Harold Pinter by Michael Gambon and Tony Benn

Saturday 27 December 2008 01:00

Further to the obituary of Harold Pinter (26 December), he wasn't just a good director – he was the best, writes Michael Gambon. Harold was very plain speaking, not really going in for lavish phrases.

And it was always clear that he was at heart a very fun guy. People say that he was sour but that was never my experience; rather one got a sense of his playfulness. Often he'd have a drink and a fag, back in the day when he used to smoke, that is. Not whisky, as some people said – beer, usually, or maybe a glass of white wine. He'd sit quite still on his chair, watching rehearsals proceed.

The thing to understand about Harold is that he just loved actors. He was an actor himself, of course. So he'd give you a lot of room to play around in your role, rather than being domineering or prescriptive as some directors might. He liked flexibility, and gave it to others.

To me he was much more of a literary than a political figure. I didn't really get to see the other side of him, which other people might focus on. He became quieter in his later years, as he was very ill at times. And he could be a bit grim sometimes – not rude, really, just a little short with people, irritable. As a director, Harold was always a very direct speaker; he wouldn't really go in for small talk or chit-chat.

He leaves the most enormous gaping hole behind him. It's like someone you know leaving you behind as they head elsewhere. I think of Harold as the iron rod of English theatre: without him we're much weaker.

Harold loved other writers. He loved to talk about books, about new works. He was very keen on other playwrights of his time, from Ayckbourn to Stoppard. Yes – he was very fond of both those dramatists. And he was immensely generous with his time, often devoting hours to younger playwrights, talking through their work him, offering tips and advice on production, which I know they found useful.

Above all, he made you know that if you were a playwright, Harold Pinter was your friend. That is why he will be so deeply missed.

Harold Pinter, the Nobel prize-winning playwright, has a secure place in history and future generations will be able to see his plays and learn for themselves the qualities which made him great, writes Tony Benn.

But those who have never heard him speaking on the public platform passionately denouncing the brutality of war and the murder, torture, plunder and rape with which it is inevitably accompanied, may never be able to appreciate the impact it made upon his audiences.

He spared no one, however high and mighty, in his outbursts of anger at the personal responsibility they bore for what was being done in our name and, for that reason, the mainstream media chose – very largely – to ignore his political campaigns.

But with the overwhelming majority of people in Britain and America now firmly opposed to the western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq his influence, along with all those others who shared his view, have turned out to be immensely influential.

Having had the privilege of sharing many platforms with him I can testify to the power he had, fanning the flames of anger and the flames of hope which can and do shift people because what he was saying came from his heart and experience and were not crafted by some spin doctor in the White House or Downing Street.

Oratory, we are now regularly told, is dead, but anyone who heard Pinter will know how wrong that is.

His views, as a young Jewish lad, coming from his own experience, brought up in the East End, led him to refuse conscription when it still existed during the Cold War, for which he was required to appear before the court, and carried on to make him even more vehement against the war on Yugoslavia and then the terrorist revenge after 9/11 by the so-called coalition of the willing.

Perhaps some of those passionate speeches have been captured by television cameras on the great demonstrations at which he spoke and, if they have, I am sure that they will make as real – if not a greater – impact on future generations than will his plays, for they came from his heart and spoke to us all.

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