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Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker | Clive Donner’s spellbinding film adaptation gets a newly restored BFI release

The Caretaker

The Caretaker remains one of Harold Pinter’s most famous works. This study of shared illusion, tragic dispossession and the fraternal bond of unspoken love, combines the magic of Pinter’s dialogue with some mesmerising performances from Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence and Robert Shaw into a spellbinding film, sensitively directed by Clive Donner and shot by Nicolas Roeg, which is now out in a dual format release from the BFI, presented in a newly-restored print and with a host of extras (check them out at the end of this post).

Here, guest reviewer Ali Pye gives her low down on Pinter, the play, the film and the BFI release…

Harold Pinter was in the right place at the wrong time. A schoolboy witness to the World War II carpet-bombing of London’s East End, his response to such violence placed him as one of the angrier young men on the writing spectrum. By the late 1950’s he was well on the way to blowing the bloody doors off.

The Caretaker was his first commercial theatrical success. Burrowing upwards through inner city post-war debris like a weed, spare, sparse, resilient, it debuted in April 1960 and was feted first off the Charing Cross Road later transferring to Broadway. Regardless however of such glittering cosmopolitan acclaim, the blunt 3 hander set in a single cluttered room remained very much grounded among the bricks and bric-a-brac of down-at-heel Hackney. It was in this borough, where Pinter was born and schooled, that Clive Donner assembled an artist/actor collective and camera crew in late 1962, filming during the coldest winter on record.

Underwritten with donations from British stars of stage and screen, the project was an early GoFundMe fifty years before the concept existed. Each benefactor supplied £1000. Twice that could get you a fourth floor bedsit in Islington within thieving distance of the library. There is little imagination required to explain the empathy behind Peter Sellers’ backing, solitary child of a nomadic theatre family whose shallow roots had dug into the similarly bleak soil of East Finchley. Noel Coward and Elizabeth Taylor’s subscriptions suggest some less personal forces at work.

Shot entirely on location around Clapton, the outer parameters of The Caretaker are the distance a man could trudge from Mare Street in ill-fitting shoes. And no further. Despite the freedoms allowed by film at a time when it was not possible to get a van on stage at the Arts Club, even if had Pinter written one in, the piece remains chillingly claustrophobic. Three men, most usually in dual combinations and head-on, shuffle about the confined space of the upstairs bolt hole arguing status, standing, sheds, Sidcup and seagrass, never more than a few feet apart.

It is a tale full of sound and fury. And in part seemingly told by a madman.

One bitter winter evening, the homeless and dispossessed Davis is saved from a good kicking by a taciturn stranger, Aston and taken into his home. Initially disconcerted by the kindness, the tramp sets about negotiating residency in the rambling, ramshackle property in which, if care is taken, he may find permanent refuge. The garrulous and distracting Mick, Aston’s brother appears to offer alternative terms, although it’s a word game with much the same end.

Amid the chaotic and haphazardly piled junk hoarded by Aston, an ice-cold stove dominates the room. Even if the window were not open, at times with the snow flurrying down outside, diffusing the stench from the unwashed vagrant, there is no possibility of warmth or comfort.

“It’s not connected.” Explains Aston when pressed for a cup of tea.

A lack of connection pervades. Very much more than the cooker appears isolated and without purpose. Aston has entirely withdrawn following a non-specific institutionalisation. The blistering details of his shock therapy are recalled in an uncomfortably invasive single shot. Actor Robert Shaw’s eyelids twitch as he stumbles over the violation at the hospital somewhere “outside London”. For a film in which site-specific references come along more regularly than the #30 bus (via Highbury Corner), with journeys “down the Essex Road to Dalston Junction” taking on a mythic quality and Micks’ knowledge of hump backed bridges on the A2 almost encyclopaedic, there is no safe travelling outside the room resulting in terminus nor arrival nor completion. An offer to drive to Sidcup and collect finally ”the papers” that underpin Davis’ inconstant grasp of identity sees Mick’s van swerving pointlessly around a circular layby, depositing the old man back at the bench from which he started out some half a minute earlier.

Where the film can free itself from the immediate physical confines of the attic, Donner does so with a delicate poignancy. On the page the brothers share only two brief scenes together tight amid clutter under the steeple eaves. On the screen they are granted a soundless and affecting moment of reflection above a frozen pond in a winter garden, seen from a distance, indistinct, and tellingly through glass, the sacking-draped top storey window serving to emphasise we look through a camera lens and not straight at a stage.

The music too suggests an inhospitable landscape. Ron Grainer’s disconcerting soundtrack is high pitched scratching, screeching and oddly resonant metallic drips into a tin bucket tied to the ceiling. An echo of the bitter cold outside and in, there is barely a scene not underscored by grating electronic slides as if thin ice were cracking underfoot.

Davis’ obsession with bags and boots, the detritus of a wandering street life calls to mind, inevitably, other tramps from drama of the period. But the nifty pace of Donner’s film, despite long low shots across bedsteads and pipes and years’ worth of newspapers bound in carefully knotted string, ensures we never focus merely on the hiatus. This is much more than a wait between pauses. Donner’s low angles, the splintered lighting and unflinching close-ups are suggestive of a thriller.

Of the three actors, Pleasence, Bates and Shaw, the two former had developed their characters in The Arts Theatre in 1960 and taken them right across the Atlantic. The film-set off Lower Clapton Road must have felt like a homecoming. Pleasence, at forty-four some thirty years younger than the vagrant he portrays, is bundled in patchwork layers of castoffs and coats. Davis resembles nothing more than a tatterdemalion onion, the peeling of which may lead to a concrete identity thus saving the bother of schlepping to Sidcup.

Fear of the foreign, fear of the other and fear of each other all collide in The Caretaker. The film is an unsettling watch catching an unsettled time. The 60’s were not yet swinging but the oddly visionary consortium backing the production, Peter Hall and Richard Burton by no means the least likely pairing, suggest a pendulum movement starting to oscillate. Grainer, the composer of the shard-shattering and unsettling falls was already tinkering with the theme for a forthcoming BBC series. The pilot show in autumn 1963 would feature another ungrounded senior gentleman of dubious provenance and a box smaller on the outside.

Shuffling through freezing early dusk, passing the time that would have passed anyway, Davis is illuminated in the doorway of the Hackney Empire theatre, a welcome blaze of light in a feature lit for the best part by a single bulb on a wire. The back bar where some years earlier an out of work writer named Milligan had encountered a barely in work radio actor named Sellers and comedy history began a gestation.

The Caretaker formed in this crucible, penned by the master of the theatre of menace, part financed by a Goon, scored by the genius who could hear the sound of a TARDIS barrelling through time. Director Donner’s brief was to run with it. He didn’t go far. Balls Pond Road was the outer limit.

This glorious restoration reminds us that expansion need not be dilution. In the hands of an inventive creative (and there were enough involved as a stills photo of Noel Coward hemmed between lighting gaffers on the set sofa bed during production reminds us) a piece so static and rooted and constrained can soar with effortless flight well beyond the derelict geography. An early and brilliant example of thinking outside the box (room).

• Newly restored from the original camera negative by the BFI, and presented here in High Definition and Standard Definition
• Audio commentary by actor Alan Bates, director Clive Donner and producer Michael Birkett (2002)
• Introduction by critic and author Michael Billington (2002, 6 mins)
On Location with The Caretaker (1962, 4 mins): an extract from the TV series This Week in Britain
The Caretaker: From Play Into Film (2002, 17 mins):a video essay by Michael Billington, using materials donated by Clive Donner to the BFI National Archive
• US opening titles (1963, 2 mins): the opening title sequence from the US where the film was released as The Guest
• Last To Go (1969, 6 mins): the last of five animated shorts directed by Gerald Potterton for Pinter People, voiced by Harold Pinter and Donald Pleasence
Harold Pinter’s Play Discussed by Clive Donner (1973, 47 mins): the BAFTA-winning director discusses his adaptation of The Caretaker
Stills Gallery
• Ilustrated booklet with new essay by critic and author Amy Simmons, writing by Michael Billington and Clive Donner and full film credits (first pressing only)

Pinter at the BBC | ‘If 628 minutes of this is too much you need to stay in more’ – Digging through the BFI’s 10 play DVD collection

Harold Pinter (1930-2008) was one of the most influential British playwrights of the last century. Pinter at the BBC is a 5-disc DVD box set containing 10 plays made for the BBC between 1965 and 1988, and featuring a dazzling array of British acting talent including Michael Gambon, Julie Walters, Leo McKern, Vivien Merchant, John Le Mesurier and Miranda Richardson. Highlights include Tea Party (1965), Old Times (1975) and The Birthday Party (1987), which sees a rare example of Pinter acting within his own work.

Released by the BFI on 28 January 2019, the plays are accompanied by a range of special features (see full list at the bottom of this post) and a 40-page collector’s booklet.

Guest reviewer Ali Pye has watched them all and here’s her take on the ‘Hackney oracle’…

It’s easy to see why Pinter endures. “The system’s wrong.” declares Roote some minutes into The Hothouse, an austere 5 hander set in what would appear to be an asylum, although there’s an absence of clarity on who exactly is running it. Christmas morning heralds timely resonance with the birth of a baby of uncertain paternity (there is a historical precedent) l and within some small hour or so the seemingly random murder of most of the staff. So far so relevant, only The Hothouse was written in 1958 and first produced in the early ‘80’s.

If ever a playwright predicted our junk-strewn, chaotic and narcissistic existence in broken Britain it was Pinter. We pace neurotically in dark towering silos, counting our steps and checking our likes, suffocated with fear and shot through with doubt, untrusting of friends and wary of families where brothers loom big.  As foretold by the Hackney oracle across a career encompassing 50 years and 29 plays.

Pinter at the BBC is released to loosely coincide with the 10th anniversary of the author’s death, which fell, with a Pinter-esque poignancy on Christmas Eve 2008. In the divisive decade since his concerns with politics, power and prestige, and the language in which these are negotiated has if anything increased quite dramatically (puns intended) in relevance.

This 5-disc set comprises of ten televised films from 1963 to 1988 with a striking confidence and dismal prophetic accuracy. In The Tea Party, Disson insists that the young would be-employee he interviews understands explicitly the role is that of “a very private secretary”, emphasis falling just hard enough to make ears attuned to #Metoo defensive linguistic wriggling prick up.

Constantly staged, the Harold Pinter Theatre on Panton St, SW1 is currently half way through a six month run of one hour double-bills, the medium of television injects an added intimacy and chill to the collection. The Basement, in which three people tussle for dominance, rooms and rivalry being a recurring theme, presents as such an overcrowded space that the camera appears jacked up. It is literally in the face of the performing Pinter himself (another monumental plus) and Derek Godfrey as they duel, literally and metaphorically, for the prizes, in no particular order, of the girl, the soft furnishings and the fish tank.

Tight focus pulls and disconcerting edits repeat.  The small screen frames the claustrophobia, the fish-eye lens, the scratchy fuzziness of Disson’s failing eyes reflecting his fractured perceptions in jarring static that disembodies the dialogue. The TV audience loses sight as the character does so. The perspective is uniquely interior.

In Mountain Language, a profoundly political piece influenced by the horrific treatment meted out by the Turkish regime to the 11 million Kurds and directed for the BBC by the author himself, the high, long, unflinching perspectives mimic security camera angles. As if CCTV footage were playing out in real time, which Pinter’s embracing of Amnesty International and a recent trip to Turkey with Arthur Miller had informed him was precisely the case.

The additional bonuses in the compilation practically define the word. The ICA interview (1987) at almost an hour catches Pinter responding to current affairs with increasing fury. His work had always been combative and concerned with power but the plays of the mid 80’s, the brutal Mountain Language and One for the Road (not in the set) bypassed ambiguity, depicting security guards and brutalised inmates in undefined high-wire prisons. But speaking in English and with names, when given, as commonplace and familiar Sara and Nicky.

Flora’s concern that not enough notice is being taken of “what grows in your garden….”  (A Slight Ache) suggests more than tutted irritation at a distracted husband who fails to identify the honeysuckle. Interpreting this as a strictly horticultural reference would suggest you are possibly watching the wrong compilation. A sinister silent shadow is at the gate. The stench is unbearable. There is a deepening, creeping and more pestilent rot.

Small nuggets abound. Besides the magnificent casting, John Le Mesurier giving an oddly sinister 7 minute cameo as an optician, Joan Plowright and Julie Waters conspiring for Stanley’s night to remember although it isn’t his birthday, Pinter directed two TV films and featured in two others himself. The breadth and scope never lets up across two decades. From basement, to tea party, to birthday party to hothouse Pinter wrote and the small screen acts as a prism, pinpointing with laser precision a landscape that suggests escape is impossible. If you think A Night Out is any more than a temporary release you would be proved wrong.

If 628 minutes of this is too much you need to stay in more.

Pinter at the BBC

• Tea Party (Charles Jarrot, 1965)
• A Slight Ache (Christopher Morahan, 1967)
• A Night Out (Christopher Morahan, 1967)
• The Basement (Charles Jarrot, 1967)
• Monologue (Christopher Morahan, 1972)
• Old Times (Christopher Morahan, 1975)
• The Hothouse (Harold Pinter, 1982)
• Landscape (Kenneth Ives, 1983)
• The Birthday Party (Kenneth Ives, 1987)
• Mountain Language (Harold Pinter, 1988)

• Writers in Conversation: Harold Pinter (1984, 47 mins): an ICA interview with Harold Pinter by Benedict Nightingale
• Pinter People (1969, 16 mins): a series of four animated films written by Harold Pinter
• Face-to-Face: Harold Pinter (1997, 39 mins): Sir Jeremy Isaacs interviews Harold Pinter, who discusses the images and events which have inspired some of his most powerful dramas
• Harold Pinter Guardian Interview (1996, 73 mins, audio only): an extensive interview with the legendary playwright by critic Michael Billington, recorded at the National Film Theatre
• Illustrated booklet with new writing by Michael Billington, John Wyver, Billy Smart, Amanda Wrigley, David Rolinson and Lez Cooke, and full film credits

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