wed 03/03/2021

Pinter the Cricketer | reviews, news & interviews

Pinter the Cricketer

Pinter the Cricketer

Playwright's portrait in whites is auctioned for charity

“Cricket was very much part of my life from the day I was born,” Harold Pinter once said, only partly joking. “There was a general feeling about cricket. In the 1930s the whole of England loved cricket, I think – that was my impression as a child, anyway, when I was six months old.”

Pinter started playing cricket for Gaieties CC in the mid-1960s. The club was the creation of music hall star Lupino Lane. Lane had a residency at the (long since demolished) Gaiety Theatre on The Strand, so when he started a cricket team he naturally named it Gaieties.

One school holiday Pinter took his son Daniel for some coaching at Alf Gover’s cricket school in Wandsworth. One of the coaches was a flyman from the Palladium called Fred Paolozzi. Fred challenged Harold to have a bat, and afterwards invited him to play a game or two for Gaieties CC.

At some point a photo was taken of Pinter batting in the nets at Govers. It was this photo that in 2006 inspired the portrait of Pinter by Joe Hill. After her husband died in December 2008 Lady Antonia Fraser donated the painting to The Lords Taverners, the cricket charity who raise money to help less privileged children have access to the sports they love to play. The Taverners are now auctioning the picture, which was commissioned when Gaieties decided to honour Pinter with a dinner to thank him for 40 years' service to the club as player, captain, umpire and chairman. The Taverners hope to raise enough for a Harold Pinter minibus to serve cricket-loving kids in Hackney.

Joe Hill is a gifted artist who makes a (very good) living mostly by painting on pavements. He has a particular gift for surreal trompe l’oeil. Perhaps it is this unusual ability which appears in the painting to have enhanced Pinter’s forward stroke to the point where even Harold himself, in a letter of thanks to the artist, felt moved to observe that on this evidence he ought to have opened for England.

Whatever its artistic merits, Pinter loved the portrait. It hung in his study overlooking his desk. It appealed to him, I think, because it mythologises his lifelong obsession. His top score was only 39, and by his own admission he lacked the true batsman’s most vital attribute: patience.

Perhaps he loved the painting partly because he hadn’t had to pose for it. Joe Hill didn’t know it, but at the same time that he was painting Harold in the nets, Harold was sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. The process, however, was abandoned after a few visits to Freud’s studio because Harold couldn’t endure having to sit in motionless silence.

Growing up in the 1930s, cricket mattered to Pinter with almost mysterious force. During the Blitz he was evacuated to Cornwall, but he took his bat with him. His enduring attachment to Yorkshire County Cricket Club stemmed from an unconditional admiration for the cricketer who would become England’s first professional captain, Len Hutton.

It is well known that later in life Pinter wrote a a two-line poem of Proustian yearning for time past:

I saw Len Hutton in his prime
Another time, another time

On a much-visited YouTube clip Pinter tells the story of how he sent the poem to his friend Simon Gray, whom he rang the next day:

"Did you get my poem?"

"I got it, yes."

"What do you think of it?"

"Well, I haven’t finished it yet."

With a wry grin straight into the lens, Pinter adds, "So that’s what you get when you send your poems to your old friends."

Harold would certainly have relished the prospect of the match that will take place on the Nursery ground at Lords next Sunday  between Gaieties CC and Mike Brearley’s Lords Taverners XI. Brearley himself may not take the field, but he has persuaded Mike Atherton and Mike Gatting to play (not to mention Chris Tarrant), while Gaieties will field a team that includes former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney. The match starts at 11.30, and admission is free to spectators.

After the match, on the hallowed boards of the drama-soaked Long Room, a concert of words and music will take place in celebration of  Pinter’s love of cricket. Jeremy Irons, Bill Nighy, Timothy West, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Janie Dee, Penelope Wilton, Sam West and Mike Brearley to name but a few will read passages from Pinter’s poems, prose and plays. Lady Antonia will be guest of honour.

Harold adored Lords. He knew the ground from a boy. During the war he heard a rumour that the Americans were going to be invited to play baseball on the sacred turf. Still a schoolboy, he wrote to the secretary of the MCC protesting that this was the most disgraceful thing he had ever heard. A letter came back: “Don’t worry, my dear fellow. I don’t think we’re actually going to allow it to happen.”

Tickets for the Long Room Pinter Celebration on Sunday 27 September cost £75 (proceeds from sales and the auction of the painting to the Lords Taverners’ good causes). Call Jo Davis on 0207 821 2805. The painting auction is still open, and the current bid is £4,000. Bids by email only to

Harry Burton plays for Gaieties and directed the revival of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter in the West End.

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