Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Thursday, 25 December 2008

Obituary: Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter won the Nobel prize in 2005

With works like The Caretaker and The Homecoming, Harold Pinter was one of the most influential of modern dramatists. Off-stage, his opinions and politics were just as challenging.

One of the UK's most celebrated writers - he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005 - as well as a respected stage director and actor, Harold Pinter's influence on a generation of playwrights can be measured by the speed with which the word "Pinteresque" entered the vocabulary.

It was first coined in 1960 and, in the decades that followed, Pinter stamped his mark on the cultural and political scene as an observer of suburban brooding and as an irate iconoclast.

Born in Hackney, in London's East End in 1930, Pinter suffered what he called "the pain of separation and fear of an uncertain future" when he was evacuated twice during World War II.

Attacked by fascists

He later spent an unhappy two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

As confrontational in his youth as he would later be on stage, Pinter became a conscientious objector in 1949 and was fined for refusing to undergo National Service.

Harold Pinter and Henry Woolf in 1973
No explanations are offered, no quarter given, and you have the best time in a theatre you've ever had in your life
Actor and director Henry Woolf (right) on working with Pinter

The same year, he was physically attacked after criticising Fascists in the East End.

For a while, Pinter acted, under the stage-name David Baron, as well as writing. But when his play The Room had its debut in 1957, his long time friend, the director Henry Woolf, hailed it as the start of a new era in British theatre.

"The audience woke up from its polite cultural stupor and burst into unexpected life," he said.

The Birthday Party soon followed, which despite initially poor reviews, was championed by Nöel Coward.

By the time The Caretaker, The Homecoming and The Betrayal had been performed, Pinter was celebrated for his distinctive way with words and embraced as a major modern talent.

Some of his plays were adapted for the big screen, and his screenplays for The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1981 and Betrayal in 1983 both earned him Oscar nominations.

The scripts for The Servant (1962), and The Go-Between (1969) and The Comfort of Strangers (1990) were among his most celebrated works.

Harold Pinter in 1969
Pinter was a fierce fighter for freedom of speech
And he kept his acting skills polished, recently playing the seedy criminal Sam Ross in the 1997 film Mojo.

Pinter's own words had as much impact as the ones he gave his characters.

He aimed his strong opinions at different targets over the years, including Nato's bombing of Serbia, and more recently the US and UK's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the vice-president of the English branch of Pen, the worldwide association of writers, Pinter befriended the then Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and petitioned for the liberation of those writing under oppressive regimes. He fought fiercely for freedom of speech.

He was awarded a CBE in 1966, later turned down a knighthood and became a Companion of Honour, an exclusive award in the gift of the Sovereign, in 2002.

Criticised by some as a champagne socialist, Pinter sealed his movement from London's East End to the heart of the establishment with his marriage to Lady Antonia Fraser in 1980.

A passionate advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, he spoke out againt US involvement in Central and South America and was a high-profile campaigner against torture.

In protest against a strike at the National Theatre in 1979, he once voted for Margaret Thatcher, an act he later described as the "most shameful of my life".

But he kept quiet about his acrimonious first marriage, the death of his alcoholic ex-wife and his estrangement from his son.

As was true of his characters, the writer's suffering was evident in his silences.

A rich life of words

In 2002, Pinter was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and, after having undergone treatment, announced that he was on the road to recovery.

Three years later, he announced that he had given up writing for the theatre in order to concentrate on political work.

But in October 2005, a frail Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for uncovering "the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".

Harold Pinter in 2007
Pinter's health faded as he grew older
Although too ill to attend the award celebrations in Stockholm, he recorded the traditional laureate's lecture at a London television studio.

Speaking from a wheelchair, a visibly ailing Pinter repeated his earlier call for George W Bush and Tony Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes over Iraq, meditated on death and gave a masterclass in writing.

"When we look into a mirror," he said, "we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes.

"We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us."

While observers analysed his work in minute detail, Harold Pinter himself nursed a lifelong aversion to over-interpretation.

"I can sum up none of my plays. That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did, he said.

I have my moods like anyone else, but my writing life has been, quite simply, one of relish, challenge and excitement."

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