is a masterpiece,” he said, or watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Salaire de la Peur and Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Bataille d’Algiers.

Then there were his discoveries such as Steven Spielberg’s The Duel and his howls of laughter when watching Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap and Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul.

On three occasions, Harold tried working with the director Mike Nichols. The projects were The Last Tycoon, Betrayal and The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel that Harold had personally optioned.

Exhilarating as the experiences were, there weren’t hard feelings when Nichols left for bigger Hollywood projects. “Mike’s lasting fear is financial failure,” Harold told me. “His attitude is puzzling but then I’m not part of the Hollywood system.”

Image: Harold Pinter with Patricia and Joseph Losey

Early in his career, Hollywood came knocking. Kirk Douglas invited him to his home. It led to uncredited work on The Heroes of Telemark (1965.) Standing by his pool, the diminutive film star was wearing swimming trunks. “I remember how he put out his hand and then proceeded to crush mine,” said Harold.

There was also his first experience with Sam Spiegel who had optioned Accident. “What is this script?” asked the film mogul. “It’s all muscle and no flesh.”

And then there was Harold’s letter to the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts. Since two of his screenplays were nominated for Oscars (The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Betrayal), he became a member of the Academy.

Somewhat neurotic, Harold could not deal with the constant boxes of films he was sent—the mess of cardboard and sellotape. As a result, he wrote to the Academy asking that they desist. (This must have been a first.)

There was an uprising from myself and other stepchildren. Gently persuaded by my mother, another letter was sent to the Academy, reversing his decision. Fortunately, the Oscar films returned.

Pinter on Screen, held at the Chiswick Cinema in London, runs until September 2024. It’s being curated by Michael Billington, Harold Pinter’s official biographer, in collaboration with the Chiswick Book Festival’s Torin Douglas and Chris Parker.

Natasha A. Fraser is the author of Harold! Ma Jeunesse avec Harold Pinter (Grasset 2023).

The Chiswick Calendar is grateful to A Rabbit’s Foot for allowing us to republish the article, first published on their website on 29 June 2024.

Image: The Comfort of Strangers (1990); Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson; image IMDb

Pinter On Screen continues with a screeing of The Comfort of Strangers on Sunday 28 July.

Book tickets for Pinter On Screen at Chiswick Cinema here: Pinter On Screen

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