Pinter's extra-marital inspiration

Gina Allum on "Betrayal".

Pinter is known to have based his play Betrayal on a seven-year affair with Joan Bakewell, wife of his best friend Michael. There had been rumours, at the time of its publication in 1978, that it concerned the five-year affair (prior to his divorce) with Lady Antonia Fraser.

Plenty of extra-maritals for the playwright to draw upon, then. And in one sense Betrayal does have a self-justificatory air - the affair is as inevitable as it is arbitrary. It just is. Though perhaps this is to downgrade the playwright's imaginative sympathies, as interestingly, Pinter gives the cuckolded husband the meatiest role, a part that he himself was to play on the radio.

In this production at the Comedy Theatre, Ben Miles plays husband Robert, the "prose-hating publisher" and at times he could pass for Pinter himself: bunched, burly, belligerent (and with most impressive sideburns). A pinched and porcelain Kristin Scott Thomas is his faithless wife Emma, and Douglas Henshall makes up the trio as the affable, corduroy-clad best friend.

The play's chronology is reversed, so that we start some two years after the end of the affair. Pinter plays a couple of tracks, as it were, and then rewinds to another point on the playlist. Foreknowledge makes us aware of the excruciating details of treachery. All three betray each other and themselves, and we bear witness to their intricate dishonesty: "I think I thought you knew but you didn't", Robert equivocates blandly at one point.

Pinter's spare and muscular dialogue masks matters of heartbreaking import with the seemingly trivial and insignificant: Robert's rant on the truculence of gondoliers, the "Venetian je m'en foutisme" disguises an impassioned state of the (marital) union address. Games of squash become weightily symbolic of the (perhaps homoerotic) vigour and intimacy of the men's friendship.

There's a certain toughness, a machismo about Pinter that survives his transition to a domestic setting in Betrayal. The protagonists have some perfunctory offspring, apparently, but these children never appear and are only sketchily realised. And third-party-Jerry's wife is similarly absent. Cut off from such ties that bind, the mess and complication of claims on one's life, and any hint of collateral damage, the ménage appears indulgent, narcissistic.

And it's hard to understand what they all saw in each other. Pinter's insistence on the patterning rather than the particular and the banal inevitability of it all quite skirts any attempt at causality. Eros is absent. In this production, at least, no-one appears particularly lovable.

The spinning back and forward through time and location necessitates multiple scene changes and whilst designer Jeremy Herbert gets the furniture removals done efficiently enough (behind a flimsy bit of gauze), we are left with a bit of a limbo between scenes, which the actors do their best to fill with meaningful gazing, or purposeful strides offstage. Herbert leaves the bed - the ultimate symbol of bad faith - on sight for the duration.

The design decisions have a creeping, melancholy impact on the tone of the play: the tawdry décor of the lovers' Kilburn shag pad is all but reprised in the married couple's spare room for the final scene of the play, in which wife and best friend's first tryst takes place. The affair is tired before it has even begun, scotched and quashed by this joyless visual backdrop.

The performance I saw was a preview, although I'm not sure this quite excused the disruptive sounds of scene-shifting offstage, or the line-muddling of the otherwise excellent Henshall. Despite its conciseness (coming in at only ninety minutes) it seemed to lack a certain vivacity at key moments. But maybe a play that appears to owe more to game theory than the welter of human impulses is bound to leave spectators frozen out.

The final moment almost rescued the entire enterprise, as Henshall takes hold of Scott Thomas's arm and for a few seconds she is balanced, a fulcrum of possibilities: all time eternally present, and all time unredeemable.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times