Reflections on the ‘Pinter on Film, Television and Radio’ conference, 19-20 September 2018
The University of Reading arm of the Pinter Histories and Legacies project—peopled by Professor Jonathan Bignell, Dr Billy Smart and Dr Amanda Wrigley—were thrilled to welcome project colleagues and an international group of academic friends old and new from an exciting range of disciplines to the University of Reading’s Minghella Studies, the home of the Film, Theatre and Television Department, on 19 September 2018 for the first day of the two-day Pinter on Film, Television and Radio conference. The topic of the first day’s deliberations was ‘Pinter on Screen’.
There follows a gallery of images from the conference and a brief write-up of the panels and other events across the two days. This report concludes with warm thanks to those speakers, delegates and others who made the two days so enjoyable and intellectually rewarding! We look forward to seeing where these shared discussions and collaborative interests take us.
Following a warm welcome from Jonathan Bignell, Billy Smart chaired Panel One: Pinter, screenplays, gender. Dr Farah Ali (University of Hull) drew on feminist writers such as bell hooks and Luce Irigaray to explore Pinter’s portrayal of Jo Armitage in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) and Dr Laurel Forster (University of Portsmouth) considered Pinter’s adaptive choices, especially as they pertained to female characters, in his screenplay The Heat of the Day (1989), a cinematic version of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel. Lively discussion followed on such vital topics as whether Pinter empowered or disempowered his female characters and the extent to which his screenplays governed the aesthetics and the politics of the collaboratively made cinematic text.
Professor Graham Saunders (the Pinter project’s Co-Investigator based at the University of Birmingham) chaired Panel Two: Pinter, screenplays, adaptations. Jonathan Bignell considered The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in terms of the Sixties spy cycle, outlining how the characters’ silences, subtexts and evasions are effective ways of establishing the dangerous fictional world. Continuing with film, Dr Charles Morton from Birmingham City University focused Pinter’s relationship with Shakespeare through an examination of sight and blindness in the text of Pinter’s as yet unproduced screenplay The Tragedy of King Lear (2000).
After lunch, Professor John Wyver of the University of Westminster offered a gripping Keynote which banished any thoughts of a post-prandial nap. Illuminated by fascinating fragments discovered through his close work in the RSC archives, and based on his deep understanding of the long-established and distinctive relationships between theatre and screen media, this keynote encompassed insights on adaptation, intermediality, intertextuality, (re)mediation and rights, concluding with some important and stimulating questions surrounding the ‘reproductive’ and ‘expressive’ functions of the archive.
Amanda Wrigley chaired Panel Three: Pinter and television which opened with Billy Smart discussing the sophisticated editing and elaborate design of the BBC television productions of Tea Party (1965) and The Basement (1967), in addition to the evidence for their reception by the audience. Dr Richard Hewett (University of Salford) followed with a discussion of the trajectory of Pinter’s career as an actor on stage, on television and in film, drawing on extracts from The Birthday Party (BBC, 1987), Rogue Male (BBC, 1976) and David Mamet’s Catastrophe (2001) to argue that Pinter was a flexible performer, able to draw on a range of naturalistic and non-naturalistic techniques throughout his acting life.
The final act of the day was the brilliant ‘Bottling Pinter: the making of the 2002 Pinter at the BBC season’, chaired by Ian Greaves in conversation with television producer Martin Rosenbaum and Anthony Wall (series editor, Arena), with pre-recorded contributions from Nigel Williams. In 2002, the BBC Four programmed a major retrospective of Harold Pinter’s life by the team behind the long-running arts strand Arena, including a range of plays and feature films from the archives, as well as a compilation of revue sketches, a selection of plays newly recorded on stage (including the first televised Celebration), and, as the flagship of the season, a new two-hour documentary. Opening with thoughts on the function of the arts documentary, this panel discussion revealed a series of fascinating insights into what it was like to work with Pinter on a major documentary profile, as well as the immense challenges of selecting and producing a large amount of original programming. Details such as how they got won Pinter over to agree to the series and what stipulations he laid down for the documentary filming were fascinating. The panel generated an engaged response from the floor, with questions centering on the place of Pinter in public life and politics at the turn of the century.
Day two of the conference, titled ‘Pinter on Air’, saw us relocate to the British Library’s Foyle Suite. There, Curator of Radio Paul Wilson, gave us a warm welcome and talked engagingly about the Pinter Archive and the audio collections held in the Sound Archive. Jonathan Bignell chaired Panel Four: Intermedial Pinter. Amanda Wrigley gave the day’s first paper, establishing Pinter’s intermediality (the way performances of his works circulated between different media) as prelude to discussion of the nature of the overwhelmingly negative response the audience had to radio and television productions of his work in the 1960s. The paper of Dr Łukasz Borowiec (John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin), ‘Harold Pinter in Polish radio and television theatre, 1972-2006: between tradition and innovation’, was given (by Billy Smart) in absentia: it usefully outlined the historical contexts for these productions, their relationship with stage productions and the evolving aesthetics across radio and television.
The second panel before lunch, Panel Five: Pinter’s soundscapes, was chaired by Mark Taylor-Batty of the University of Leeds, the Principal Investigator on the Pinter project. Dr Arka Chattopadhyay of IIT Gandhinagar examined the sound aesthetics in A Slight Ache, exploring the connection between soundlessness and menace and the movement from sound to voice in Pinter’s radio-poetics. Dr Susan Hollis Merritt contributed a paper on the collaboration of composer James Clarke with Pinter on Voices (Radio 3, 2005), for which selected dialogue from Pinter’s dramatic works were placed around and within a score by Clarke. Dr Lucy Jeffery (University of Reading) explored the echoes of Samuel Beckett’s Embers in Pinter’s 1968 Landscape (Radio 3). The rich discussion that concluded this panel focused especially on the musical patterning across Pinter’s oeuvre and what’s lost in radio performance in the Pinter pause which, on stage, must be acted.
Panel Six, titled ‘You never heard such silence’—voicing in Pinter’s drama, was chaired by Billy Smart. Professor Ann C. Hall (University of Louisville) focused on Pinter’s creative use of ‘voice-over’ in works such as Family Voices and Victoria Station to explore the effects of the human voice and its absence in relationships. Professor Judith Roof (Rice University) considered the role of speech, and its different forms, in the power relationships between different characters in stage productions of plays such as The Birthday Party, and between those stage actors and the audience. Professor Melissa Bailar (Rice University) considered the dramatic significance of names in Pinter’s plays, especially instances of mis-naming, which disrupt a sense of identity and knowledge.
Dr Catriona Fallow, the project’s Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, chaired Panel Seven on Pinter’s radio aesthetics. Dr Nupur Tandon (Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur) gave the first paper on ‘A presence in absence: Pinter on the radio’; Dr Pim Verhulst (University of Antwerp) gave the last paper of the conference on ‘Intermediality and radio aesthetics in Pinter’s late theatre’. This final panel amplified and reflected back some of the dominant themes of the conference, from adaptation, through aesthetics and poetics, to intermediality (or, to use Pim’s term, ‘transmediality’).
Following a wine reception, delegates transferred to Amanda Wrigley and Billy Smart’s public lecture, ‘Pinter at the BBC’, in the British Library’s Knowledge Centre. This lecture explored the breadth of Pinter’s work on radio and television, with discussion on production contexts, aesthetics and audience reception illustrated by a number of rare archival recordings—from the first radio production of A Slight Ache in 1960 to Precisely on Newsnight in 1983.
Click here for a PDF file of the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies.
Thanks to all speakers and delegates for making this two-day event so enjoyable, so friendly and such a rich site of discussion. We are also grateful for the help of the following colleagues in the organisation of this conference: Stephanie Brunger, Executive Support Administrator, and Chris Bacon, Technical Manager, in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, University of Reading; University of Reading student helpers Natasha Clarke, Isabella Goh and Madelaine Patricia McQuoid; and, at the British Library, Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio, and Nasia Ruhomutally, Events Co-Ordinator.