17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

Amanda Hodges revisits his fertile early years in Chiswick.

Chiswick provided much creative inspiration for the young Harold Pinter. Ensconced in a tiny first-floor flat on Chiswick High Road with his wife, actress Vivien Merchant and their infant son Daniel in the late 1950s, Pinter had one of those moments of dramatic epiphany spoken of in his recent lecture Art, Truth & Politics.

“…most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image.”
Harold Pinter

Awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature Pinter reflected upon the gestation of his work, reflecting that frequently ‘most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image.’ In the case of The Caretaker, the play that would transform him from a struggling scribe into a famous writer, this image proved a serendipitous one.

The house at 373 Chiswick High Road was owned by a builder, the prototype for Mick in the play. Austin, the builder’s brother lived there, a reclusive, kindly individual who’d undergone some sort of electric shock therapy in a mental home. One evening he brought home an old tramp down on his luck. Pinter would occasionally bump into the tramp when their paths crossed on the stairs, one day inadvertently witnessing a scene that would become indelibly fixed in his memory.

‘The image that stayed with me was of the open door to this room with the two men standing in different parts of the room..the tramp rooting around in a bag and the other man looking out the window and simply not speaking’. It was ‘a kind of moment frozen in time that left a very strong impression;’ one of those typically ambivalent Pinter moments where, as he explained in a 1958 article, ‘the more acute the experience, the less articulate the expression.’

From such a simple source sprang the closing moments of The Caretaker, brilliantly staged at the Tricycle earlier this year. Like most Pinter plays the personal and political become intertwined, a power struggle at its heart, with shifting allegiances and mordant black humour exposing each character’s delusions and daydreams. The room where the action unfolds (only Mick’s footsteps intruding on this hermetically sealed world) is both sanctuary and prison for its three protagonists.

The Caretaker was championed by commercial producer Michael Codron. After a dispiriting experience backing Pinter’s The Birthday Party (which opened in London to disastrous reviews) Codron was subsequently cautious, booking the small Arts theatre for the run. Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance starred, the latter a fellow Chiswick resident who tried to probe Pinter on the journey home for information on the enigmatic Davies, the tramp he was playing.

The play opened on 27 April 1960 and caused an immediate sensation, twelve curtain calls greeting its bemused but beaming author on the first night. Unlike its predecessor the impact of this drama was acknowledged straightaway and a West End transfer swiftly took place. Even Noel Coward confided to his diary in bewilderment, ‘ The Caretaker, on the face of it , is everything I hate most in the theatre: squalor, repetition, lack of action but somehow it seizes hold of you. Nothing happens except that somehow it does. The writing is at moments brilliant and quite unlike anyone else’s.’ Pinter refuses to supply neat resolutions to his plays, preferring the audience to draw their own conclusions.

Pinter and Vivien (who’d married in 1956 after meeting on tour) had moved into their flat in 1958, gratefully embracing its ‘very clean couple of rooms with bath and kitchen’ after dismal Notting Hill digs were deemed impossible for a couple with a new baby. Having located a ‘perfectly decent’ Chiswick flat, the plan was temporarily thwarted by a simple lack of cash, Pinter recalling ‘I hadn’t got the £100, or anything like it, for the deposit.’ Writing to producer Rita Buchan – who admired Vivien’s work – he admitted their plight, she thoughtfully sending the necessary funds by return; ‘an act of staggering generosity,’ as Pinter acknowledged. Similar thoughtfulness was offered by their neighbour. Returning from an acting engagement Pinter found Austin nurturing a surprise. ‘ He showed me a new telephone directory, just arrived. It said H Pinter- Scriptwriter. I’d told him that, as actors, it would be useful for Vivien and myself if we had a telephone so he’d had one specially installed on the stairs. He’d done it because he knew I was in the business of writing and was very proud of that.’

In the late Fifties, before The Caretaker changed everything, Pinter was living what he later called ‘a very threadbare existence,’ juggling sporadic commissions for BBC radio plays with intermittent acting work under his stage name of David Baron. Pinter, born in 1930, had enjoyed a stimulating childhood and youth in Hackney, spent an uninspiring year at RADA and subsequently pursued an acting career in rep whilst developing his embryonic writing career.

Despite cramped conditions and limited income he seems to have been extremely productive during his Chiswick years, writing copious revue sketches, the first draft of The Servant screenplay plus plays A Slight Ache and The Hothouse, the latter unproduced until 1980. Like The Caretaker, it was drawn from personal experience, this time of being a medical guinea pig back in the early Fifties, an eery play examining the bureaucratic insanity of a state hoping to maintain conformity by suppressing any sign of social dissidence, its contemporary appeal attested by the forthcoming National Theatre revival.

Whilst wonderful to finally receive critical acclaim in 1960, life wasn’t without tension. Vivien remained unhappy at the way that her husband had used his knowledge of Austin as inspiration for Aston’s character. She felt that Pinter had betrayed the man’s confidence. Actually he felt instinctive sympathy for both Austin and the tramp, meeting the latter by chance on Chiswick roundabout shortly before The Caretaker opened. ‘ We had a chat and I asked him how he was getting on. I didn’t mention the play which I’d by then written.. My life at that time was writing on my old typewriter- with Daniel crawling about under my feet – and the round of the Labour Exchange and the odd half pint at the Robin Hood and Little John down the road.’ With his own life appearing similarly untethered Pinter felt, in spirit, ‘close to this old derelict’s world, in a way.’

But the days of hardship were over. Two months after the success of The Caretaker Pinter and Vivien exchanged their little flat for more spacious accommodation in Fairmead Court, Kew, a fairly new maisonette with a small garden. They moved several times, finally settling into a large house in Regent’s Park in 1964, affluence never denting Pinter’s adamant belief that we should all strive with ‘unswerving, fierce determination as citizens to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.’ It’s a creed espoused throughout his long career and which retains its resonance today.

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