Pinter was never afraid to attack injustice

Tony Jones,Chris Moncrieff,Pa
Thursday 25 December 2008 17:11 GMT

Harold Pinter was one of Britain's greatest post-war playwrights, a radical who was never afraid to speak his mind or attack injustice wherever he found it.

He traversed the worlds of cinema and stage, producing classics in both genres that have stood the test of time.

But his talents extended far beyond play-writing. He was also an actor, poet, screenwriter and director - as well as having a passion for cricket.

Pinter's plays, which were first staged in the late 50s, became renowned for their cool menacing pauses.

He was a politically conscious man who turned down John Major's offer of a knighthood and strongly attacked Tony Blair when Nato bombed Serbia.

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

He won many awards for his plays, the greatest of which was the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13 2005. The citation said that "in his plays he uncovers the precipice in everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".

He earned criticism for the stands he made throughout his life, but the playwright once said in an interview: "Any writer who pops his head over the trenches and dares to speak in this country is really placed outside the pale."

Pinter wrote more than 25 plays and around a dozen film scripts but his first work, The Room, contained many of the elements that would characterise his later works - namely a commonplace situation gradually invested with menace and mystery through the deliberate omission of an explanation or motivation for the action.

Once he said: "How can you write a happy play? Drama is about conflict and degrees of perturbation, disarray. I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life."

The writer was probably best known for his absurdist masterpieces The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Betrayal. He also co-wrote the screenplays for Accident and The Servant, classics of British cinema.

Pinter was born in Hackney in 1930, the only son of immigrant Jews, who ran a tailor's shop in Stoke Newington.

As an introverted and quiet child he was brought up as part of a large and loving extended family.

But being an only child fuelled his imagination and he recalled creating a small band of imaginary friends with whom he would spend hours playing with in his back garden.

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

The separation from his loving parents, while traumatic, proved another source for his active imagination and introspection.

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

Pinter's first love was acting and after appearing in several school productions at Hackney Downs Grammar, he accepted a grant to study at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

But his heart was not in his studies and two years later he left the prestigious college.

Demonstrating his refusal to conform he was fined by magistrates in 1949 for refusing to complete his National Service.

Expressing his relief he said: "I could have gone to prison - I took my toothbrush to the trials - but it so happened that the magistrate was slightly sympathetic, so I was fined instead."

By 1950 Pinter had begun to publish poetry but continued to appear on the stage in repertory theatre until 1957.

It was during this period that the frustrated Pinter 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 and despite closing after just one week to disastrous reviews, Pinter continued to write at a prolific rate.

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.

Several more works followed in quick succession and in 1965 one of his most famous plays, The Homecoming was published.

It told the story of an estranged son who brought home his new wife to meet his family.

The work won a host of awards including a Tony and the Whitbread Theatre Award.

Pinter also wrote extensively for the cinema including The Servant (1963), The Last Tycoon (1974) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981).

He never enjoyed a good relationship with the critics and once questioned why they existed.

"I find critics on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people," he said.

The writer's private life made headlines when he married biographer Antonia Fraser in 1980 after leaving his first wife, actress Vivien Merchant, whom he wed in 1956, and with whom he had a son.

Soon after their parting she died of alcoholism and their son Daniel effectively disowned his father. Pinter was stricken with guilt at the death of his first wife.

In the 1960s Pinter had an affair with broadcaster Joan Bakewell.

The 1978 play Betrayal was partly based on his affair, which lasted seven years and ended in 1969.

From the 1980s onwards he wrote only around half a dozen plays, something that might have been due to Pinter waiting for the muse to strike as he insisted he did not write the works, they wrote him.

But in 1995 when he received the David Cohen Literature Prize for lifetime achievement Pinter summed up his career.

"Quite simply, my writing life has been one of relish, challenge, excitement," he said.

His 70th birthday in 2000 saw a number of plays revived to mark the occasion.

In March 2005, at the age of 74, Pinter appeared to suggest he had written his last play.

"I think I've stopped writing plays now, but I haven't stopped writing poems.

"I think I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough? I think it's enough for me. I've found other forms now," he said.

Pinter had increasingly turned to poetry as his preferred genre.

He published a collection, War, in 2003, which expressed his opposition to the Iraq conflict.

"Some people do not regard them as poems at all," he said. "Some people regard them as schoolboy rubbish... I shall continue to write what I write until the day I die."

He had also been throwing his speech-writing skills into more political use.

Pinter raged against Tony Blair, calling the former prime minister a "deluded idiot", and US President George Bush a "mass murderer".

In 2002, Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and underwent a course of chemotherapy, which he called a "personal nightmare".

He said afterwards: "I'm now older and I've been through a major operation in the past year so I've been through the valley of the shadow of death.

"While in many respects I have certain characteristics that I had then, I'm also a very changed man. But I don't think I can define precisely how I've changed."

Pinter was appointed CBE in 1966. In 2002 he was appointed a Companion of Honour.

Earlier this month Pinter was due to pick up an honorary degree from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, but was forced to withdraw from the event due to illness.

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