BFI Film (studio)
28 January 2019 (released)
22 February 2019
This 5-DVD box set, it more or less goes without saying, is a veritable feast for the multitude of Pinter fans out there. Here we have 10 plays (and not enough room to discuss all) of varying lengths and made for the BBC between 1965 and 1988, all previously unavailable on DVD.
Regarding the quality of some of the material: obviously we can't expect too much from a 1965 broadcast (grainy monochrome with hiccups). Not that that is terribly important - it will not spoil your pleasure. Pinter really is an acquired taste (a bit like draught Guinness) - some people find him impossible while others see him as a genius who virtually revolutionised the British post-war theatre (his first play ‘The Room’ was written in '57, followed by his epic 'The Birthday Party’ – a play initially not well received). He'd started out as an actor in Ireland after some initial training at RADA working with the near legendary actor/manager Anew MacMaster. Whether you like his plays or not: it cannot be said that he did not write great parts for actors!
Throughout the majority of his work there is always a sense of dark menace bordering on the absurd. And if you look just a little closer a fair bit of high comedy, which gives us in all a fair sized meal to enjoy (possibly depending on your appetite). Take ‘The Birthday Party’ for example: when dopey old Meg asks Stanley if his corn flakes are nice? Who would ask such a question for gawd’s sake. It isn't a crime to laugh at Pinter's work - it can be seen as a possible necessity. The same characters appear in many of his plays: the flash wide-boy and the dysfunctional to the wayward. If you are lost with Pinter then perhaps a closer look into his working class East London Jewish background might help. To lose out on Harold is to lose out on a theatrical richesse.
We kick off with ‘The Tea Party’, comprised of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ himself (Leo McKern) and the awesome Charles Gray (who could have given George Sanders a run for his money in smooth condescension), plus Pinter's then wife Vivien Merchant exuding her unusual charms. Disson (McKern) is a powerful business magnate with an office overlooking London’s St.Paul's. He hires new secretary Wendy (Merchant) though is he actually attracted to her? He informs her that he is to be married very shortly. Unfortunately there is no Best Man. His wife to be, the strangely aloof Diana (Jennifer Wright) suggests her somewhat smarmy brother Willy (Gray) “who is very good at making speeches”. Disson hasn't even met him before. The overblown speech goes on mostly extolling over the virtues of his sister - or is she his sister? She could be his lover… This is invariably the case with Pinter: you are left to make up your on mind. However Disson is not in any way put out by this and offers Willy a high-ranking position in his company working in the adjoining office. He also has twin sons from a previous relationship who become increasingly fond of Willy, (now a regular guest) even supporting him over a game of ping-pong (another familiar motif) against their father. Despite everything, Disson then asks Willy to be his partner but is he to be trusted? Eventually not long after overhearing Wendy and his wife laughing with Willy in the adjoining office he has a breakdown and like Stanley in the ‘Birthday Party’ is rendered speechless. It is always left to you to decide as to what you may think has occurred.
For example in 'The Hothouse', which takes place in an ambiguous institution where we discover that one of the patients has been seduced by a member of staff and has become pregnant as a result of this outrage. Who do YOU think the culprit is? No, surely not, or is someone telling porkies? Derek Newark gives a very strong performance here as Root, the military-style head of the institution (he does appear to be enjoying himself which is as it should be). What exactly are Miss Cutts (Angela Pleasance), who is sharing Newark's bed, and fellow staff member Gibbs up to? The mad grilling of suspect Lamb only heightens the complexity of the situation. A similar grilling is witnessed in ‘The Birthday Party’.
In 'Monologue', Pinter's actual boyhood friend (the diminutive Henry Woolf) has a deep conversation with a chair. It is a chair but he is actually talking about the trials and tribulations of his old friendship and what really happened when they both fell for the same girl and the affect it had on their relationship. A poignant piece and curiously one of Pinter's less surreal.
For a once busy jobbing character-actor Tony Selby shines in the lead part in 'A Night Out' which turns out to be not much of a night out at all. Albert (Selby) is one of Pinter's more dysfunctional types who eventually breaks and takes the ascendant role after being used as a soundboard (another recurring motif with Pinter) after he is picked up by a woman with ‘issues’ (Avril Elgar) who could be a prostitute... emphasis on could be. He is also burdened with an overprotective Mum.
Regarding ‘The Birthday Party’ - it appears that Pinter himself wasn't that happy with the 1968 film version and here we have the BBC production from '87 with Pinter as Goldberg, the very Jewish half of a pair of shady ‘businessman’ (the other is Irish). Well, who exactly are these men? Why exactly have they come to a dilapidated boarding house on the coast somewhere? Is it for Stanley Webber, the slob-like hitherto only resident guest? The scruffy Webber himself, apparently a former pianist and hardly the most charming of characters, has been holed up here for sometime. Was he on the run from 'The Organisation’? Here we have a glittering cast. Lady Olivier (Joan Plowright) as daft old Meg. Seasoned Pinterian Kenneth Cranham as Stanley. Colin Blakey, also no stranger to Pinter is McCann. ‘The Birthday Party’ is possibly the jewel in the crown of this box set. It has ALL of Pinter's best ingredients. If we are going to be a little picky here Plowright, a first rate classical actress, tries hard but this 'seasoning' goes against her which is why Dandy Nichols is preferable in the film version. We also have some of the more serious political work in case you hadn't worked out where Harold Pinter was coming from.
The set also includes the usual amount of generous Special Features, courtesy of the BFI. PINTER AT THE BBC is not to be missed by any with an interest in latter 20th century theatre.