It is somewhat of a critical truism to say that Harold Pinter was one of the most important and influential British playwrights of the last century. Yet, some truisms are truisms for a reason. The tremendous impact Pinter’s work has had on British theatre is, due to its vastness and boundary pushing nature, as difficult to articulate in such a short article as it is to decipher one of his play’s famous silences: the possible number of topics to discuss are seemingly too indefinite to do each one justice.
It is therefore remarkable that facets of what made Harold Pinter such a towering presence in British culture could remain overlooked. However, despite this remarkableness, this should not necessarily come as a surprise. As a legacy grows like a new sky-scraper being built in Manhattan our capacity to comprehend every facet of it is diminished by our closeness. In fact, it is only when we get in taxi and look back on where we have come from that we begin to take in the bigger picture. The most impressive photographs of the Empire State Building are never taken next to its front door.
With Pinter at the BBC, a 5-disc DVD box set released by the BFI just a month after the tenth anniversary of the playwright’s death, another overlooked aspect of this genius has been made visible. This fantastic box set will be the first chance many of us will get a glimpse of 10 Pinter plays made for the BBC between 1965 and 1998, all previously unavailable on DVD. The collection showcases an incredible array of British acting talent from Julie Walters to Michael Gambon, in addition to rare examples of Pinter acting within his own work in The Basement (1967) and The Birthday Party (1987). But what is, for me at least, most significant about this collection is that it allows people of my generation to share the route that vast amount of people first encountered Pinter’s work throughout these two decades.
The collection contains four plays from the 1960s when Pinter was emerging as a leading British writer. Perhaps my favourite example just so happens to be the most notable. Directed by Charles Jarrot and adapted from Pinter’s own short story, The Tea Party (1965) was part of a BBC anthology called The Largest Theatre in the World in which 10 countries in the European Broadcasting Union each broadcast their own version of Pinter’s script. It is amazing to consider this multinational cultural collaboration in light of the divisiveness of our current political climate, but, political woe and anguish aside, the story on offer is worthy of such high-scale production. As is a hallmark in a Pinter drama, ordinary events assume a sinister tinge, with the viewer constantly becoming infected with the same paranoia as the protagonist. The set also includes the 1967 triple bill of plays produced for the Theatre 625 series on BBC2, which consists of The Basement, A Slight Ache and A Night Out. And it was the 1960s plays’ rawness that I found most engaging.
The plays from the 1970s and 1980s are in my opinion less gripping than their earlier counterparts, with two superb exceptions: Monologue (1973) and The Birthday Party (1987). The first depicts a man reflecting on a failed love affair and addressing his tales of happiness and woe to an empty chair. It is heart wrenching stuff and Henry Woolf, who was an old school friend of Pinter, excels in a part that is both pitiable and intimidating. The 1987 adaptation of The Birthday Party is a bolder affair, that typifies the eeriness and ambiguity one expects from a classic Pinter Play. Pinter plays the part of the terrifying antagonist Nat Goldberg and, even having seen the role performed by Stephen Mangan in the 2018 production at the Pinter Theatre, I can not imagine anyone else filling those sinister shoes. And when the action culminates as the play progresses, it is as if we are being sucked closer to a blackhole that scrambles coherence and logic. It is truly chilling.
It is a common saying amongst us film and television reviewers that a DVD box set is as only as good as its bonus material. In the case of Pinter at the BBC, the collection excels with the additional 3 hours of special features that accompany the aforementioned plays. These include insightful interviews with the playwright himself, which sheds light on the political side of his career and writing. However, a true stand out of these features was Pinter People (1969), which is an enjoyable series of four animated films written by Pinter. Even though this feature lasts little over a quarter of an hour, it is startling how much emotion the writer can evoke in such a refined manner.
Although Pinter will also be best known for his work on the stage, this box set ensures that we get a fuller insight into what made him the household name he is today, allowing us to truly appreciate the multi-faceted genius of this incredible writer.
Pinter at the BBC is available to buy now.