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 …

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