Leading article: A dramatic departure

Harold Pinter, for so long lauded as Britain's greatest living playwright, has died, his place in the pantheon of British playwrights assured. And it is hard not to imagine this master of the telling moment thoroughly relishing the many ironies attending his departure.

The death of this most anti-Establishment member of the Establishment was announced just as the whole country, so it seemed, was settling down to the most conventional of our festive meals. What is more, Pinter's broadcast obituaries preceded the day's great set-piece, the Queen's Christmas message, by a mere couple of hours. As someone in the business of staging and upstaging, he could hardly have done better for theatricality.

As for what was going on around those tables – the family conversations that descend imperceptibly into full-blown rows, and the tortuous phone-calls that follow – these are the conversations immortalised in so many Pinter plays. Loudly cheerful, or merely pretending to be so; halting, often awkward, pregnant with meaning – intended and unintended – they are the efforts of British society trying to communicate with itself; of Britons of a certain age and class, speaking, but all too often failing, to make themselves understood.

Pinter would also have appreciated the dramatic symmetry of his life. Born as the first great 20th-century Depression reached its height, he bows out as the world's next great Depression looms. At times derided as a "champagne socialist", he devoted much time and energy to political causes, especially in later life, and almost lived to experience the revival of the old-fashioned Left.

A life-long campaigner for free speech and an uncompromising opponent of the Iraq war – which he made a central theme of the Nobel prize speech he was too ill to deliver in person three years ago – he lived just long enough to hear the Prime Minister announce the final withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.

These were among the many sub-plots in a life's drama that took him on an eventful personal journey from the East End of London to its West End – a drama on which the curtain has now, sadly, fallen for the last time.