Harold Pinter’s 1962 play is one of his best, a subtle yet dramatic slice of adultery in the upper-middle classes, observed with the playwright’s usual ear of language and fascination for discomfort. This 1976 filming was part of ITV’s big push to rival the BBC, and was created under the grand-sounding label Laurence Olivier Presents for Granada television. The Beeb’s Play for Today was something of an institution at the time, but The Collection was a heavy-hitter, bringing together top talent for a run-through of one of Pinter’s tightest efforts, with Michael Apted directing.
Harry (Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell) live together in an ambiguous relationship; Bill is something of a ladies man, and may or may not have had a hotel-room tryst with Stella (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of her husband James (Alan Bates). But when James confronts Bill, the accusation doesn’t land easily, and Bill seems defiant. Is there an attraction between the two men, or is Bill just deliberately confusing the issue? And did anything actually happen at all? (this is Pinter, after all, so don’t expect a big reveal).
The Collection is firmly made for TV; despite the big names, the canvas is small. But as a record of some great acting, Apted’s adaptation really works, with Olivier enjoying a small but weighty role, and McDowell really laying it on thick as the preening, aggressive Bill, taunting James and forcing him into a confrontation without the information he needs to be confident.
The Collection has been released as part of a boxed-set on DVD, but isn’t one that’s been repeated on tv, and remains something of a collector’s item. But at 63 minutes in length, it gives a flavour of Pinter in a darkly playful mode, without the slick gimmick of Betrayal, but with the same relentless probing of the characters and their motives. And yes, there are silences; Pinter says more with a suppressed line than most writers can do with a twenty page monologue.