Playwright Harold Pinter first came to prominence in the sixties as part of the second wave in an influential theatre movement that had previously seen the rise of the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of the British stage. Like the torch bearer for this gritty New Wave, John Osborne, Pinter was a grammar school boy; a lower middleclass cockney from a Jewish family, who started his association with the theatre as an actor in the early-fifties during the post-war boom in repertory theatre. His first real breakthrough into wider public consciousness as a writer came with the ABC TV production of his play “A Night Out”, directed by Philip Saville for producer Sidney Newman’s ground-breaking Armchair Theatre series in 1960. Like the tough Kitchen Sink dramas that defined the New Wave playwrights and novelists of the late-fifties, the style of Pinter’s early plays broke from the traditions of the old-school British theatre and moved away from its middleclass drawing-room manners; in place of what was then seen as conformity and complacency and politeness, Pinter’s work shared the working class-settings and characters, the vivid expression of extreme male emotions and conflicts, and an aggressive and ambiguous attitude to women in a world which was usually portrayed as violent, gritty and bleak.
Unlike many of the working class dramas of the sixties era though, Pinter’s best work often shared the old-guard theatre’s emphasis on repression, unspoken emotions and the evasions of the heart, as his characters vied with each other for physical, social and sexual dominance. His work was also often avowedly non-realist in its execution and shared many of the characteristics of what was then termed the Theatre of the Absurd, despite his recognizably working class settings and the blunt rhythmic edginess of his language.
One of the most evocative and disturbing plays from this period in the development of Pinter’s dramaturgy is undoubtedly “The Homecoming”. Written in 1964, the play bemused the New York Times theatre critic when Peter Hall’s RSC production opened on Broadway in 1967, but this powerful work became a cult hit anyway, and in 1973 Hall was invited to direct a film version for Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre project. Although the whole idea of presenting stage productions on film seemed misconceived from the start and the AFT failed to find the audience it needed in order to continue for very long, Hall’s striking film adaptation of Pinter’s bizarre story, which examines what occurs when an expatriate philosophy professor brings his wife back to his childhood home in Hackney, North London to meet his working class family for the first time, now stands as one of the overlooked gems of ‘70s British cinema. Its brutal, unsparing and often chilling portrayal of the twisted relationships that underpin a particularly dysfunctional all-male family is leavened with a truly macabre strain of black humour that, retrospectively, convincingly situates the film as part of that distinct strain in late-sixties, early-seventies low budget British horror cinema that dealt with the darker side of family life, such as Pete Walker’s “Frightmare” or “The Corpse”. Some, like Freddie Francis’ “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girlie” were based on stage plays originally anyway, and share a Pinteresque quality of ill-defined menace and threatening off-kilter surrealism. Now 3DD present the film as one half of an excellent two-disc UK DVD set devoted to Harold Pinter and his work.
Disc one features Philip Saville’s 2009 documentary tribute to the late playwright, “Pinter’s Progress”: a lovingly assembled 51 minute film biography of remembrance, with copious contributions from famous friends and colleagues as well as interviews given by the writer himself near the end of his life, detailing every important stage in the man’s life and career in chronological order. Saville, of course, directed Pinter’s early play “A Night Out” for television in 1960, where it gained the writer an audience of over six million viewers -- way in excess of anything he could have hoped to have achieved in the theatre at the time, even with a major hit. That TV broadcast is widely thought to have kick-started the success of his follow up theatrical production of “The Caretaker”, so it is perhaps fitting that the man who launched Pinter into public prominence should now preside over this television obituary.
The documentary starts by looking at Pinter’s early life as the son of a Jewish taylor in the East End of London during the heights of the activities of Mosley’s Blackshirts; then moves on to his experience of being evacuated during the war. His early professional life as an actor in touring rep brought him into contact with many of the performers who were later to become the leading lights of their profession. The film includes contributions from Michael Cain, Shelia Hancock, Steven Berkoff and James Fox along with Peter Hall, Susanna York, Jonathan Pryce and Terence Rigby. As the documentary moves through the various phases of Pinter’s career – as an actor, a playwright, a screenwriter and, in later years, a left wing political activist -- the reflections, anecdotes and memories of these and many others are woven into a tapestry which reveals a complex, intelligent and sometimes belligerently single-minded artist who didn’t suffer fools gladly, but left a legacy of work that still reverberates today with many young upcoming actors and directors, who are seen here discussing what the plays and Pinter’s unique theatrical style say to them.
The documentary offers the perfect lead-in to Peter Hall’s screen version of “The Homecoming”, included on Disc Two of this set along with over an hour-and-a-half’s worth of extras. Possibly the greatest work of Pinter’s career, the play is performed to perfection by an ensemble cast led by a blistering Paul Rogers as the film’s malevolent patriarch Max: a former butcher who presides over his family like a grotesque cross between Albert Steptoe and Fagan, dressed in flat cap, cardigan and white sneakers, and shaking his walking stick with angry disdain at his chauffer brother Sam (Cyril Cusack), who seems to have assumed a sort of surrogate feminine role of downtrodden dogsbody to take the place of Max’s dead wife Jessie, while consoling himself with the idea that he is revered by his customers as the best chauffer in his company. The two live in an old Victorian house in North London with the wall between the passage and the living room knocked down to create a vast, chequer-floored space, with a long black staircase rising into darkness, always in view. Max’s two sons, the disdainful but slimy Lenny (Ian Holm) and dim-witted trainee boxer Joey (Terence Rigby) live in a state of perpetual mutual antagonism with their leering, foul-tempered old dad, but their finely balanced relationship of restrained intolerance is thrown into turmoil with the sudden arrival of Max’s eldest son Teddy (Michael Jayson) and his wife Ruth (Vivien Merchant). Teddy is a successful academic in America, and has never before even told any of his working class family that he is married and has three children. At first the revelation sparks uncomfortable grotesque comedy at the expense of Ruth as the three men seek to antagonise Teddy with insulting advances towards his wife. But a gradual emotional estrangement and a certain distance emerge in their relationship as Ruth successfully parries the emotional bullying of Teddy’s strange family, and unveils a harder edge to her character and perhaps a shadier past as well.
Resisting any urge to open the play up, Hall mainly confines the action to the single one-room location of the original play, maintaining the feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia that feeds the animal ferocity in its unsentimental humour. Hall’s meticulously composed, often disorientating camera angles combined with cinematographer David Watkin’s deep focus photography and some superbly evocative production and art design result in a visually unsettling experience: the stark set looks like a surreal, expressionistic nightmare, with furniture – kinky leather couch, odd-shaped chairs and tables and an oversized lampshade – all painted black, in sharp relief against antiseptic white walls and an Op Art patterned linoleum floor. One of the most striking things about the play is the comic timing underpinning the rhythm and the flow of the text; the almost sit-com-like nature of both the basic situation and the delivery by the small cast of actors is also very evident. The dysfunctional family has long been a common theme for British Comedy writers, from “Steptoe and Son” and “Till Death Us Do Part” to “Only Fools and Horses” -- the interplay of dominant patriarchal figures and dependent family members is a common motif in the British sit-com to this day. The cast is able to take Pinter’s text and tease out the familiar set-ups inherent in this type of domestic comedy from it, pushing and contorting it with their finely honed performances into a grotesque parody of the form which takes the material into the sort of territory later inhabited by “The League of Gentlemen”.
Indeed, there are many outright jokes hidden amongst the verbal jousting and veiled ironic insults which many of the characters indulge themselves with, such as when Max consuls his hapless son Joey after the young man spurns an offer to see the football with his dad and sets out to the gym for his boxing training, ‘that’s your only trouble as a boxer: you don’t know how to defend yourself and you don’t know how to attack,’ he claims with mock friendliness. A mordantly farcical situation later develops when Teddy emerges in the morning with Ruth, after arriving in the night while the others were in bed, and Max mistakes her for a prostitute, screaming, ‘I’ve never had a whore under this roof before …ever since your mother died, my word of honour!’
But what often seem at first like straightforward jokes, soon turn out to contain more than a grain of truth, acting more like Freudian slips that reveal the secrets which the characters are attempting to conceal from each other and themselves. The parentage of all three sons appears to fall into question as Max’s solemn deification of the missing mother figure, Jessie, gradually gives way to the acknowledgement that she was cheating on him throughout their marriage. And Ruth too, it seems, led a less than respectable life before her marriage to Teddy (like the three sons of Max and Jessie, Ruth and Teddy also have three children, suggesting a similar situation developing in their family), reacting to an insulting offer from Lenny and Max that she go on the game to help the family finances by calmly negotiating a contract for this bizarre proposition and then rapidly assuming a powerful matriarchal role in the family structure, while her passive husband seemingly acquiesces in the bizarre arrangement to have her stay behind in a flat and be hired out for prostitution, without care or emotion.
Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s former wife and muse, is mesmerising as the mysterious and alluringly manipulative Ruth, easily the equal of the bombastic bully Max and his strangely creepy son Lenny (a fantastic performance from the young Ian Holm), the latter at one point casually relating an anecdote to her about beating up a prostitute at a dockyard. Cyril Cusack is ably efficient as the ineffectual Uncle Sam, who has his cod-matriarchal role in the family usurped by the sexually dangerous Ruth; and Terence Rigby excels as the initially comical figure of fun, Joey -- who transforms over the course of the play into a leering sex pest as he begins to realise that Ruth can be persuaded to do almost anything. Michael Jayson is the final piece of the puzzle and is superbly convincing as the icy Teddy, whose conviction that his intellectual development puts him outside the loop of his family’s dysfunction, and consequently able to gaze down on it objectively from the outside, is really just a cover for his own emotional sterility.
The film looks great here in a nicely restored print and with a fine anamorphic transfer. It comes with four excellent interviews which run for well over 90 minutes in total and feature the film’s director Peter Hall and its cinematographer David Watkin in conversation, as well as some general material about the American Film Theatre in general (although it covers “The Homecoming” as part of its discussion) in an interview with the executive producer of the AFT Otto Plaschkes, and one with Richard Pena -- director of the New York Film Festival and Programme Director of the Film Society of New York, who talks about the aims of the project and examines how well the films stand up today in the context of the cinema of the 1970s. There are also extensive text-based extras on the disc which include the full text of a speech given by Harold Pinter about his work to the University of Hamburg in 1970, an extensive record of the critical reaction to the 1967 RSC New York Broadway production of “The Homecoming” and Peter Hall’s own written analysis of the play and its importance. There is also a large trailer gallery of AFT titles, a reproduction of the theatrical poster for “The Homecoming” and a short gallery of black and white production stills to round off this wonderful two disc release from 3DD Home Entertainment.