Pinter at the BBC
R2 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (24th February 2019).
The Film

Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 in Hackney, London, England. During his more than 50 year career as a writer, he has received wide acclaim from critics and the public, and receiving many awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature. From stage productions as a playwright, a screenwriter and filmmaker on television and in cinema, to his outspoken political activism, Pinter has always raised questions about social awkwardness, internal demons, political divide, all in witty and at many times stripped bare works involving few characters and few locations for intimacy.

Many of Pinter's works were adapted from stage to screen or written for screen entirely, whether for television screens or in cinema throughout the decades, and this collection from the BFI presents nine of his works as seen on the BBC, ranging from short twenty minute teleplays to feature length productions. But regardless of the length, the formulas and idiosyncrasies that Pinter's writing was known for are presented. Considering these were made for television, production budgets were miniscule. There are no lavish set pieces, most taking place in one setting or a few, the number of main performers in the productions were only a handful each, with one production literally having only one person in one location the entire duration. But these adaptations presented here are not particularly suited for multi-locale ensemble casts. They are intimate and miniscule for a reason - and that is about the messages through the wordplay being the main focus.

1965's "The Tea Party" was a landmark for Pinter as it was his first commissioned work by the BBC rather than an adaptation, but he was actually a shoe-in as a secondary replacement. A Eurovision project entitled "The Largest Theatre in the World" would take one play and adapt it for thirteen different languages around Europe for broadcast. Originally a project with Jean Cocteau attached, his death in 1963 led to the choosing of Pinter as a new writer. In the production, Leo McKern plays Disson, an executive on a decline. The middle aged overweight leader may be at the top economically and socially, but with the death of his first wife and having to take care of his two sons being difficult, his inadequacy sexually with the advances of his secretary Wendy (played by Vivian Merchant), as well as with his new wife Diana (played by Jennifer Wright, plus his ailing health, his life is falling apart in front of all the eyes. In comparison to many BBC productions for television, this one certainly had much more. A fairly large cast, some very ingenious set designs for Disson's office and his home and some great use of camera tracking for movement. While it reached a large audience on its initial broadcast on March 25, 1965 with an 18.5% share, it was a fairly downbeat production with a bleak ending, even for Pinter standards. Disson never has a high as there are no flashbacks to happier moments, instead focusing on the downfall, from his eyesight to his sexual inadequacy. It still has a great script for dialogue and visually an interesting piece of work.

In 1967 three of Pinter's works were made for the television series "Theatre 625". Presented were "A Slight Ache", "A Night Out", and "The Basement". The first two were adaptations of his earlier stage/radio work while "The Basement" was an original work. "A Slight Ache" deals with a posh older couple who invite a mute seemingly homeless match seller into their home. "A Night Out" has a twenty-something mama's boy accused of inappropriately touching a woman at the workplace. "The Basement" has a two old friends meeting each other after a long period apart, but with consequences. All three seem to have little in common but they do share many of the ideals. Sexual inadequacy and tension between the characters, the domination of the woman over the male counterparts, the leads on the verge of madness. Barely constituting as a trilogy, the three works can be easily seen separately or consecutively for enjoyment and share some of Pinter's finest in writing. Maurice Denham and Hazel Hughes' character changes against the mute man in "A Slight Ache", Tony Selby's childlike behavior and frustrations exploding in "A Night Out", and Derek Godfrey's increments to madness in "The Basement" - the performances are also wonderful.

In 1972's "Monologue", it starred Henry Woolf, and no one else. As the title suggests, it is entirely a monologue of a man to an empty chair. Spitting out his memories, frustrations, and eventually anger over a loved one, the production is certainly powerful though it can be quite confusing. Was Clint Eastwood referencing the Pinter play when he did the same thing in 2012 in his infamous speech? Apparently not, but the parallels are too obvious to be a coincidence. 1975's "Old Times" plays in a similar fashion to "The Basement" with the sexual tension between three people, played by Barry Foster, Anna Cropper, and Mary Miller. A reunion of two former roommate brings up old stories that are remembered slightly differently, causing tension between the two and the one's husband overhearing old stories of his wife that he had never heard before. Like "Rashomon" without the flashbacks, the sense of what memories are and how they are stored in the minds make everyone question what really happened and what didn't. Is the person that supposedly witnessed everything the one to trust? Is the one that experienced the incidents the one to trust? Or is neither telling the entirely truth? Going to 1983's "Landscape", it plays like a doubled mirror to "Monologue" with two characters seemingly saying monologues at the same time. But they are in fact speaking to each other across the table, just with each not listening to each other at all. It may seem absurd to the viewer, but as many couples know, after a lengthy period words of the partner go in one ear without registering and out the other. "Landscape" is the extreme of communicating yet not listening. Though it can be frustrating to see, it certainly provides laughs as well, and hopefully one that will resonate with couples on the verge of disaster to make amends.

With Pinter becoming more politically outspoken in his later period, it is no surprise that some of his 1980s works were equally made so. 1987's "The Hothouse" takes place in a government institution where one of the females - number 6459 becomes pregnant. Colonel Roote (played by David Newark who is in charge of the institution is not the most adept, knowing very little of what happens and the consequences. Details of who witnessed what and conflicting information lead the investigation to standstills. Critiquing the incompetence of government and their treatment of people, the original story was written in 1958 but ultimately shelved by Pinter, but revived and first performed on stage in 1980. It's certainly one of his wittiest works in terms of laughs and outbursts, but the finale is not something expected where the chaos in the words becomes chaos in their reality. Well structured and well played, it's a wonder why the story was shelved for so long. 1987's "The Birthday Party" is an adaptation of Pinter's 1957 acclaimed three act play. Kenneth Cranham plays Stanley, living in a boarding house where two mysterious men, Goldberg (played by Pinter himself) and McCann (played by Colin Blakely come to have a discussion with him, which does not go accordingly well. An overtly political work that includes torture, violence, and an unexplained backstory, the television version does not give any easy answers nor does it give a straightforward version of the events that take place. Pinter is excellent as Goldberg in this adaptation, which was once also made into a television production in 1960 but is unfortunately lost. 1988's "The Mountain Language" is Pinter's most politically charged work found here, taking place in an unnamed prison complex where the government of an unnamed country has been arresting people and forcing them to speak the national language rather than their own. While in the production everyone is actually speaking English, the guardsmen are frequently screaming at the prisoners and forcibly making threats to anyone who doesn't speak the national language. Being a very straightforward look at cultural genocide that took place around the world and especially in the middle east during the period with the Kurds, "The Mountain Language" is not one of laughs at all but one that frightens and disturbs. Even all these years later, seeing footage of Americans in MAGA-settings yelling at people to speak English in America is still a disturbing sight and one that calls for re-education of the mind.

Note this is a region 2 PAL DVD set

Video

The BFI presents all the works in the original television broadcast standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio in the PAL format. The productions were shot entirely on standard definition video, though there are exceptions with "The Tea Party" and "The Basement" being shot on video for indoor sets and on film for outdoor shots.

For "The Tea Party" the original video element no longer exists, and the transfer comes from a 16mm black and white Telerecording of the production. As this process involved a film camera pointed at a video monitor and recording in sync at 25fps, there is an obvious generation loss and slightly distorted look with the slightly rounded televisions of the past not having a completely flat image. The 16mm element held by the BFI National Archive was scanned at 2K for this release and the transfer is not exactly the greatest. There are specs and dust, whites are blown out, detail is lost, ghosting and some tape errors are visible. Granted much of these cannot be simply fixed, it is the best the production will ever look considering the source material.

For all other productions, the masters were taken from the BBC Archives, from the original videotape elements. As expected the video masters do have their issues with ghosting with lights, lack of detail, color bleeding in the color productions, and tape errors. The earlier productions are the ones with the most issues while the latter productions fare much better. "The Basement" has a few sections outside the home in the rain that were shot on film then transferred to tape which also suffers from a generation loss from film to video. When it comes to the later productions with "Mountain Language" and "The Birthday Party", the image looks much better in comparison, but still has its minor issues as stated.

The runtimes are as follows:

DISC ONE
* "Tea Party" (76:14)
* Theatre 625: "The Basement" (54:38)

DISC TWO
* Theatre 625: "A Slight Ache" (57:42)
* Theatre 625: "A Night Out" (59:46)

DISC THREE
* "Monologue" (20:10)
* "Old Times" (75:10)
* "Landscape" (45:01)

DISC FOUR
* "The Hothouse" (111:26)
* "Mountain Language" (20:32)

DISC FIVE
* Theatre Night: "The Birthday Party" (107:28)





















Video tape error

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
All the productions are presented with their original mono tracks and they are fairly good. As they are dialogue based productions with barely any music or effects, the voices come in clear and well. There is some hiss and minor imperfections to be heard on some of the productions, but nothing too distracting.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for all the productions.

Extras

The layout of the extras are as follows.

DISC ONE

"Writers in Conversation" 1984 interview with Harold Pinter (46:34)
In this 1984 television piece with Benedict Nightingale, Pinter talks about politics and the influence it has had on his more recent writing, including the political situation in Turkey and the persecution of Kurds, which would be a main focus on "Mountain Language". He also talks about the writing for "One for the Road" and the critical reaction and more.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


DISC THREE

"Pinter People" 1969 animated shorts
- "Trouble in the Works" (4:14)
- "Request Stop" (3:06)
- "The Black & White" (4:40)
- "The Applicant" (4:11)

Four of the five animated shorts written by Pinter and directed by Gerald Potterton are presented here. From the working class having issues with misunderstandings, communication mishaps, to the subjugation of the higher ups, these shorts are undeniably part of Pinter's style and wordplay, with simple yet effective animation for each. The fifth in the series "The Last to Go" was unavailable for inclusion in this set for unknown reasons. Copyright most likely?
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


DISC FIVE

"Face to Face" 1997 interview with Harold Pinter (39:07)
In this 1997 interview with Sir Jeremy Isaacs for the BBC, Pinter discusses everything from his childhood to his career to his personal politics. He discusses about the visual images when creating a stage play, his time on stage, his love of the English language, his childhood life and family life, and much more.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Harold Pinter Guardian Interview - 1996 (audio only) (72:30)
Recorded on stage at the National Film Theatre on October 25, 1996, Pinter is interviewed by Michael Billington on a variey of topics. Discussed are about his love for film, his favorite films and filmmakers, working on "The Servant", "The Comfort of Strangers", hisacting jobs, and much more. This is an audio only interview, which plays as an alternate audio track on "The Birthday Party".
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles


Booklet
A 40 page booklet is included with the set. First there is an essay by Pinter biographer Michael Billington entitled "Pinter and Television", an overview of his television work. Next there are essays on the productions (except for "Landscape" for some reason) by Billy Smart, Amanda Wrigley, Lez Cooke, John Wyver, and David Rolinson. There are also full credits, special features notes, transfer notes, acknowledgements, and stills.

Overall

"Pinter at the BBC" is an excellent collection from the BFI compiling Harold Pinter's works for television in one set. Challenging, minimal, and witty, the works are timeless even if the notion of teleplays on videotape may look and feel old fashioned. With a great selection of extras to accompany the set, it comes recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B- Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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