Chez Mick, Aston, Davies and Harold

Cast and author of The Caretaker on set: Alan Bates (Mick), Harold Pinter, Robert Shaw (Aston) and Donald Pleasance (Davies), front. Photo by the great Bill Brandt.

From The Caretaker by Harold Pinter:

DAVIES: I got plenty of references. All I got to do is to go down to Sidcup tomorrow. I got all the references I want down there.

MICK: Whereʼs that?

DAVIES: Sidcup. He ainʼt only got my references down there, he got all my papers down there. I know that place like the back of my hand. Iʼm going down there anyway, see what I mean, I got to get down there or Iʼm done.

MICK: So we can always get hold of these references if we want them.

DAVIES: Iʼll be down there any day, I tell you. I was going to go down today, but Iʼm … Iʼm waiting for the weather to break.

This poignant little exchange from Pinterʼs play has become so familiar that Sidcup has forever after been associated with surreal suburban promise; a place of deliverance for the pitiful tramp Davies. Pinterʼs choice of Sidcup as the place of Daviesʼs dreams was not random: it was the HQ of the Royal Artillery during the post-war period, so Pinter is implicitly giving Davies a military history. Not that it matters: the notion of the dreary Kent suburb of Sidcup as a land of milk and honey is as cruelly inappropriate as Eric Idleʼs appropriation of Purley as a hotbed of vice in Monty Pythonʼs ʻNudgeʼ sketch.

According to Michael Billington, Pinter based the play on scenes he witnessed at a house in Chiswick where the author and his young family were living in the late 1950s. The landlordʼs brother – Austin, who became ‘Aston’ in the play – was the caretaker of the flat the Pinters were renting, and one day: ʻAustin brought a tramp heʼd met in a cafe back to the house and the tramp stayed for two or three weeks. Pinter knew the tramp very slightly and then one day he looked through an open door and saw Austin with his back to the tramp gazing out into the garden and the tramp busy putting stuff back into some kind of grubby hold-all, obviously being given his marching orders. All this matters because it then becomes the bones of the plot of The Caretaker.ʼ (Pinter at the BBC.) Elsewhere Pinter said that a man who lived in a house in Worthing, where Pinter and his wife Vivien Merchant briefly lived circa 1960, was another inspiration: a man who had suffered a medical ʻinterventionʼ to cure his mental disturbances, and whose pristine purpose in life was the construction of a shed in the garden, which is Astonʼs firmly-stated goal in The Caretaker. However, there seems to be some evidence that the real-world inspiration for Aston achieved his aim, whereas the dream shed of Pinterʼs character inhabits the same realm of fantasy as Daviesʼs plan to go to Sidcup.

Pinterʼs play has a timeless and universal quality, as evidenced by the extent and variety of its productions worldwide. But Pinter was a quintessentially London writer and when the play was filmed, in the early ’60s, when it was fresh, they opted for locations on Pinterʼs home turf: the shabby purlieus of Hackney, where Pinter had spent his childhood. The resulting film is a little masterpiece in itself, low-budget independent filmmaking of the highest order. An incongruous title card gives the game away: over a nocturnal shot of the house where the action takes place, the producers thank the individuals who made the production possible, including Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They filmed in a large Victorian house, number 31 Downs Rd., a street slated for demolition that formed the northern side of Hackney Downs. The superb cast – Robert Shaw, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance as Davies – had performed the play in the West End and on Broadway and knew those characters inside out; and the cinematography was by the great Nic Roeg, whose black and white visions were faithful to Pinterʼs wintry world (it helped that the film was shot early in 1963, during the bitterest winter for many years). Someone coined the phrase ʻthe black and white sixtiesʼ to define the pre- Beatles era, and this film is a quintessential product of that moment. (Two years later the director, Richard Donner, celebrated the sixties in full bloom by bringing What’s New Pussycat? to the screen, before a long, slow, retreat back to television.)

Aston and Davies with the inscrutable, symbolic (of what?) Buddha.

Looking at the film now, the location shooting gives it a documentary quality entirely separate from the dramatic material, yet perfectly in tune with it. Davies and Aston are glimpsed walking past the Hackney Empire on Mare Street, Mick drives his tatty van and stops to pick up Davies who is shivering on a bench by Clapton Common, taunting him with the promise of a lift to Sidcup (an addition to the play this, a bit of ‘opening out’). Because we know, nearly sixty years later, that Hackney would be one of the most sought-after places to live in London, these glimpses of a desolate, post-war suburb are weirdly dislocating. The play deals in the gulf between the charactersʼ delusions and a bleak attic room, and the film makes this contrast concrete. One of best speeches in the play occurs when Mick, Astonʼs younger and much sharper brother, an aspiring entrepreneur, looks around the dilapidated attic and describes the House and Garden vision of domestic luxe for 1963:

I could turn this place into a penthouse. For instance . . . this room. This room you could have as the kitchen. Right size, nice window, sun comes in. Iʼd have . . . Iʼd have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares. Iʼd have those colours re-echoed in the walls. Iʼd offset the kitchen units with charcoal grey worktops. […] You could put the dining room cross the landing, see? Yes. Venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles. You could have an off-white pile linen rug, a table in . . . in afromosia teak veneer, sideboard with matt black drawers, curved chairs with cushioned seats, armchairs in oatmeal tweed, a beech-frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat, white topped heat- resistant coffee table, white tile surround. Yes. Then the bedroom. Whatʼs a bedroom? Itʼs a retreat. Itʼs a place to go for light and peace.

Mick goes on to detail a vision of roses on soft furnishings, and all the while Roegʼs roving camera clinically describes the awfulness of the room in the eaves. At other times in his career Pinter wrote plays where Mickʼs description of his dream flat might be the playwrightʼs description of the set. The phrase ʻthe weasel under the cocktail cabinetʼ is often used to describe those Pinter plays that take place in a well-heeled milieu, a phrase that begs the questions: (a) Do you actually know anyone who owns a cocktail cabinet?, and (b) Who brought that bloody animal into the house? For this reason alone, Iʼd say that The Caretaker has aged better than, say, The Collection.

Ironically, if that big and unloved house at 31 Downs Rd. had been spared demolition, it might now be decorated in a fashion similar to the one that Mick lovingly described. Hackney has been occupied by a new generation of thrusting young professionals with a taste for mid-century modern furnishings and an elderly Mick would have delighted in their company, no doubt purveying his Pinteresque small-talk over beers at The Star By Hackney Downs. And, what with the A102M, the Blackwall Tunnel and the A20 bypass, itʼs now a doddle to get to Sidcup from Hackney; although I donʼt fancy Daviesʼs chances of ever hitching a lift. As Mick comments when he gives him his marching orders, ‘to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arsehole to breakfast time’.

At time of writing, you can see The Caretaker on YouTube, so allow me …

Valentine’s Day Veg

Spot the missing theatre … The Golden Lion, King St., St. James’s., December 2019.

The Golden Lion on King Street is a theatre pub that has lost its theatre. Until 1957 it was the stage door watering hole for The St. James’s Theatre, one of those grand 19th century monuments so enthusiastically demolished by 20th century bureaucrats. Despite the protests of some of the greatest actors of the age, the theatre was pulled down for no very good reason: it was just old at a time when being old was unforgivable. A great pity. Apart from anything else, The St. James’s Theatre was the scene of Oscar Wilde’s greatest triumph, and one of the settings for his tragic fall. It’s a very familiar story but it remains endlessly fascinating, and more complex than the legend allows.

On Valentine’s Day 1895 the St. James’s saw the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, a production starring the St. James’s charismatic manager George Alexander, a regular collaborator of Wilde’s. As the play was in progress, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry lurked outside, clutching a bouquet of vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde. Queensberry was furious with Wilde because of the playwright’s association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, forever known by his pet name of ‘Bosie’. But Wilde had been tipped off, Queensberry’s ticket to the show was cancelled and he was denied entry to the theatre. The premiere of Earnest was the apotheosis of Wilde’s career – but Queensberry was soon to have his revenge.

Four days after Earnest‘s first night, Queensberry visited Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, 13 Albermarle St., just north of Piccadilly; unable to find Wilde, he scrawled a note on one of his visiting cards and left it with the hall porter. The message read:

To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite.

The porter read it and wrote the time and date of its receipt on the reverse. It was unseen by anyone else until Wilde went to his club ten days later. On receiving the note Wilde considered leaving the country – but he was staying at a Piccadilly hotel, couldn’t pay his bill and thus felt trapped. Wilde was hounded not just by the mad Marquess but by the mad son: the toxic combination of the provocative note left at his club and the spitting hatred Bosie felt for his father pushed Wilde into suing Queensberry for libel. This was an extraordinarily bad idea. For all his brilliance, Wilde was a vulnerable outsider: an Irish writer of ambiguous sexuality, with expensive tastes but an uncertain income, he was ill-placed to launch a libel action against a vengeful aristocrat with a taste for pugilism. Years later, in a letter to Bosie, he deplored the way he was goaded into pursuing the case: ‘… on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. […] Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles’. With a pithy turn of phase, he also recalled the preliminary consultations with his lawyer: ‘… in the ghastly glare of a bleak room you and I would sit with serious faces telling serious lies to a bald man …’.

Queensberry’s note to Wilde: exhibits A and B in Wilde’s doomed libel case, as kept at the National Archives.

Queensberry’s homophobic fury was driven by grief. In 1893 his eldest son Drumlanrig had died in a hunting accident, killed by a round from his own shotgun. At the time of his death Drumlanrig was Private Secretary to Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Earl Rosebery. The verdict was accidental death but rumours of suicide abounded, implying that Drumlanrig had sacrificed himself to spare Rosebery scandalous revelations. Queensberry suspected that Drumlanrig was having an affair with Rosebery and blamed him for his son’s death. Queensberry followed Rosebery across Europe in the hope of confronting him publicly but was prevented from doing so. Thwarted in pursuit of his primary quarry, Queensberry was further incensed by Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, which he saw as mirroring the one between Rosebery and Drumlanrig. (Ironically, news of Drumlanrig’s tragedy caused Wilde to scrap his plan to dump the troublesome Bosie.) Wilde was a far easier target for Queensberry’s rage: by the time Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the Albermarle Club, Rosebery had become Prime Minister.

As per the Cleveland Street Scandal of a few years earlier, the establishment was vulnerable when it came to homosexuality, with sexual transgression across class boundaries being especially taboo. Wilde’s lunatic libel case merely exposed his own sexual tastes, as Queensberry’s legal counsel announced his intention to call rent boys known to Wilde as witnesses for the defence. Wilde withdrew his suit, leading to Queensberry’s formal acquittal. Within hours, Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and Gross Indecency. The Crown prosecuted Wilde (now bankrupt as a result of costs from his libel suit) not once but twice, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury. Once Rosebery’s name was invoked by Queensberry in connection with Wilde it was inevitable that Wilde would have to fall. He was convicted at the second trial and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde’s demise is generally viewed as a pristine example of Victorian repression and hypocrisy, but sympathy for Wilde’s persecution (exemplified by Richard Ellmann’s deeply-felt but very partisan biography) tends to obscure an element of coercion in his dealings with at least some of his sexual partners. If Wilde came to court today, it’s likely that the outcome would be much the same; one doesn’t have to look far for recent parallels.

The site of the St. James’s Theatre is now occupied by a bombastic office block, although Wilde’s portrait appears on a commemorative wall frieze that merely emphasises the theatre’s absence. (As with the plaque commemorating the vanished Adelphi Terrace, what is the bloody point of memorialising buildings that should never have been pulled down in the first place?) The Golden Lion remains an engaging pub, and one can imagine how exciting and atmospheric it must have been after a first night. Whether or not Wilde himself ever came here to drink is uncertain; he probably would have swanned off to Kettners or The Cafe Royal straight after a show. But I bet Queensberry came in for a sharpener, vegetables in hand, blood on his mind.

Commemorative plaque, Angel Court, on the site of The St. James’s Theatre. Wilde is pictured centre.

Artistic Off-Licence

The Drinker’s role-model … James Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Your correspondent is off his feet at present, following a long-delayed surgical procedure – a ‘tendoachilles reconstruction’ on my right foot – carried out at Guy’s Hospital last week. The operation seems to have gone well but I was more than a touch over-ambitious in estimating my post-operative capabilities; and as my flat is on the 6th floor, I have forsaken Drinker’s Towers in The Deep South (SE19) and fallen upon the kindness of family in Metro-Land. As they say on literary blurbs, ‘He divides his time …’ between a sofa in the front room and a sofa in the back room. In some respects, this is a lockdown within a lockdown: but unlike earlier experiments in socially-distant living, back in March, when staying in and getting drunk whilst watching daytime TV could be categorised as a patriotic duty, I am currently on strong painkillers and blood thinners and am obliged to be teetotal for the next few weeks. This is beyond daunting. Already, the novelty of watching contemporary television is wearing thin and even the comfort of a 1975 episode of The Sweeney is not the same without a large Malbec at hand. With plenty of time to ponder the texture of my life, the question that has been troubling me is this: how many of my aesthetic pleasures are contingent upon booze? To what extent is my inner landscape littered with empty bottles? Is my cultural engagement merely a pretext for a few glasses of whatever they’ve got behind the bar?

Music. I’m safe with this one. I’ll admit that I find drink to be an effective enhancer when listening at home – a light dessert wine with Haydn, a fine Armagnac with Debussy, blood-temperature Tennants with The Cramps, etc. – but I am a model of sobriety when I go to hear live music. (That said, I once woke up to find myself drooling on a stranger’s shoulder during a programme of late Brahms at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Never attempt high culture after a heavy meal.) The exception is live opera. You’re OK with Mozart, Puccini and one or two others, but Richard Strauss or Harrison Birtwistle should only be attempted after a few fistfuls of gin. (A similar rule applies to ballet.)

Literature. Reading a novel whilst drunk might lend an ethereal shimmer to otherwise undistinguished prose but booze tends to obliterate plot, so this is not recommended unless you are a professional book reviewer. However, the average literary event is vastly improved by judicious pre-loading, which also helps smooth out the more obvious signs of freeloading at the drinks table. A few glasses of ‘concrete floor’* catering wine and you’re ready to impress the literati with your observations on, say, the thematic importance of alcohol in the short stories of John Cheever, erudition that should marginalise any infelicities, such as dropping your devilled egg in Margaret Drabble’s hair. (Remember that the more toney the publisher, the greater the potential for social or career suicide.) Poetry nights can be particularly desperate affairs, real life-or-death stuff, especially if the poems in question have been translated from an obscure sub-Saharan dialect, or are in Welsh. Poets get gnarly very quickly and Pinot Grigio-scented tears are never far away. I remember a strange, lurching evening at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, wherein the tremulous urgency of the poet declaiming from the tiny stage was undermined by a drunken row in the audience (‘Your problem is you’re too fucking highbrow!’), accompanied by an obbligato of slamming toilet doors, clacking high heels, clinking bottles and tinkling tins.

(* A term coined, if I’m not mistaken, by Charles Jennings, late of Sediment.)

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. See it at The National Gallery, then nip to the Lamb and Flag for a quick one.

Visual Arts. Like many non-believers, I consider a trip to a great gallery to be a substitute for religious observation. Perhaps that is why I find private views in such surroundings to be rather jarring: it is hard to muster high spirits in front of Titian or Mantegna or Holbein, the old masters make you keenly aware of your own inadequacy. And, should you decide to go for it, all that free Dom Perignon will have you playing ‘Twister’ behind the Elgin Marbles and feeling utterly ashamed the next day. My own experience of art world ligging has generally been on a less elevated plane, usually involving repurposed industrial units in east London, events where art and venue are as grubby as they are evanescent, and the exhibiting artists the drunkest people in the room. In these cases, in spite of strenuous and explicit claims for the Work, what passes for art is a perfunctory excuse for a piss-up. Careful you don’t trip over the Turner-nominated Maker passed out in the corridor, overcome by an excess of sponsor’s lager and a naval-strength dose of Impostor Syndrome.

Theatre. It should go without saying that it is heresy to see a play without having a drink in the interval. It is impossible to really enjoy the first act of anything without the promise of a pre-booked gin and tonic served in a wonky plastic vessel, a ritual that – as all crafty playwrights know – functions as a structural element in the drama itself. In some cases, it is advisable to take your own flask into the auditorium, especially if you are seeing the Oresteia or are accompanying a relative keen to sing along to Mamma Mia!. But you need to get the proportions right or you risk involuntary audience participation. My sister was performing in a play at the National Theatre when the action was interrupted by a death rattle coming from the stalls, prompting an alarmed theatre-goer to raise the alarm thus: ‘For pity’s sake stop acting! Can’t you hear someone’s in trouble?!’ It transpired that the distressed punter had merely fallen asleep, and awoke to find the entire Lyttleton auditorium staring at him.

Cinema. A visit to the flicks is usually pretty sober for me, but a trip to see Tenet – just about the only film showing in cinemas last summer – made me wish that I had brought my own stash of brandy with me. The film was utter tosh but the seats were so comfy and it was a relief to be out of the flat.

Cut to the present. This exercise feels depressingly redundant, an old fart remembering the glories of a lost age. I am currently under a duvet on a sofa, where I have laid for the past fifteen hours. I had a bit of an accident in the night but it’s all mopped up now. On television, the commercials are all of the Covid Christmas variety, explicitly equating consumerism with national heroism, with a side order of nervous, pre-Brexit flag-waving (‘Made with British potatoes’ etc.) On the bright side, I’ve just taken some more painkillers, I have a cup of tea, an M&S fruit and fibre bar, and Cash In The Attic is on soon. I’ve never felt so alive.