BFI (DVD) (UK RB PAL)
As divisive and important as they come among modern dramatists, Harold Pinter became a major brand name in theatrical circles with his heady, often challenging dramas featuring a minimal number of characters, usually a single setting, and a wide capacity for interpretation from the audience. His career in film and television was an inevitable offshoot as he took up screenwriting and acting for both his own work and that of others, with his name becoming widely known through many avenues including his acclaimed collaborations with Joseph Losey on The Servant, The Accident, and The Go-Between. Though his work has been adapted for a variety of television programs over the years, his decades-long history with the BBC has resulted in a particularly rich and fascinating body of work that has largely remained very difficult to see until the BFI's much-needed five-disc DVD boxed set in 2019.
Up first on disc one is Tea Party (1965, 76m14s), adapted from an early Pinter play and aired as part of the program Largest Theatre in the World. The comic but ultimately surreal piece begins with a sanitation company CEO Disson (Leo McKern) interviewing a potential personal assistant, Wendy (Viven Merchant, Pinter's wife at the time), only to find her presence to be the catalyst that could threaten his recent marriage to Diana (Jennifer Wright) and even his own sanity and physical health. Directed by Charles Jarrott (Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Side of Midnight), this earliest of the surviving Pinter productions exists as a black-and-white kinescope and stills entertains with a snappy script and a great cast of supporting players including John Le Mesurier and the great Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out), who steals every single second he has on screen as McKern's new brother-in-law. Then The Basement (1967, 54m38s), from Theatre 625 and also directed by Jarrott, features Pinter himself opposite Derek Godfrey and Kika Markham in a borderline abstract study about two men vying for control of both a basement flat and the attentions of a young woman, Jane, over the course of a dramatic rainy evening that springboards into a series of fantasies set in public and private. Both productions are surprisingly cinematic and visually striking, including some ambitious camerawork and potent images like a pair of identical twins watching a ping-pong game, a duel with broken champagne glasses, or an ornate serving tray covered in rattling, glittering clear marbles as dramatic punctuation. Also included as an extra is Writers in Conversation: Harold Pinter (1984, 46m34s), a TV interview about his thoughts on the current political state around the world and stories about his time in Turkey.
On to disc two, A Slight Ache (1965, 57m42s) features Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes as an aging couple whose afternoon at home is plagued by a pesky wasp and then a seemingly homeless, mute match seller (Gordon Richardson) whose presence ignites insecurities and paranoia that may or may not be justified. This one also goes into uncanny and possibly supernatural territory, especially the very unsettling finale. Male insecurity also figures prominently in A Night Out (1967, 59m46s), with Tony Selby as a submissive mama's boy named Albert who decides to head out for an evening with some coworkers -- only to be accused of conduct very much unlike his apparent persona. In the aftermath of the evening, he goes on to meet a young woman who will put his true personality to the test. Previously presented in 1960 as an installment of Armchair Theatre (with Merchant), this is one of Pinter's more famous and controversial early works with an open-ended conclusion that could be read as sexist or the exact opposite depending on what you think happens next (and what it all really means). Both productions also come from Theatre 625.
Directed by Christopher Morahan, Monologue (1973, 20m10s) on disc three is a one-man show with a nameless man (Henry Woolf) sitting in an empty room as dawn approaches and unloading his memories and deepest feelings to an empty chair. Old Times (1975, 75m10s), also directed by Morahan, is a three-character chamber piece (adapted from Pinter's Tony-nominated Broadway play) with married couple Deeley (Barry Foster, Frenzy) and Kate (Anna Cropper) hosting an evening at home with her onetime best friend, Kate (Mary Miller), for a cocktail-heavy walk down memory lane that doesn't seem to be quite the same path for everyone. An eerie and highly ambiguous work, this is the first of several English-language TV versions (with a handful of foreign-language ones as well) that comes very close to qualifying as a horror film. Landscape (1983, 45m1s), a onetime radio drama and play from the late '60s, take a similar look at a married couple (Colin Blakely and Dorothy Tutin) who sit in their austere kitchen and speak dramatically about their own opinions and memories without actually communicating with each other at all. Also included as a special feature, "Pinter People" (1969) is comprised of four Gerald Potterton animated shorts -- "Trouble in the Works" (4m14s), (3m6s), "Request Stop" (3m6s), "The Black & White" (4m40s), and "The Applicant" (4m41s) -- offering little observations written by Pinter about mundane activities like waiting for public transportation or applying for a job.
Kicking off disc four, it took 22 years for Pinter's The Hothouse (1982, 111m26s) to see the light of day in any form. A look at the toxic combination of totalitarianism and incompetence, it focuses on a mental treatment center where dissidents are kept out of sight and remain at the behest of the state who can keep them from ever breathing free air again. Pure speculative nightmare when it was written, the piece had eerie parallels to reality by the time it hit the air and actually feels mild now; that's not to its benefit as it hammers a fairly obvious point home repeatedly for nearly two hours as it veers into territory familiar from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Of great historical value though, it is still worth a look for its four-person cast including Angela Pleasence (From Beyond the Grave) and Edward de Souza (Hammer's Phantom of the Opera) as well as its sheer eerie prediction of where the world was heading. Much more concise and immediately chilling is Mountain Language (1988, 20m32s), a creepy little snapshot of an oppressive government (led by an always effective Michael Gambon) that overreacts when a concerned wife (Miranda Richardson) and mother (Eileen Atkins) come looking for a man being held captive in a realm of seemingly endless snow and barbed wire. Even forbidden to speak their own language, they find themselves up against forces far more nightmarish than they can handle. Inspired by Pinter's recent journey to Turkey to gain ammunition against the persecution of so-called dangerous writers, it's a little tour de force for the talent involved with a particularly nasty punchline at the end.
Finally on disc five, the sole production is The Birthday Party (107m28s) with Pinter stepping in front of the camera again for one of many versions of this oft-performed drama most famously made into a 1968 film by William Friedkin. Here Kenneth Cranham stars as Stanley, a pianist living at a seaside boarding house run by Meg (Joan Plowright). The arrival of strangers in the house (including Blakely again as well as a late, brief appearance by a young Julie Walters) soon turns his life upside down with an unseen boss giving an order that's never quite understood. Also on the disc is a lengthy interview, Face to Face: Harold Pinter (1997, 39m7s) with Sir Jeremy Isaacs, and a Guardian Interview that runs for 71 minutes as an audio track with the main feature.
Each title in the set is obviously dependent on the existing source and the technical specs, which also makes this a bit of a tour through the different ways audiences experienced BBC productions over the years. From kinescope to monochrome video to color video, it's an accurate replication of the original viewing experience with the PAL speed also conforming to the original intended running speed. The extensive booklet enclosed with the set is recommended as well including a "Pinter and Television" essay by Michael Billington and individual studies of the productions by Billy Smart, Amanda Wrigley, Lez Cooke, John Wyver, and David Rolinson, offering an astute balance of critical insight and history touching on everything from the influence of Proust to the impact of broadcast times and the public responses given to the BBC.
Reviewed on February 13, 2019.