Monday, April 2, 2012


Sometimes I forget how much I like the writing of Harold Pinter.  I never forget that he’s a great writer, and he apparently never forgot it either, but sometimes I forget just how much fun his writing can be.  And I think he’s generally more fun when he’s writing screenplays, because then he knows he’s not writing “great literature,” and it frees him up no end.  And it’s been occurring to me recently how much of the fun is food-related. 

I happened to see the movie of The Servant on TV not very long ago, and one of best scenes is when the servant Barrett (played by Dirk Bogarde) and master Tony (played by James Fox) are getting on reasonably well.  Barrett is cooking the meals, they’re eating together, and Barrett sounds like a much put upon housewife.   They’re in the drawing room “Black candles, black ceiling” it says in the screenplay.  I can't find a still from the scene, alas.  They're talking about the food.

TONY. Fabulous.
BARRETT.  Not bad.
TONY. It’s fabulous.
BARRETT. Bit salty.
TONY. No, no, it’s marvelous.
Silence.  They eat.
     I don’t know how you do it.
BARRETT.  It’s nice to know it’s appreciated.  It makes all the difference.

The scene is far more creepy and sinister than when they’re playing master/servant games of domination and submission.  But inevitably it’s The Quiller Memorandum that provides the maximum food fun.  First, there’s the scene where a couple of MI5 spooks are having lunch in their club and discussing the death of Jones, one of their agents.

GIBBS. How was he killed?
GIBBS. What gun?
RUSHINGTON. Long shot in spine, actually. Nine point three. Same as Metzler.
GIBBS. Oh, really ?
They eat.
     How's your lunch?
RUSHINGTON. Rather good.
GIBBS. What is it?
GIBBS. Ah. Yes, that should be rather good. Is it?
RUSHINGTON. It is rather, yes.

Does anyone doubt that MI5 spooks don’t let the death of an agent spoil a good lunch?

  Then we’re in Berlin in the Olympic stadium where Quiller (George Segal) first meets his boss Pol (Alec Guiness) who’s apparently more interested in his sandwiches than in Quiller.

 POL bites into his sandwich and grins at QUILLER … He offers the sandwiches to QUILLER.
POL. Some leberwurst ?
QUILLER. No thanks.
POL. Or some schinken? (He examines the sandwich.) No, wait a moment, what am I talking about, this isn't schinken, it's knackwurst. What about some knackwurst?
QUILLER. I'm not hungry.
P0L. Aren't you? I am.
He bites into the sandwich, chews a moment and then stands.
     You don't mind if I eat while we walk?

Is there anything more thoroughly sinister than eating knackwurst sandwiches when you’re about to send a man on a mission that’s likely to result in his death.  And then there’s the majestic scene late in the movie, when things have hotted up.

POL. You're on a delicate mission, Quiller. Perhaps you're beginning to appreciate that.          Let me put it this way.
He takes two large cream cakes and arranges them on the table.
       There are two opposing armies drawn up on the field. But there's a heavy fog. They   can't see each other. They want to, of course, very much.
He takes a currant from a cake and sets it between the cakes.
     You're in the gap between them. You can just see us, you can just see them. Your mission is to get near enough to see them and signal their position to us, so giving us the advantage. But if in signalling their position to us you inadvertently signal our position to them, then it will be they who will gain a very considerable advantage.
He points to the currant.
     That's where you are, Quiller. In the gap.
He pops the currant in his mouth and eats it.

From time to time, when there are currants or cakes on the table I try to deliver Pol’s little speech, but it’s fiendishly difficult to remember, and who would dare to compete with Alec Guinness?

In my experience it’s very rare for a writer to sound like his own writing, or one of his own characters, but Pinter apparently did.  In Intelligent Life magazine the theater critic Irving Wardle describes a dinner he had with Pinter and his first wife, Vivien Merchant.  The marriage was doomed in the way that first marriages of very successful men so often seem to be, but Pinter laid it on with a shovel.  Wardle writes,

“I met them one evening after rehearsals for a play he was directing at the Arts Theatre, and we went to some fly-by-night Olde English eatery. “So what are you going to do,” Harold barked (at Vivien Merchant), “when the moment comes?” “When the moment comes, I shall do what I like.” “What?” “I shall do whatever I like.” “I see,” he said through his teeth; then loudly to the assembled diners, “You hear that? She says she’ll do what she likes. What would I like? I’ll have—Mr Pickwick’s Boiled Dinner!”

Eating with Harold Pinter must have been a very dramatic affair.


  1. Thank you for this post. It's a good reminder about the way fiction/drama works. You can't just have your characters eating (or doing anything, really) to give them something to do; it works best when it also reveals something very specific about character.

  2. The Pol (Guiness) eating the currant bit must have inspired the scene in Alan Parker's Angel Heart when Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) eats an egg, which supposedly represents the soul in some cultures, in front of Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke). Creepy and gets the point across.

  3. Thanks for this Eddie - never saw Angel Heart - but the egg symbolism is terrific. Better than say, a bag of potato chips, though that might work too.