Pinter at the BBC: What the Censor Sees.
The long-awaited BFI DVD collection, Pinter at the BBC, is released today. Over five discs, the anthology includes 10 versions of Pinter plays made by the BBC between 1965-88. As all ten are new to any home video format, the release increases the amount of Pinter UK television material publicly available by 500%. In addition to the plays, the collection also includes a wealth of supplementary material – four of the animated sketches made by Potterton Productions (Pinter People 1969) and documentaries and interviews from both the BBC and BFI archives. Full details for the set are as follows:
“Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it, but the search for it is compulsive”
Harold Pinter on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005
Harold Pinter (1930-2008) was one of the most important and influential British playwrights of the last century. While best known for his work for the stage, this collection celebrates Pinter’s significant contribution to television. His work for the screen shares many of the qualities of that for the stage, from a fascination with the private roots of power and an abiding preoccupation with memory, to a belief in the agency of women. Featuring 10 previously unavailable plays made for the BBC between 1965 and 1988, and a dazzling array of British acting talent including Michael Gambon, Julie Walters, Leo McKern, Vivien Merchant, John Le Mesurier and Miranda Richardson.
• Tea Party (Charles Jarrott, 1965)
• A Slight Ache (Christopher Morahan, 1967)
• A Night Out (Christopher Morahan, 1967)
• The Basement (Charles Jarrott, 1967)
• Monologue (Christopher Morahan, 1972)
• Old Times (Christopher Morahan, 1975)
• The Hothouse (Harold Pinter, 1982)
• Landscape (Kenneth Ives, 1983)
• The Birthday Party (Kenneth Ives, 1987)
• Mountain Language (Harold Pinter, 1988)
• Writers in Conversation: Harold Pinter (1984, 47 mins): an ICA interview with Harold Pinter by Benedict Nightingale;
• Pinter People (1969, 16 mins): a series of four animated films written by Harold Pinter;
• Face to Face: Harold Pinter (1997, 39 mins): Sir Jeremy Isaacs interviews Harold Pinter, who discusses the images and events which have inspired some of his most powerful dramas;
• Harold Pinter Guardian Interview (1996, 73 mins, audio only): an extensive interview recorded at the National Film Theatre;
• Illustrated booklet with new writing by Michael Billington, John Wyver, Billy Smart, Amanda Wrigley, David Rolinson and Lez Cooke, and full credits.
UK | 1965-1988 | black and white, and colour | 628 mins | English language with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles
original aspect ratio 1.33:1 | 5 x DVD9 | PAL | Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio (192kbps)
© BBC 1965-1988. Distributed under licence from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Alongside of the incisive reviews of the set that are starting to appear online is one detailed critique that is likely to remain obscure. The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) are obliged to publish Insight reports into every film that is commercially released, detailing the reasoning behind each certification decision that they make, and demonstrating that they have considered the potential effect of contentious material in every film. Nine of the ten films have been awarded 12 certificates, with the bloody Mountain Language (Certificate 15) being the exception. As the DVD release is the first time that the productions have ever come under the watch of an official censor, these verdicts are worth circulating further:
TEA PARTY is a drama in which a millionaire experiences health and psychological issues after marrying for the second time.
There are moderate sex references.
There is also mild bad language (‘bloody’, ‘hell’), dated racial terms (‘negros’), and scenes in which adults smoke cigarettes.
A NIGHT OUT is a British drama, from 1960 [sic], in which a young man’s mild temperament is pushed to breaking point by the people around him.
A woman describes a man as ‘retarded’, although discriminatory language is not condoned. There is also use of mild bad language (‘bloody’).
It is implied a woman is a prostitute, and she begins to undress in front of a man although no strong nudity is seen. She also complains that other women are “loose”.
A man is accused of inappropriately touching a woman at a party, although no detail is seen. There is infrequent very mild violence as men push and shove in an argument, and as a man’s temper flares he threatens to hit a woman with a clock.
A SLIGHT ACHE is a drama in which a couple reluctantly invite an elderly match seller into their home.
A woman recalls being raped by a poacher. She does not go into explicit detail about the event but describes it as ‘a desperate struggle’. There are no visual references to the rape.
There is mild bad language (‘bloody’, ‘slut’).
THE BASEMENT is a British drama, from 1967, in which two friends compete over ownership of a small flat and the love of a younger woman.
A man watches a woman undress, although no strong nudity is seen on screen. In other scenes men and women are seen kissing and running their hands over each other with implied nudity, but there is no clear sexual activity.
There is brief mild violence, in which two men face off with broken bottles, and a man throws a marble at the head of another man.
MONOLOGUE is a 1973 British drama featuring a performance of a Harold Pinter monologue.
A man refers to a black woman using outdated and racist terminology including ‘black as the ace of spades’.
There is mild bad language (‘pissed off’, ‘bloody’, ‘crap’) in addition to infrequent mild sex references.
OLD TIMES is a dramatisation of a Harold Pinter play in which the conversations and reminiscences between three friends challenge their understanding of the origin and depth of their relationships.
Moderate sex references include repeated references to a man looking up a woman’s skirt and a woman stroking her breasts while making sensual noises.
There is moderate bad language (‘bitch’).
THE HOTHOUSE is a dramatisation of a Harold Pinter play in which corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude cloud an investigation into murder and sexual assault at a secretive government sanatorium.
Moderate violence includes a man repeatedly punching another man in the abdomen, as well as references to people being stabbed and others being hanged and strangled during a massacre.
Moderate threat includes three men pulling bladed weapons on one another and a man clutching his head in pain when a powerful sound is played to him through headphones.
There is moderate bad language (‘bitch’, ‘nigger’).
Moderate sex references include a man referring to “Men dipping their wicks” and cautioning subordinates to “Never ride barebacked”.
LANDSCAPE is a 1983 drama based on the Harold Pinter play.
There is strong language (‘f**k’) as well as uses of ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘bloody’, ‘arse’, ‘bullshit’ and ‘bugger’.
There are moderate sex references when a man speaks about ‘having’ and ‘banging’ his wife.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is a British drama, from 1987, in which two sinister men arrive at a boarding house looking for a former musician.
A woman refers to a man using her. In another scene a man is seen trying to put his hand up a woman’s skirt.
Two men intimidate another, breaking his glasses and verbally mocking him. He is later seen struggling to speak and appears to be paralysed. A man is also caught lying on top of a clothed, semi-conscious woman, implying he may be trying to assault her.
Language is mild (‘bloody’, ‘shite’, ‘bastards’).
MOUNTAIN LANGUAGE is a television version of a short play by Harold Pinter, set in an unnamed totalitarian state, in which a mother and a wife make a visit to their respective son and husband who are in prison for dissent.
There is strong language (‘f**k’), as well as milder bad language including uses of ‘bloody’, ‘shit’, ‘arse’ and ‘Jesus Christ’.
There are moments of moderate threat, as well as moderate injury on the hand of a woman who has been bitten by a dog and on the face of a prisoner who has been beaten by a guard, although both incidents occur offscreen. There are also moderate sex references.
It is entertaining to speculate if it was the same viewer who watched all ten plays. If so, the quality of their description of each play fluctuates a bit. The reading of Disson’s “health and psychological issues” in Tea Party is as comically baffled as the description of Old Times is – for a one line précis – admirably acute.
It is curiously instructive to read what is technically disturbing about the plays, and to then contrast that with what one personally finds unsettling about them. The distinction between threat and violence is pertinent to Pinter’s work, in which there is much of the one and relatively little of the other. When watching the stage it is generally the prospect of violence that unsettles rather than the actual enactment of violence (which often – for me, anyway – provokes distracting thoughts of ‘how are they doing that without actually hurting each other?). The BBFC monitors are especially primed to look out for violence that could be emulated at home, hence the concern about open blades, broken bottles and men throwing marbles at each other’s heads. Similarly, Pinter’s treatment of sex is largely technically unproblematic, as “no detail/ strong nudity is seen”.
While it seems highly unlikely that anyone would chose to entertain a primary school age child by encouraging them to watch Pinter at the BBC, the possibility of the effect of watching it upon a minor automatically has to be considered in order to justify the awarding of a certificate, and all of these ten plays are adjudged to include language, actions or inferences that are actively unsuitable for minors.