I used to think the idea ‘you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead’ was a daft idea. I used to think if you thought someone was a rotter, then you should jolly well say so whether they were alive or dead. If you hated them when they were alive, this shouldn’t matter when asked to comment after that person’s death.
Billington’s biography changed my mind.
Pinter was certainly worthy of an official biography, but having it written by your biggest fan is always going to be a mistake. The only thing missing is a declaration of love from Billington to Pinter. The analysis of many of Pinter’s plays and screenplays is rather good, and the book is worth it for that reason, but Billington’s fawning – and his over-use of the word ‘art’ – makes things just a little too sugary, but it’s just bearable.
What is disgraceful about this biography is the back-handed character assassination done to the late Vivien Merchant. Billington chooses to suggest to us that Pinter’s adultery in the 1960s with Joan Bakewell, and his adultery with Antonia Fraser in the 1970s, were due to vague “marital problems”, and that those problems had their root in Merchant’s resentment of her husband’s success after ‘The Caretaker’ was written. While Merchant and Pinter were both actors, she was more famous. The play changed the dynamic and she didn’t like it, apparently.
Pinter had adulterous affairs for years and years, and eventually left his wife for Fraser. When this happened, Merchant spoke to the press and the story ran for a while. This is Billington on that very topic:
“What kept the story alive were Vivien’s indiscretions and her refusal to accept the role of the mutely suffering wife. Everyone else, to their credit, maintained a stoical silence.”
Billington doesn’t seen to care that wrong-doers easily keep their mouths shut; in addition, might Pinter’s indiscretions have had some causal relationship to the story and the scandal? In complaining that talking to the press was not to her credit, Billington is in-denial of the nature of the female.
Billington’s attitude to Vivien Merchant gets worse. Consider this on the occassion of Pinter’s second wedding:
“The scene was set. The guests were invited. A marquee was erected on the lawn of the house in Campden Hill Square where Pinter and Antonia had lived for three years. But at the very last moment Vivien refused to sign the relevant divorce papers so the marriage took place two weeks after the reception: a small vindictive triumph for the disgruntled Vivien.
While wrestling with the agonies of divorce, Pinter had also been struggling with the seemingly intractable problem of turning John Fowles’s ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman…..”
Notice the cold, indifferent, change of subject to Pinter’s “agonies.”
After reading that, I checked (it’s true!) to see if Billington was married, so clueless does he seem to be about the nature of the female human. He seems to either not know or not care that a lady, when her husband leaves her for another woman, can sometimes feel a pang of displeasure and a sharp need to deal with that sensation. And why does he not assume Vivien Merchant’s behaviour might have been connected to her own agonies? After her divorce, it took Vivien Merchant two years to drink herself to death.
Notice also, the little (and non-amusing) allusions to playwriting and acting….”refused to accept the role”…..”the scene was set.” Rather smug and annoying, I think.
Let me be clear: I don’t care if everything was Merchant’s fault.
The lady was, quite obviously, significantly unhappy and Billington should have not let his devotion to his subject paint her as an envious anti-intellectual.
Had I have been a friend of Merchant’s, and upon reading this almost excellent work, I would have socked Billington in the goddamn face and he would have stayed plastered.