Television

How on earth did Harold Pinter and Danny Dyer become such good friends?

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Danny Dyer on Harold Pinter

Sky Arts, Tuesday

Us

BBC1, Sunday

Collectors of TV titles that sound as if they were thought of by Alan Partridge will presumably have spotted Danny Dyer on Harold Pinter. As Dyer himself understatedly put it: ‘This might seem an unlikely pairing: the likely lad and the Noble Prize winner.’ Yet, what made the programme such an intriguing if undeniably peculiar watch is that the pairing in question wasn’t dreamed up by a desperate (or drunk) commissioning editor.

In 2000, aged 22, Dyer auditioned for Pinter’s Celebrationat the Almeida Theatre in Islington. ‘I knew the money would be rubbish,’ he told us, ‘so I didn’t care much.’ Nor, unlike his rivals, did he really know who Pinter was. When the moment came, he looked down into the stalls, enquired of the great man ‘How are you doing, son?’ and wholeheartedly went for it. (‘I was fearless then,’ he recalled ruefully.)

And with that, he not only got the part — and retained it through the West End and Broadway — but, to his continuing and rather touching bewilderment, found himself being taken under Pinter’s wing. The following year he was cast in a revival of No Man’s Land at the National. He was also invited to what he inevitably called Pinter’s ‘gaff’ for discussions about poetry, where Pinter would drink red wine but always make sure to ‘get some lagers in’ for his guest. In one Broadway performance, Dyer forgot his lines — largely, he explained, because ‘I was off my nut’. Pinter greeted him afterwards with a fatherly ‘Don’t worry, Danny, it happens to the best of us’: a memory that still brings tears to Dyer’s eyes.


Given that Pinter is not generally known for such rascibility, all of this did feel like a new perspective on him. But it also felt like that where Dyer was concerned. At times, he even dropped his world’s-most-Cockney-geezer act and disconcertingly came across as a serious-minded thesp. Although never for very long. The brilliance of the plays, he pointed out, owes much to Pinter’s ‘great ear’ole for conversation’. Reflecting on the initial failure of The Birthday Party in 1958, he pointed out that ‘most critics gave it a kicking — the slags’. Discussing the Jewish East End where Pinter grew up, he reminded us that the blackshirts were ‘not a boy band, but a bunch of fascist slags’.

And the East End, it seems, is what brought the two men together, with Dyer apparently reminding Pinter of the roots he’d once taken some effort to leave behind. (In a 1960 interview we heard, he sounded almost comically posh.) ‘I don’t know what he saw in me,’ Dyer concluded. ‘I think he loved the fact I was rough round the edges.’

In the circumstances, then, Dyer’s un-Pinteresque taste for sentimentality seemed not just forgivable, but often quite stirring — not least when he visited Pinter’s grave, put one glass of red wine on the gravestone and raised another in a lengthy toast that began with a vow (soon broken) not to get emotional and ended with the words ‘Rest in peace, my old son.’

Admittedly, the closing credits did reveal the disappointing fact that the programme had been written by the director, rather than coming straight from Dyer’s heart. But in a way, I suppose, that only goes to show that Pinter was right to rate him as an actor.

BBC1’s Us — adapted by David Nicholls from his 2014 bestseller — began with the same sudden jolt as the book. Connie (Saskia Reeves) woke her husband Douglas (Tom Hollander) in the middle of the night to tell him the marriage was over. She then insisted, somewhat implausibly, that their planned holiday through Europe with their 18-year-old son should go ahead anyway. As in the book, if Douglas considered this a little on the cruel side, he was too cowed, too in love with his wife or simply too polite to mention it. (For my money, incidentally, the only problem with the novel wasn’t so much that Douglas didn’t appear to notice how mean and undermining Connie was, but that Nicholls didn’t either.) Instead, he decided to make both the trip and his own behaviour so perfect that she’d stay with him after all.

Stripped of the painfully determined breeziness of Douglas’s terrific narrative voice, the story’s basic elements of plodding husband and exasperated wife do perhaps feel over-familiar. Nonetheless, the TV version still manages the same neat combination of comedy, piercing sadness and thoughtful reflection on when decency alone is not enough — or worse, when it just becomes annoying. (These days, the ease of the travel is quite affecting too.) Plus of course, there aren’t many actors who do baffled decency better than Tom Hollander.

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