Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Collection (1976)

By Harold Pinter (1961).
Granada Television, 5 December 1976.

Pinteresque (adj.) Resembling or characteristic of his plays.… Pinter’s plays are typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Harold Pinter is the only modern dramatist to enter the dictionary. Which is ironic, in a way, since his plays use a smaller vocabulary than those of his contemporaries – little more than a thousand words, on some estimates. It’s the spaces between the words that count as much as the words themselves. And how actors love to insinuate themselves into those spaces!

Among British actors none came bigger or more actorly than Lord ‘Larry’ Olivier. In 1975, still smarting from the protracted labour-pains of establishing the National Theatre on the South Bank, Olivier was offered the chance by ITV to choose six of the best plays of the twentieth century and produce them for television, directing and/or acting in as many of them as he pleased. His first choice fell on Pinter’s The Collection, written originally for TV in 1961, later adapted for the stage, which he now brought back to the small screen. “It’s a brilliant little play… the best Pinter has ever done,” Olivier enthused to The Guardian:

I saw the one Ralph [Richardson] and John [Gielgud] are in [No Man’s Land], and I didn’t think it had any depth to it, just is marvellous mood-dialogue, but this – I thought when I first saw it, ‘That is a really waggish piece’, and the more we worked in it, the more depths we found in it.

The Collection is a four-hander. Olivier plays Harry, a middle-aged – we presume gay – couturier who lives with a younger man, Bill (Malcolm McDowell). Bill is visited by another man, James (Alan Bates), who accuses Bill of having an affair with James’s wife, Stella (played by Mirren), while the two were on a business trip in Leeds. Stella first confirms the story, then seems to deny it. Bill keeps changing his story. Bill and James grapple on the floor: as the two men fight over one woman, there are undercurrents of homoerotic attraction between them. Harry seethes with resentment that his “slum slug” of a protégé may have betrayed him. In Pinter’s world, ‘truth’ will not out. At the end we still do not know what happened in that hotel room in Leeds.

The Times was impressed:

Michael Apted directed these memorable faces through a faultless round of confident charm (in attack), lowered eyelids (to acknowledge a passing defeat) and dilated pupils (to denote rage and the likelihood of physical violence). As the fourth of this rag trade quartet, Olivier had little to bite on until the dénouement, but the bite, when it came, was swift, fierce and clean. There was, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, a good deal less to all this than met the eye. But what met the eye was certainly good.

Olivier personally edited the text by reading all the parts aloud and selected the actors he wanted to work with. This is a man who, less than two years earlier, was in the grips of a wasting muscular disease that left him helpless, having endured a coronary and pneumonia before that, and cancer before that. Now, according to one of his biographers, he “returned to an Olivier as vigorous as ever, lost in a blur of auditioning, cutting, editing, dubbing, directing and acting.”

As Stella, Mirren radiates the sphinx-like unknowability required of her character. Except for one interpolated scene in a dress shop, we never see her outside her apartment, where her most loyal companion is a beautiful white Persian kitten. “Definitive Pinter performances,” the Sunday Times declared of Mirren and Bates. She had only one scene with the Grand Old Man, of which The Listener commented: “In [Harry’s] scene with Stella (Helen Mirren, delicious as ever), his voice acquired a special register of plumminess”. That “plumminess” risked tipping over into caricature, as Mirren later recalled:

I’m not easily overawed, but if anyone had the potential to frighten me, it was Olivier. But he was wonderful. Within hours we were simply colleagues, fast becoming friends. I even plucked up the nerve to tell him I thought he was overdoing it in one scene, getting a bit hammy; far from chewing me out, as I half expected, he immediately thanked me, said he thought I was absolutely right, and toned it down. (Quoted in Holden, p440)

As usual, Clive James, then The Observer’s TV critic, praised the actress while bad-mouthing the play: “Helen Mirren’s patent abundance of flesh and blood only served to emphasise how her lines lacked both these substances”. The play itself he found “diaphanous”.

Perhaps the most Pinteresque of all performances was that of the white kitten. Its part is precisely notated, as you would expect from this dramatist. The cat’s part consists entirely of pauses (or pawsies). It is there to be “nuzzled” (the word occurs several times in the stage directions). After the filming, Mirren got to keep the cat, which was later “hijacked” by her parents, and the actress has a charming anecdote in her memoirs about the “psychic connection” that developed between her father, Basil Mirren, and Flossie, this “prima donna” among cats.


Elkan Allan, ‘Pick of the day: new peak for Olivier’, Sunday Times, 5 December 1976
Peter Fiddick, ‘The Olivier collection’, Guardian, 3 December 1976
Anthony Holden, Olivier (1988)
Clive James, ‘Television: last of the Romans’, Observer, 12 December 1976
Harold Pinter, Plays: Two (1977)
David Pryce-Jones, ‘Television: classic fantasy’, The Listener, 16 December 1976
Michael Ratcliffe, ‘Television’s own Olivier theatre’, Times, 6 December 1976     

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