An Evening With Harold Pinter

The Long Bar, National Theatre, 2010. Photo: Tamburlaine Pickles.

A Fragment of Bar Life 

by Charles Jennings

The main bar in the Olivier foyer. Late 1970’s. The start of the evening shift. Things are quiet. Three part-time bar staff fumble with peanut packets and bottles of mixers. GARY, the head barman, comes in carrying a crate of soft drinks, which he bangs down on the floor. He is 27 years old; wears tattoos.

PART-TIMER ONE (looking at GARY’s face, which sports a glowering black eye): What happened to your eye, Gary?

GARY says nothing, goes to fetch another crate. The PART-TIMERS shrug. GARY returns and crashes the fresh crate down.

GARY: Pinter.

PART-TIMER TWO: Harold Pinter?

GARY: Fucking stuck one on me.

Pause

PART-TIMER ONE: He stuck one on you?

GARY: I hate that fucking bloke.

Pause

PART-TIMER TWO: Why?

GARY: What?

PART-TIMER TWO: You hate him?

GARY: He can stick one on me, I can’t hit him back. Cause he’s Pinter.

Pause

PART-TIMER THREE: Why’d he stick one on you?

Pause

GARY: I was making too much noise with the crates. He was in the theatre, listening. He said he could hear the crates out here during all those fucking pauses. Fucking Betrayal.

Pause

He came out and smacked me.

Pause

I could have fucking killed him. I’d have fucking laid him out. He’s a cunt, Pinter.

The PART-TIMERS affect a keen interest in their work. GARY stands in the centre of the bar, looking out into the empty foyer.

Harold Pinter in avuncular mood, circa 1980. (Getty.)

Charles Jennings is a writer based in London. His non-fiction titles include ‘Them And Us’, ‘The Fast Set’, ‘Up North’, etc. He was also one half of the bibulous blog ‘Sediment (I’ve Bought It So I’ll Drink It)’, now available in book form.

Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Vincent Glanvill writes …

It was 1994 and Rolf Harris had been booked to play our university hall. The hall was a good-sized venue, if a little run down, having lost some of its lustre since its Edwardian heyday. I was a second-year student and Iʼd already helped organise a couple of gigs; weʼd load all the equipment into the hall and help set up, then weʼd watch the gig, drink some of the band’s rider and stay just sober enough to pack up and load out at the end. Nominally in charge was one Mark Connolly (NB: not real name). Connolly was rarely sober for the three years that I knew him. Despite this, he generally managed to function in the role, which included booking bands for gigs. And, on one occasion, Connolly outdid himself and managed to book Rolf, at that time one of the most sought-after acts on the university circuit. 

Rolf was, of course, a TV legend and this was years before Operation Yewtree uncovered his misdeeds and destroyed his reputation . Back then, he seemed like everyoneʼs favourite uncle. He could draw, and cry about dogs being ill, and, kind of, sing. Rolfʼs version of Led Zeppelinʼs Stairway to Heaven re-launched his singing career: an implausible hit that led to an invitation to play Glastonbury, and projected Rolf back into the zeitgeist. He embarked upon a subsequent tour and thatʼs where I met him.

Rolf arrived dressed in a sheepskin waistcoat, with signature goatee, glasses and toothy grin all in place. He greeted everyone and made sure he shook hands with each of us. We helped the band set up, then Rolf joined them to sound check. They played Jake the Peg and Two Little Boys followed by a song with a didgeridoo, only Rolf mimed playing the didgeridoo; the keyboard player made the sound instead. I felt a little betrayed by this but put it down to the problems of feedback that a resonant instrument can create.

Rolf took Connolly aside after the sound check and said, ʻI’m going to need some help.ʼ Connolly volunteered me. Rolf took me back to his dressing room and produced a beaten-up leather suitcase. ʻWe always start with Jake,ʼ he said. ʻItʼs since Newcastle.ʼ He took a prosthetic leg and arm out of the suitcase and showed them to me. ʻStudents – they want the leg as a prize. Iʼll finish the song and wander over to you in the wings. Iʼll hand them to you, you put them straight into the suitcase and lock it in the dressing room. Straight away. We canʼt have another Newcastle. We canʼt risk losing the leg.ʼ I nodded and told him not to worry. ʻWould you like a drink?ʼ ʼI offered. ʻJust spring water. Iʼm teetotal. Have been for yearsʼ, replied Rolf. ʻDonʼt mind me having one?ʼ I asked. ʻNo, no,ʼ came the reply. Great! I thought. Thereʼs a whole rider of booze out there and he doesnʼt drink!

Rolf and his band opened their set around 9:30pm with Jake the Peg. Rolf hopped about the stage singing to the inebriated crowd, who went wild as they sang along to the chorus. The song seemed to end quickly and Rolf shambled over to take off his Jake overcoat and pass me the arm and the leg. I packed them in the suitcase, which I then secured in the dressing room. Mission accomplished, I grabbed another cider and returned to the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the show.

As I climbed the stairs to the wings, I could tell something was wrong. I couldnʼt see Rolf. I stood in the wings, stage right, as the bassist and keyboard player started gesturing for me to come on stage. Rolf was on his knees at the front and a woman in the audience had taken the mic stand off him and was singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down into the microphone. I froze for a second. Where was Security? I ran on stage, pulled the mic stand out of the audience and swung it back in Rolfʼs direction, the microphone swinging at Rolfʼs head. He ducked at the last minute, grabbed the mic and seamlessly joined in with the verse as I tightened-up the screws on the stand. I realised there was no security, it was just me. Connolly hadnʼt left any money in the budget to book them and rather than stay to help was off doing lines of coke in a dressing room.

Full of cider and yet solely in charge, I faced a fresh problem with each new song: stage invasions by both men and women, who I escorted back to their place in the pit; people throwing drinks at the stage, me having to mop them up; women throwing underwear at Rolf, which I threw back. It was relentless. When the band started playing Waltzing Matilda, a woman mounted the stage and headed straight for Rolf. I started to escort her away, but this time the band gestured for me to stop. Rolf turned to me and winked, ʻThis oneʼs OKʼ. He took her hand and put his arm around her waist. ʻLetʼs waltz,ʼ he said and they danced around the stage as the audience sang the song.

The band ended with an obligatory encore of Stairway to Heaven then left the stage. ʻThat was worse than Newcastle. Where was Security?ʼ Rolf said as he clambered down the stairs.ʼ I lied and blamed the management of the University, knowing that this was all Connollyʼs fault. ʻShall I wait outside? Do you want some time alone?ʼ I asked Rolf. ʻNo, stay, itʼs fine.ʼ As I was taking a piss in the dressing room toilet, the door left open because the light was broken, the band came in with Connolly. Connolly, all jokes and banter, was wearing a white polyester suit and looked like an extra from Scarface. ʻHey Rolf, could you draw a Rolfaroo for my baby daughter?ʼ Connolly asked. ʻIʼd be happy to,’ replied Rolf. He drew the character with practiced ease and gave the page from his drawing pad to Connolly. ʻWould you like me to draw something for you too?ʼ Rolf asked me. ‘Oh, no thanks, I said. Then changed my mind. ʻActually, could you draw something for my brother? Heʼs nine. He loves your show.ʼ Rolf started to write my brotherʼs name and I quickly said ʻAnd maybe for me as well …ʼ

There was a knock at the door. I went over to answer. An attractive student was standing with one of the roadies. ‘Can I speak with Rolf?ʼ she asked. I started to say no, when I was interrupted by the roadie: ʻTell them what you wantʼ. Rolf came to the door. ʻIʼd like you to draw a little face on theseʼ she said, pulling up her top and bra to unveil her breasts to Rolfʼs face. I stepped back as Rolf grabbed his marker pen and set to work. He drew the same toothy grin on the womanʼs breasts that he had on his face.

ʻYeah! Thatʼs rock and roll!ʼ said Connolly.

Vincent Glanvill in his nineties pomp.

All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.