Launch of the Harold Pinter season at Chiswick Cinema

Pinter on Screen

Chiswick Book Festival has launched a season of Harold Pinter films at Chiswick Cinema, curated by Pinter’s biographer, theatre critic Michael Billington, who lives in Chiswick.

One of Britain’s most successful playwrights, Harold Pinter wrote one of his best known plays, The Caretaker, while he was living in Chiswick.

It is rare that a screenwriter is celebrated with a season of their work, rather than an actor or a director,  Michael Billington told the audience on Saturday evening (27 April). The idea was born out of a chance conversation at the first Chiswick Book Festival.

Harold Pinter’s wife Lady Antonia Fraser was a speaker there and she told Book Festival director Torin Douglas that though her husband’s plays were widely acclaimed, she felt his film scripts received rather less attention than they deserved.

That is being remedied this summer, and Lady Antonia was in the audience to watch the first of the series, Accident (1967), preceded by a Q&A with Michael Billington and Torin Dougls, and a pre-recorded interview with Maxwell Caulfield, who had acted in the film as a child.

Image: Michael Billington and Torin Douglas discuss Harold Pinter’s talent as a screen writer

Maxwell told Michael he’d got the part because his mother was for a time Harold Pinter’s secretary. He was seven at the time and had almost missed the opportunity because he caught measles.

The film is quite sensual, about the erotic relationships an Oxford student has with another student and two of the dons. Michael York played the student, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker the dons. Was he aware what the film was about? Michael Billington asked him.

“I was totally unaware of the theme, just happy to get off school” he said, but he did remember it was fun. Perhaps not so much for his fellow child actor, Carole Caplin (much later on to become Cherie Blair’s lifestyle coach), who was required to trip and fall on the gravel drive. When she failed to do it convincingly they set a trip wire.

Maxwell Caulfield went on to be an actor and married fellow actor Juliet Mills. Was he influenced by the experience of being directed by Joseph Losey?

“I will forever love Joseph Losey. He set my path … I’m sure the seed was planted, I don’t see how it could not have been, I had such a good time.”

Harold Pinter was interested in film before he became involved in theatre, Michael Billington told the audience.

“He got into it at a very early age. He was very committed to film.

“He told me he was much more exposed to cinema as a young man, his love of theatre came later.”

Harold Pinter made three films with Joseph Losey. Torin asked Michael Billington why he thought they worked so well together.

“They were both outsiders” said Michael. “Losey was blacklisted in the days of McCarthyism. Pinter was threatened with possible imprisonment for refusing to do National Service.”

When Michael interviewed Harold Pinter for his biography, he told him his first encounter with Joseph Losey had not gone well.

“He was invited to write The Servant in 1962. Joseph Losey had managed to get enough money to make it. He said ‘I like the script but I don’t like this and I don’t like that’.”

Harold Pinter said to him: “Well why don’t you do another movie?” and stormed off.

A few days later Losey phoned him and suggested they start over. “For the next 25 years they never had a cross word.

“Harold was very proud that the majority of his scripts were made into films. That’s very rare.”

Students of Pinter’s style will be interested to know his work in cinema influenced his work in theatre and vice versa.

“Harold’s work for the theatre permeates his work for film. He uses very sparse dialogue and there is always lots of subtext – endless things going on underneath the surface. Also I think his work in cinema influenced his work in theatre.”

Image: Lady Antonia Fraser (seated, right), talking to Michael Billington in the bar afterwards

The screening was rather a star studded occasion. Also in the audience were Dame Rosemary Squire and Sir Howard Panter, the owners of Trafalgar, who own the cinema, Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Sheila Hancock and Valerie Leon, all older actors who live in this area and were contemporaries of Pinter.

Journalists Sir Peter Stothard and Matthew Reisz were there for the launch, as was the writer, historian and literary critic Ruth Scurr and director and producer Simon Curtis.

The season, which includes The Pumpkin Eater, The Quiller Memorandum, The Comfort of Strangers and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, will run until the Book Festival in September.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar