Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter

A tender and affectionate, if somewhat airbrushed, portrait

By Lee Levitt, August 17, 2011

Nearly four decades after studying Pinter's plays for his 'O' levels at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire, the Hollywood actor Julian Sands paints a tender and affectionate, if somewhat airbrushed, portrait of the late Nobel laureate who he came to know socially and, in Pinter's twilight years, to befriend. 

At its heart are Pinter's poems. Covering love, cancer, death, politics and war, these are deeply personal, sometimes wistful, at others angry and passionate, scowling and howling in a peculiarly Pinteresque way. Sands peppers them with bits of prose and (sometimes amusing) anecdotes of the often irascible, intimidating literary behemoth to try to create a fuller understanding of the man. 

For though Pinter was acclaimed as one of the greatest British playwrights of his generation, as well as having written 29 film screenplays, when he died of liver cancer in 2008, Sands confides that "his poetry came from himself, which he denied himself in his plays", and Pinter treasured it as a repository of his innermost thoughts.

Sands has worked on the piece for a year, in several European locations, with its director, the Oscar-nominated Hollywood film star John Malkovich, whom he met in 1984 on the set of "The Killing Fields" and who was a friend of Pinter's since the 1980s. Sands got to know the poems six years ago when, with Pinter suffering from the cancer of the oesophagus with which he had been diagnosed in 2002, the writer asked the Yorkshire-born actor to stand in for him at a poetry recital in London for a homeless women's charity. 

Through Sands, we get to know "Harold", an only child, who was passionate about the films of Luis Buñuel, the Spanish founder of surrealist cinema, and the work of the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and who acknowledged that he could be "enigmatic, taciturn, explosive and forbidding". 

The besuited Sands reads with a warm reverence "one of the greatest love poems in the English language", and switches effortlessly to a "Proustian elegy to the great Yorkshire cricketer Len Hutton", before moving to the more sombre, but typically pugnacious "I and my tumour daily fight", and the biting anti-war pieces. Pinter sent some of his poems, Sands says, to Simon Gray, including a one-liner. When Pinter asked for his fellow playwright's thoughts, Gray replied: "I wish I could tell you; I just haven't had time to finish it."

Some insights are culled from Pinter's second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, whom he met at the end of a dinner party in 1975. His first three words to her were: "Must you go?" They became inseparable, says Sands, exchanging snippets of poetry on napkins at a dinner party many years later. Pinter became known as "the playwright of the pause", but Lady Antonia, we are told, talked about "the curse" of Pinter's pause, feeling perhaps that it distracted attention from his other strengths.

Pinter's Jewish background is seen as being at the core of his vigorous approach to life. Sands refers to his "combative, competitive spirit born of growing up in the East End, Jewish," at a time when fascism was a strong force in the area, and says he had the temperament "to enjoy the argy-bargy".

Intimate and well sourced as it is, it is unabashedly a paeon to Pinter from someone who is in awe of his "intellectual vigour and moral potency", his commitment to "the oppressed and downtrodden". There is nothing about his affair in the 1960s with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, or of his acrimonious divorce from his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, in 1980, or of the fact that he was estranged from his son, Daniel. Not is there any indication of the vilification reserved for him in some sections of the Jewish community by his outspoken backing for the Palestinian cause - he supported Jews for Justice for Palestinians - and his brutal criticism of Israel, and comparative silence on the iniquities perpetrated by many Arab regimes. His moral outrage, many felt, was overwhelmingly one-sided.

But for all that, the piece does not purport to be anything other than a warm and fond tribute from a lifelong fan, which had his audience rapt.

Pleasance One, until Aug 21

Last updated: 9:05am, August 17 2011