LETTER: Pinter play returns to the town that inspired it

In May 1959, while I was still at Hackney Downs School, the deputy head arranged a meeting between me and an actor called David Baron. I was told that he was an old boy of the school and that his real name was Harold Pinter. So one afternoon I duly walked somewhat nervously along to 373 Chiswick High Road, climbed the long flight of steps up to the front door and rang the bell. I heard the sound of quick footsteps getting louder down the flights of stairs. The door opened and a woman in her twenties said pleasantly that she was Mrs Pinter. In a few years she would become the renowned stage and film actress Vivien Merchant.

She took me up to the top flat into a scene less Pinteresque than could be imagined. She was feeding jelly and cream into the mouth of their toddler Daniel in his high chair. She explained that Mr Pinter would be home soon. He had gone to the BBC’s Lime Grove studios to be kitted out for a small part, Napoleon no less, in the serial The Infamous John Friend, starring their own good friend Barry Foster.

Not long afterwards the man arrived and Mrs Pinter pointed to a review in a theatre magazine by Harold Hobson of The Birthday Party. It was a year since Hobson’s first favourable review after the play’s failed premiere. Your previewer of the new production shortly to arrive in Eastbourne [Devonshire Park Theatre, April 11-13] was right about the poor houses at the Lyric, Hammersmith. One evening during the short run, Pinter drifted in to the circle and was questioned by a seasoned usherette. When he explained that he was the author, her face fell and she said, ‘Oh you poor thing’. Mr P sent me on my way with encouraging ideas.

Fast forward four decades. I was settled in Eastbourne and had been asked to write the history of the Devonshire Park Theatre. Initial rummage through the programmes still in store at the theatre found evidence of a production of A Horse! A Horse! By L du Garde Peach, presented in May 1954. David Baron was the assistant stage manager and playing a small part. I heard rumblings that it was during that week the seeds of The Birthday Party were sown. I wrote to Harold Pinter to check and still have his reply: ‘Thanks very much for sending me the 1954 programme. All that you have been told about my stay in Eastbourne is true. I did stay in digs where I met a couple of characters who sparked The Birthday Party including a man who said he was an out-of-work concert pianist. I had completely forgotten that the road was Ashford Road. I might pop down and see it again one day.’

He never did.

Edward Thomas

Collington Close

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