When Harold met Antonia

When Harold met Antonia

Their relationship began with the three words, “Must you go?”  

Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser had barely just met when, on the evening of 8 January 1975, Harold uttered that short phrase which marked the start of a long love story.

He was 42 years old, she 44. Both were married. Harold to actress Vivien Merchant, Antonia to Sir Hugh Fraser, then a member of Parliament with the Conservatives.

Lady Antonia remembers their first meetings with these words in her book, “Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter”…

I first saw Harold across a crowded room, but it was lunchtime, not some enchanted evening, and we did not speak. I was having lunch in the Etoile restaurant in Charlotte Street; my companion pointed to a trio of men lunching opposite us. They were in fact Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence and Harold; they were discussing Robert’s play, The Man in the Glass Booth, in which Harold would direct Donald.

On the next occasion I heard Harold’s voice, once aptly described by Arthur Miller as his ‘awesome baritone’, before we met. There was a recital about Mary Queen of Scots at the National Portrait Gallery, based on my book.

Harold’s wife Vivien Merchant took the part of Mary… things were running along smoothly… when suddenly there was some kind of interruption, a man’s voice raised, at the back of the gallery. Afterwards I enquired rather crossly what had happened. ‘Oh, that was Harold Pinter,’ I was told. ‘He attacked the attendant for opening the door in the middle of the recital.’…

Later, when I was introduced to Harold, I asked him if it had indeed been him. `Yes,’ he replied with satisfaction, `I do that kind of thing all the time.’ In similar situations in the future, I sometimes reflected wryly: `I can’t say I wasn’t warned . . .’

And so to the evening of 8 January 1975 when I went to the first night of The Birthday Party at the Shaw Theatre, directed by Kevin Billington, husband of my sister Rachel. The author was of course there and there was to be a dinner party afterwards at the Billingtons’ house in Holland Park…

A very enjoyable dinner party at Rachel and Kevin’s house in Addison Avenue: a long and convivial table. I was slightly disappointed not to sit next to the playwright who looked full of energy, with black curly hair and pointed ears, like a satyr. Gradually the guests filtered away. My neighbours Richard and Viv King offered me a lift up the road. `Wait a minute,’ I said. `I must just say goodbye to Harold Pinter and tell him I enjoyed the play; I haven’t said hello all evening.’

They waited at the door. I went over to where Harold was sitting. `Wonderful play, marvellous acting, now I’m off.’

He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. `Must you go?’ he said. I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning, the exhausting past night in the sleeper from Scotland, my projected biography of King Charles II . . . `No, it’s not absolutely essential,’ I said.

About 2.30 in the morning, poor Rachel and Kevin were visibly exhausted, and we were the last guests. In the end, it was Harold who gave me a lift home. I offered him coffee. I actually gave him champagne. He stayed until six o’clock in the morning with extraordinary recklessness, but of course the real recklessness was mine.

We sometimes speculated later what would have happened if I had in fact answered: `Yes, I really must go.’ Harold, convinced by then that I was his destiny, would gallantly reply: `I would have found you somehow.’ But we had few friends in common… But fundamentally we lived in different worlds. The night of 8/9 January was the chance and our chance.

Harold and Antonia got married in 1980.

They were together until Christmas Day 2008 when Harold departed from us all.

Antonia was by his side until the end: “I leant forward and found no breath… I sat for a while. Then I kissed him. ‘Must you go?’ Yes, it was time. Before I left the room, after another, last kiss, I said: ‘Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing you to your rest.’”


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