We may have effectively hit the pause button on our lives last Wednesday - and though the retail sector immediately went back to work just two days later with wall-to-wall sales from Friday, many won’t be in their offices for another full week. But I’ve trudged into mine today, since there’s still plenty to write about - even if I’ve actually taken a theatrical break of my own and only finally returned to the theatre last night (and that was pure pleasure, not to work, seeing Maria Friedman’s show at the Trafalgar Studios again)
But though all British newspapers turned into snoozepapers on Christmas Day and didn’t publish at all - and The Guardian, alone amongst the quality nationals, chose not to publish on Boxing Day, either - the world doesn’t stop turning, nor sadly do people stop dying, just because they do. But it meant that the death of Harold Pinter on Christmas Eve went unreported by The Guardian in print till Saturday - even though it has Britain’s leading authority on his work, Michael Billington, on its staff, who has written the definitive biography of the man and his work.
I have previously quoted former Guardian editor Peter Preston writing in an Observer media column at the turn of last year saying, “Each year, Newsnight packs up for the 10 weekdays of Yule as though news vanishes at Christmas. At which point something big - in this case the assassination of Benazir Bhutto - happens, and viewers wanting a little analysis are left bereft. Simple point: the world doesn’t stop turning or burning while Jeremy Paxman stuffs his turkey or Kirsty Wark slices her haggis. If there’s a need for news, it’s constant, and long hols, apart from being irritating, send a contradictory signal. For public service, read public snooze.”
At least the internet now fills some of that vacuum, and The Guardian were at least pleasingly quick off the mark in posting a blog by Michael Billington at lunchtime on Christmas Day, in which he declared, “The death of Harold Pinter comes as a great shock. We all knew, of course, that he had endured a succession of illnesses ever since 2000. But there was a physical toughness and tenacity of will about Harold that made us all believe he would survive for a few more years yet. Sadly, it was not to be.”
It is Michael, of course, that you want to read at a time like this, since he knew Pinter well - both professionally and personally, which gives the following declaration in the obituary that The Guardian published on Saturday a special authority: “As for the man himself, he was full of contradictions. He had a reputation for being short-tempered and angry; and it is perfectly true that he could flare up if he encountered some thoughtlessly expressed political opinion. But, in writing a critical biography of him, I was more struck by his iron loyalty, meticulous precision and innate capacity for friendship.”
Billington also wrote on his blog entry about his spirit of generosity and loyalty, and tells a revealing recent story: “Eight weeks ago I directed a group of LAMDA students in a triple-bill of Party Time, Celebration and the Nobel Lecture. At the time, Harold was extremely ill. But he had promised to come and see the productions and, on the final Saturday-night performance, he and his wife, Antonia, duly arrived. They not only saw the shows. Harold got up and made a speech afterwards thanking all the students. He then stayed on to drink and chat with them. Only later did I realise how much of a physical effort it was for Harold.”
Elsewhere, however, the physical effort of making strained and tenuous connections to Pinter is overwhelming for some journalists: in The Times, Dominic Maxwell was forced in a page three story on Saturday to draw on a story about observing him at a theatre once: “He wasn’t always easy. I once sat behind him at the theatre when a latecomer tried to climb past him to get to his seat. The rest of the row shifted for the latecomer. Pinter kept his legs thrust out, so the man had to climb laboriously over them. Tough, but funny. And as in life, so in art. The polite and not-so-polite pugilism he depicted is both quite unlike real life and also too much like it to bear.”
As the theatrical great and good have lined up to pay their own inevitable tributes, from Richard Eyre in yesterday’s Observer, who again drew attention to a man “who was sometimes pugnacious and occasionally splenetic, but was just as often droll and generous - particularly to actors, directors and (a rare quality this) other writers” to one of those writers, David Hare, who in Saturday’s Guardian declared, “Yesterday when you talked about Britain’s greatest living playwright, everyone knew who you meant. Today they don’t. That’s all I can say.”
It sounds suspiciously like he’s making a claim to be thought of as the heir to that title. But if there’s already be a clamour to fill those Pinteresque silences that, as Richard Eyre put it, means he “became adjectival, part of who and what we are”, he’s also irreplaceable: as Billington’s obituary concludes, “Pinter was an all-round man of the theatre of a kind we’re unlikely to see again: a practical graduate of weekly rep and touring theatre who all the time nursed his own private vision of the universe. And that, in the end, was his great achievement. Like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography. It was a place haunted by the shifting ambivalence of memory, flecked by uncertainty, reeking of sex and echoing with strange, mordant laughter. It was, in short, Pinterland and it will induce recognition in audiences for as long as plays are still put on in theatres.”
It so happens that one of those plays, No Man’s Land, is currently playing the final week of its run at the Duke of York’s; and I happened to run into one of its stars, David Bradley, at Maria Friedman’s show last night. He told me that Harold had been planning on going to see the play again tonight before it closed; Pinter won’t be there now, but the important thing is that the play still will be, and so will the fine cast illuminating it. There is no greater living tribute to the playwright than that.