Henry Woolf claims he hardly ever attended school. His perpetually unemployed father would tell him that the sole purpose of the British education system was to produce “millions of wage slaves and soldiers”.
“Always live in your head, Henrile,” said Woolf Sr, who spoke five languages and had trained as an accountant. “It’s the only safe place for a Jew to be.”
In spite of this paternal guidance, Henry Woolf went on to work in a public library, become a jobbing actor, a theatre director and, eventually, a university professor.
Most significantly, perhaps, while a 16-year-old pupil at Hackney Downs Grammar School in East London, Henry became the first person to recognise the essence of Harold Pinter’s talent as a writer. Furthermore, it was at his urging that Pinter wrote — in just two days — his first play, The Room, which Woolf produced and directed in 1957.
He remembers the audience “waking up from its polite cultural stupor and beginning to enjoy itself.” The critics of the period hated the play, he says, But “something special was going on. Something very funny and at the same time rather menacing. A new voice was speaking, and English theatre was never going to be the same again.”
It was Woolf who persuaded Pinter to publish his first novel, The Dwarfs, which Pinter had written at the age of 22. They remained friends and collaborators for life.
Now, aged 87 and retired from his professorship and head of drama at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Woolf has written, with a light, self-depreciating touch, a memoir of the life he has led through the past six decades, on and off the stage and often at the cutting edge of the odd-ball avant-garde theatre.
His tales are peppered with anecdotes involving the more esoteric members of the theatrical profession, such as Peter Brook, Ken Russell, Joan Littlewood, Anew McMaster, Peter Magee, Glenda Jackson and, of course, Pinter.
He tells of how he facilitated Pinter’s extramarital affair with Joan Bakewell, “who made every thinking man’s pulse quicken when she appeared on the nightly television programme, Late Night Line-up.”
But Woolf’s most amusing episodes are those centred on his own Pinteresque personality. He loved solitude and the primitive squalor of living in bed-sitters in the 1960s so much that, when first married, he asked his wife if he could go back to the bed-sitting room he used to live in and just sit there for an afternoon.
Michael Knipe is a former foreign correspondent of ‘The Times’