The death of Harold Pinter at the end of 2008 was a double loss to the world of theatre, for not only was he a fine and original playwright, but also a remarkable actor with a commanding stage presence and a wonderful voice. Although many of us were aware of his fragile state of health, I think that we assumed that he was indestructible and would pull through as he had done with his previous brush with throat cancer some years before. Over the years, I’d worked with him on a number of occasions, both as an actor and as a director, and greatly valued the time that I spent with him.
My first encounter with Harold outside of English literature classes was almost 30 years ago in his capacity as director of a new play called Incident At Tulse Hill. I was called by the administrator of the theatre and asked if I could meet Harold to discuss the one sound effect that he needed for the show that he felt the house electrician probably couldn’t manage. We met in a pub next to the rehearsal room, and I asked what it was about the effect that was causing problems, as I hadn’t been given a script at that point. “It’s the sound of a train going through a tunnel,” said Harold, and I replied that I didn’t think it would pose too much of a problem. “Tell me how you’re going to achieve it,” he said. I told him I’d go to a local train line that I knew had a long tunnel on a fast stretch of line, get on the train with my equipment, and record the train as it went through the tunnel.
“No, you don’t understand,” he replied. “We’re in the tunnel as the train passes by. Still think you can do it?” I was young-ish and naïve and said I thought I could. My fee was to be £25 (about $50 in those far off days) and a bottle of wine from the theatre bar, and so began one of the more interesting and time-consuming projects of my career. It took me three weeks of phone calls, wheedling, and bribery to record most of the elements I needed: close-up wheel sounds from one location, fast passes from another, and some uncomfortable moments crouched at the end of platform under a low bridge as the railway authorities refused point-blank to let me actually record in a tunnel without a specially convened nine-man safety team, for which I would have to pay.
After a lot of mixing, vari-speeding, EQing and reverbing, I had something that was almost perfect, but we agreed that there was one ingredient missing, and so it was that I left my apartment at midnight—armed with a portable reel-to-reel recorder, a couple of short rifle microphones, windshields, cable, and headphones—to record the fast late night trains entering and leaving a tunnel close to where I lived. It was a fine, clear night, cold enough to discourage casual passers-by, but not so cold that I was going to freeze, and I reached the vantage point that I had chosen earlier in the day, as near as I could get to the entrance to a tunnel on the main line from London to the south coast without trespassing on railway property. I assembled my kit, donned the headphones, and waited. The late express trains taking the last few stragglers home from the bright lights of the city thundered past, and the necessary recordings were made over the course of half an hour or so.
Toward the end of the session, I was vaguely aware of some traffic activity in the neighborhood, but I was entirely focused on the sound of the trains; also the close-fitting Beyer DT48 headphones shut out almost all extraneous sounds, so it was quite a surprise when I turned around to find myself surrounded by half a dozen policemen, some of them armed. The British police are not routinely armed, but this was when London was under attack from the Irish Republican Army and random bombings were still taking place, so gun-toting Bobbies were not uncommon, although it was a little unnerving being on the wrong end of a sidearm.
I explained that I was recording train sounds, and there was a noticeable relaxation in the atmosphere as the leader of the group approached and surveyed my equipment warily. I offered to let him hear the recordings to prove my case. He took off his hat, put on the headphones, and I played him a recording of the Brighton express passing in glorious stereo. “Yes, he’s just recording trains!” he shouted to his colleagues, as people do when they’re not used to wearing headphones. “Very good!” he yelled at me, as the train thundered through his head.
Once we’d established that I wasn’t a threat, I asked why they’d turned out in force. A concerned citizen, out walking his dog, had seen me assembling one of the AKG CK8/451 rifle mics—screwing the capsule onto the preamp, fitting the pistol grips, and sliding on the foam windshield—and had observed me putting on the headphones. He’d high-tailed it back to his house to call the police, telling them that he’d seen a suspicious person lurking by a main railway line, assembling a sniper rifle, fitting a silencer, and then putting on ear-defenders. I was given a short lecture about letting them know if I was planning anything similar in the future, and we all went our separate ways.
During my explanation, I was asked a lot of questions. The name of the play, the name of the theatre? “Never heard of it,” was the response to those two. The name of the author? “Never heard of him.” And finally they asked the name of the director. “Oh! Well, I’ve heard of him!” Mr. Pinter was pleased with the final effect, I was quite pleased not to have been shot, and the theatre administrator was eventually pleased to part with £25 and bottle of wine.
The last of Harold’s plays that he both wrote and directed on which I worked was Celebration, presented by The Almeida Theatre. It involved probably the most expensive effects recording session that I’ve ever witnessed. Celebration was set in an upscale restaurant, and Harold wanted a series of spot cues of laughter and background chatter and asked if we might set up a recording session with the cast. I happily agreed, assuming that it would be later in the rehearsal period and went off for a week to work on another show in the far reaches of Scotland.
Two days later, I received a panicky phone call from the stage manager: Harold had decided that he needed the effects in rehearsal sooner rather than later and that he would require at least four hours to record the material. Furthermore, it was imperative that I be on hand to supervise the session and to provide him with an edited copy of the recordings for use in rehearsals the following week. We were to use Angel Studios, our “tame” studio near the theatre, normally used for recording soundtracks, but by then well used to the strange requests coming from the theatre world. Harold had asked that the studio be set up as a restaurant. Having made my excuses to the director of the other show, I booked a flight from Scotland to London at eye-watering cost, leaving at first light. To the cost of the four-hour block booking of the studio for the actual session, there had to be added another hour for the conversion to and from the restaurant scenario, and the actors all had to be paid a full location recording session fee, racking up the bill even further.
I arrived at the studio just as the tables and chairs were being set up. “Good of you to come down,” Harold said, as we walked into the multimillion dollar complex. We proceeded to the control room to talk about how he wanted the session to go: “What I thought was, each person at each table tells a really filthy joke, and we record the laughs. Then we get each actor to do an individual laugh, and then you edit the whole thing down for me. Do you think four hours will be enough time?” I thought it probably would.
We retired to the control room. Harold sat in the middle of the vast mixing console, the talkback button in front of him, with Niall, the unflappable house engineer, on one side and me on the other. “Right, get on with it,” commanded Harold over the talkback. Jokes were told, outrageously obscene stories were recounted, much raucous laughter was recorded, and, once we’d cured Harold of the habit of hitting the talkback button and bellowing, “Next!” before the laughter had fully died away, the session finished seamlessly...in 45 minutes.
“Well, I think that’s enough,” said Harold, and he went out to tell the actors that they could have the rest of the afternoon off. The studio’s bookings manager was understanding but said that they would have to charge the full rate as they’d turned down other work. The whole thing cost about $3,000 by the time my flights and the actors’ fees had been paid, and I edited up the session on my laptop in my hotel room in Scotland and sent the CD down to the rehearsals in London to arrive for the beginning of the next week.
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Days went by, and nothing came back in the way of notes, so at the next production meeting, I asked if everything was okay with the sounds. “Oh, I don’t think we’ll need them after all,” said Harold. “I’m hoping the audience will laugh in all the right places.” He was right, they did, and the $3,000 laughs are safely in the archive, waiting for a day when they might have a use.
Harold had a well-publicized intolerance of unnecessary noise, especially in his rehearsals, and woe betide you if your cell phone went off at an inopportune moment. Celebration has a cell phone ring as a sound effect, and, each night during previews, when the effect was triggered, you could feel the audience tense up, waiting for the explosion from an irascible director. When it was revealed to be part of the action, the release of tension was palpable, and there was inevitably a laugh as the audience realized the con.
During the technical rehearsals, I was suffering from a minor chest infection and would sometimes inadvertently wheeze as I was drawing a breath. As we were about to embark on a dress rehearsal, Harold impressed on everyone the need for absolute quiet during the show, and we settled down for the run. The house lights started to dim, and I wheezed quietly.
“Who’s breathing?” came Harold’s imperious demand.
“Sorry, Harold, it’s me,” I admitted.
“Well, stop it,” was the reply.
And off we went.
John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 30 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound.