Although primarily remembered as a theatrical writer, Harold Pinter’s early dramas reached a greater audience through Britain’s recently launched commercial television network, ITV. Between 1960 and 1966, ITV viewers enjoyed eight plays by Pinter, all broadcast in evening prime time, a full-length production of The Birthday Party (1960) followed by versions of The Dumb Waiter, The Room (both 1961) and The Caretaker (1966).
In addition, ITV premiered four original Pinter plays for television. The 1960 Armchair Theatre version of A Night Out was the most watched programme of its week, broadcast live to an audience of 6,386,000 households (equivalent to 14 million individual viewers). As Pinter famously calculated, a play in a West End Theatre would have to run for a lifetime to get the same audience as watched for the one evening on television.
Three further television plays were made by London’s Associated-Rediffusion company, produced and directed by Joan Kemp-Welch. Night School (1960), revolving around the possession of a room and misleading information, starred Irish actor Milo O’Shea (praised by Pinter as “a brilliant comedian”) as Walter. The Collection (1961) represented something of a development for Pinter, set in a more luxurious London setting than previous plays and featuring a (discretely-drawn) gay couple. The play is based around a tantalising mystery – the viewer never knows what occurred in the Leeds hotel room – it’s power enhanced by the television camera’s magnification and concentration. The actor who played Harry, Griffith Jones, described the play’s cumulative effect: “One becomes aware of the subtleties and implications only gradually. Each line and gesture adds something to the characters.” The Lover (1963) performed by Alan Badel and (Pinter’s wife) Vivien Merchant, placed marital sexual teasing and the possibility of infidelity in a suburban domestic setting, to claustrophobic effect.
All three productions made effective use of the particular conditions of television drama of the 1960s; performed in the TV studio, recorded ‘as live’ onto videotape. This meant that performances on the studio floor were taped live through multiple cameras, with mixing between shots occurring, in a gallery in a separate part of the studio, at the moment of performance, rather than cut together in post-production, as in film.
Two particular strengths of this form made it particularly well suited for Pinter’s writing. Studio drama was an interior form in which the room is paramount – as an environment that shapes and defines understanding of events that occur within it – while multi-camera direction relied upon finding a particular rhythm, which could relay long stretches of dialogue and interaction into sequences of different shots of various lengths, distances and groupings. This was especially fruitful for productions of Pinter’s plays, where rooms can have territorial importance as spaces of both sanctuary and violation and which famously developed a new syntax for dialogue, both demotic and elliptical, and dependent on withheld information. In turn, the rooms of Pinter’s drama were reflected back by television into the viewers’ own living rooms, creating a particularly close, intimate and sometimes uncomfortable experience. In the words of Pinter’s friend Ian Smith:
Pinter is a dramatist who might have been invented for television. No screen, however small, could be more claustrophobic than the world of his characters. (…) Swift and economical as television demands, [his TV plays] taking stock types and scenarios, tweaking them enough to be fascinating. And they’re set in Pinter’s signature domain, the domestic interior (…) reflecting and refracting the very space where people watched them. (Archive on Four, BBC Radio 4, 31 January 2009)
The mixed reaction to The Lover recorded in the letters page of the TV Times demonstrates this effect upon ITV viewers. Most correspondents, fearful of Pinter’s reputation for obscurity and symbolism, were pleased to have found the play easy to understand: “I must admit to having been somewhat great bewildered by previous Harold Pinter plays; modern, swift, moving, enthralling and no violence or kitchen sink stuff.” Mrs Barker of Derbyshire, however, envied those viewers who could not follow the play: “I did understand it and was appalled and repelled… I can only hope that the majority of viewers were not perceptive enough to understand what they were witnessing.” Another correspondent objected to having the salacious play broadcast into their domestic living space: “I am well aware that the language is in everyday use, but just as every home must have a rubbish bin, it is not necessary for it to be kept in the living room.”
Although Pinter’s dialogue remains unaltered from on television, all three plays were slightly revised for subsequent stage productions. The Collection had two additional characters in its TV version, a boutique assistant and a garrulous taxi driver (“I like olives”) who takes James to Harry and Bill’s flat. As well as requiring an additional actor, this scene (a cutaway in a taxi cab interior that acts as a bridge between two longer scenes) is a type of drama that works better on the small screen, and would seem rather exposed on a large theatrical stage. In the television version of The Lover the dramatic arrival of Max at the door was immediately followed by a commercial break. The IBA set down a peculiar ruling that scenes in dramas that followed commercial breaks had to be set at least five minutes later than the point where the drama was left, so onscreen some interaction left to the viewer’s imagination has occurred between Sarah and Max before the tapping of the drum.
The original television productions of Night School and The Collection no longer exist. Unusually, all three plays were revived for television in the 1970s, meaning that versions of the plays survive in the archives. A starry 1976 Granada production of The Collection featured Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates and Helen Mirren, while Yorkshire Television made new versions of The Lover (with Vivien Merchant) in 1977 and The Collection (with Ian Holm) in 1978. Although Night School is rarely produced onstage, The Collection and The Lover have occasionally been revived since the 1960s, often in a double bill, with Pinter himself playing Harry in The Collection at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998.