The Day I Pushed Pinter Around
During rehearsals for his new film Sleuth, Kenneth Branagh finally met the playwright he idolised. He relives a 'Hamletian' encounter
The Guardian, 22 November 2007
I met Harold Pinter when I was 16. Only he wasn't really there. He was staring back at me from the shelf of a secondhand bookshop in Reading. The play was edged in a vivid blue, and he was leant over slightly in the fetching azure frame, his hand to his forehead, looking dark, handsome and complicated. I didn't know much about him, except what a friend had said when I asked advice about drama school auditions: "Go to the master."
At 25p, 'The Caretaker' was a bargain, and I threw myself into the role of the sinister Mick, creepily extolling the virtues of "afromosia teak veneer", occasionally taking a look at the picture on the back cover and hoping that I could grow up to be as saturnine and interesting as the author.
Since then, of course, a rather more thorough study of dramatic literature has taught me that awkward incidents in life, unsettling social encounters peppered with pauses and embarrassment, moments of forgetfulness, or a paranoid obsession with the banal - all of these qualify as "Pinter moments". I have never been in a play of his, but I have marvelled at the way he catches the sinister and eccentric in the everyday, and reflects it right back at us with such precision that his name has entered the language, in the form of the word Pinteresque.
Exactly 30 years after that encounter in the bookshop, having turned out slightly less saturnine and interesting than I had hoped, I prepared to meet the man himself. He had written a new screenplay from Anthony Shaffer's play "Sleuth", which I was to direct. He had only read the play, had never seen it performed; nor had he seen the 1972 film. But he had banished every concern I had relating to the idea of a remake. His complete re-imagining was necessary if the film was to earn its own space in the minds of audiences, and in the brutal marketplace of today's cinema.
He takes Shaffer's beautifully simple central idea - two men, confined, fighting, and playing a deadly game over a woman - and explores it in a quite separate way from the original play. Pinter's version is darker, scabrously funny, full of lacerating observations about the fragility of the male ego, the corrosive power of sexual jealousy. In short, it was superbly Pinteresque. And now I was to work with him, and perhaps have real Pinter moments of my own.
The compliment paid by Pinter to the people with whom he interacts - my experience of this covered actors, stage managers, waiters, taxi drivers and two refuse collectors - is that he so transparently does that rare thing: he listens. And now it was my turn to say something worth listening to. He had come to watch rehearsals, and as he entered the soundstage at Twickenham film studios, I found myself experiencing a fit of nerves, such was my hypersensitivity and desire to seem nothing less than brilliant for him. With penetrating originality, I said to him: "Harold, would you like a cup of tea?"
And there it was, that gaze, that stare, that assessment that seemed to look through me and beyond me, and at the same time conjure up his photograph on the back of that book. Yes, there he was, Harold Pinter, live in the room, considering, with what I viewed as a Hamletian intensity, the very cup of tea that I had offered a fraction of a second ago, but which now felt like a lifetime away. For still he had not answered, and with my nervous system very near the point of collapse, I recalled a habitual phrase used by a dear friend to help out in this sort of minor social catastrophe. I fixed a jaunty smile to my chattering teeth, and said, leaning in with a clubbable wink, "Ah, a pause always means yes!"
Yes, that's what I said to the master of silence, to the grandee of the unspoken, to the lord of mystery: "A pause always means yes!" And then it all went into slow motion. This dark handsome man, who a heartbeat before had been a Buddha-like figure of preternatural calm, leant close into me and with - I don't know how else to put this - a Pinteresque intensity said: "No, it bloody well doesn't!"
For a moment, he looked like Mick in "The Caretaker", and I had become Davies, desperate to get away from him and down to Sidcup. My debut in a Pinter play, starring the man himself and based around classic Pinter material: a cup of tea. I looked around the room. Michael Caine and Jude Law were regarding me oddly.
We started work. Michael, Jude and I were at the end of an intensive week's rehearsal. I had suggested that we have a full run-through of the entire screenplay. Our shooting schedule was short, and I wanted the two actors to feel very prepared. During the course of the week, I had established camera positions and blocking, and this would be a good opportunity to monitor the progress of the work so far.
It had seemed like the perfect moment to invite our screenwriter to attend. Not only did he have a Nobel prize for his writing, but he was a very impressive actor and a highly successful director. Any notes that he had about the writing, the performances, or the directing might prove invaluable. I did not want the actors to start turning their very intimate film performances into a more projected theatrical style by playing to an audience that sat in one fixed, distant position. Therefore I persuaded Harold to allow me to wheel him around the room in a chair, and place him exactly where the camera should be at any given point.
We started exactly on time - a rigorous desire for punctuality shared by all four of the participants - and as Michael and Jude moved and interacted, I rolled Harold into position as if he were the camera and I were the camera operator, directly behind. We were often only a few feet away from the two actors.
After about five minutes, I noticed that both performers were physically shaking. Not long after this, Michael suddenly broke away from the dialogue and said, in the much imitated way that only he could, and laughing slightly hysterically, "Can we stop for two minutes so I can have a glass of water. I haven't been this fucking nervous since I did live television."
The boys went to have a drink. Harold said quietly to me: "What an amazing moment." I said: "Yes. A lovely moment. Actually, it was a real Pinter mo-" . I stopped myself. We looked at each other. There was a long pause. Of course there was. Of course there was. Harold started laughing first. At which point, I really wish I'd said: "Blackout"