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Harold Pinter, master of realism, dies aged 78

The Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter has died, his second wife confirmed today.

Pinter, 78, who had been suffering from cancer, died yesterday on Christmas Eve.

Lady Antonia Fraser, said: "He was a great, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."

Pinter was due to pick up an honorary degree earlier this month from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

But the east London-born playwright, director, actor, poet and political activist was forced to withdraw from the event due to illness.

During his lifetime he was widely accepted as one of the world's greatest playwrights.

Pinter shot to fame with works including The Birthday Party and Betrayal.

Pinter was well-known for his left-wing political views and was a vociferous critic of US and UK foreign policy, voicing opposition on a number of issues including the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001.

BBC Creative Director Alan Yentob told BBC News: "He was a unique figure in British theatre. He has dominated the theatre scene since the 1950s."

Also speaking to the BBC, Sunday Telegraph theatre critic Tim Walker said: "This was a man who had plays with long silences, where characters did not always go anywhere - very much like real life.

"He brought a realism to the business."

Michael Billington, Pinter's friend and biographer, said the writer was a great man as well as a great playwright.

He told Sky News he would remember Pinter "above all as a man of generosity".

Billington said: "Harold was a political figure, a polemicist and carried on fierce battles against American foreign policy and often British foreign policy, but in private he was the most incredibly loyal of friends and generous of human beings."

He added: "He was unstinting in his loyalty to the people with whom he got on and whom he communicated.

"He was a great man as well actually as a great playwright."

Pinter was born in Hackney in 1930, the only son of immigrant Jews.

His childhood was interrupted by the outbreak of the war in 1939 when he was evacuated from his Hackney home to rural Cornwall.

He was 14 before he returned to the capital, by which point he had developed a love of the works of Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway.

As a young man he appeared in several school productions at Hackney Downs Grammar and later accepted a grant to study at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In 1949 he was fined by magistrates for refusing to complete his National Service.

Pinter was a politically conscious man who turned down John Major's offer of a knighthood and hit out at Tony Blair when Nato bombed Serbia.

He labelled the invasion of Iraq as "a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the conception of international law".

In the mid-1950s he began to write for the stage and The Room was published in 1957.

A year later his first full length play, The Birthday Party, was produced in the West End but closed after just one week to disastrous reviews.

It was his second full-length play, The Caretaker (1960) with which Pinter secured his reputation as one of the country's foremost dramatists and playwrights.

He won many awards for his plays, the greatest of which was the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2005.

Veteran politician Tony Benn said Pinter would be greatly missed.

The former Labour MP said: "Harold Pinter was a great playwright and a great figure on the political scene.

"His death will leave a huge gap that will be felt by the whole political spectrum."