A year late, BBC2 got round to celebrating Harold Pinter's 70th birthday on Saturday night. It may have been belated, but Pinter could not have asked for a more thoughtful present. Surprisingly unhampered by the lack of an interview with its subject, Nigel Williams's two-part Arena eavesdropped on his biographer's scratchy tape-recordings, filmed him in platform interviews and read aloud from his essays. In addition, it had the good fortune to interview his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, whose love for her husband shone through. It was a warm portrait of a cold man.
Pinter admits that he is known "in some quarters" as "enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive, and forbidding", but denies these characteristics have anything to do with his plays. Since "enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive, and forbidding" are exactly the adjectives you would normally apply to them, Williams was going to have to work hard to provide an alternative overview, but work hard was what he was prepared to do.
His ploy was to argue that the early plays were far from mysterious or vague and were, instead, realistic accounts of how people behave to each other in a confined space. His method of visiting the small rooms in which he started writing was surprisingly effective, for as the actor Kenneth Cranham observed: "If you are going to specialise in disjointed events between four walls, then staying in bed and breakfasts and things is a perfect source."
There may even be an argument that the quality of Pinter's writing is related inversely to the size of the accommodation in which he wrote. The claustrophobic digs he endured in his acting days and the small rooms on the Chiswick High Road he occupied after he married produced The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Home Coming. The beautiful Nash house that fame bought him in Regent's Park, however, gave us the less interesting Old Times, No Man's Land and Betrayal (which even his hagiographer Michael Billington at first dismissed as merely a study in middle-class adultery). Now in his "superstudy", lined with books on the CIA, Chomsky and copies of Wisden, he writes propaganda against that easiest of targets, the fascist state.
Williams perhaps surprised himself by discovering how much of the early work was related to incidents in his life. Although it helped, maybe, explain their power, this insight did not always redound to Pinter's credit. Vivien Merchant, his first wife, was, apparently, furious that he had "betrayed" the nice, helpful but psychologically damaged caretaker of their Chiswick home by turning him into his eponymous Caretaker. Peter Hall, directing The Homecoming, was amazed to be taken on a walk through Hackney by the playwright and to be ushered into a house seemingly occupied by its characters.
And so the film limbered up to asking the big question, and then limbered away from it again. How good is Pinter? Hall called The Homecoming "a masterpiece", and praised the rhythm of its dialogue. For him, the opening line, "What have you done with the scissors?", was as good as "If music be the food of love . . . "
This was not the only occasion when praise clattered bathetically to the ground. Repeatedly, actors confessed to not knowing who they were being asked to play. Cranham, who asked who Stanley was in The Birthday Party, was told by Pinter that "all the Stanleys ask that ", and he imagined a long line of puzzled Stanleys standing behind him. Indira Varma from One for the Road, said she went into rehearsal not knowing who Gila was. Lindsay Duncan added that she did not think Pinter knew either, although she somehow turned this into a compliment.
It struck me that Pinter has perfected a theatrical equivalent of modernism, in which he eradicated detail. He is interested in sin, not the sinner. This is originality of sorts but cannot excuse the deadly banality of his dialogue, even when it is artificially inflated by his trademark pauses. The funniest thing was seeing an archivist gush over a page from one of his manuscripts. She was excited because, unusually, it contained no revisions. You needed to freeze the frame, however, to discover what this amazing fluency had produced:
Jack: Hello, Jenny.
Jenny: This is my husband Nick.
Jack: Hello, Nick.
Nick: Hello, Jack.
There was plenty more.
The other key question was asked. At the beginning of the film, an audience member at a Pinter festival in New York wanted to know: "Mr Pinter, what would you say is the purpose of your work?" The answer was obvious by the end. His purpose has been to examine, in all its forms, bullying. The theme has simply become more blatant as his art has coarsened, so that subtly aggressive banter about whether or not there is honeysuckle in the garden in A Slight Ache is finally replaced with the nasty badgering of "How many times have you been raped?" in One for the Road.
As Pinter replied to the punter, all menace and sarcasm: "You want me to answer that?"
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times