Caro Meets Theatre Interview

David Pinner: The Potsdam Quartet

By | Published on Saturday 9 November 2013


If you don’t recognise the name David Pinner (though many of you will), then you will definitely recognise his most famous output, because he’s the writer of the novel ‘The Ritual’, the book on which the film ‘The Wicker Man’ is based.

He’s become known for a great deal more than just that, of course, during his career as an actor, playwright and novelist. A revival of his critically acclaimed work ‘The Potsdam Quartet’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre this month, so what better occasion to ask him some questions about the play, his career, and what it’s like to be responsible for the birth of a cult classic…

CM: What inspired you to write The Potsdam Quartet? Where did the idea come from?
DP: My father-in-law, Sidney Griller, was the leader of the famous Griller String Quartet, and he told me that he and his quartet played at the Potsdam Conference as part the RAF orchestra.  As I wanted to write a play about a fictional quartet, I decided to set it at Potsdam because in the other room there was a quartet of politicians, Stalin, Truman, Churchill and Atlee.

So ‘The Potsdam Quartet’ explores the often-abrasive and humorous relationship of my fictional String Quartet, while the Political Quartet are vociferously arguing as they divide up the world between them.

CM: It has an enormously significant historical event as its backdrop – why focus on the quartet rather than the allied leaders?
DP: I wanted to contrast the lives of my String Quartet, with all their tragi-comic frailties, who are creating beauty by playing great music, with the exploits of the Political Quartet, who are ‘carving up’ Europe between them, and in the process, enslaving half of it.

John: “So why are we playing for those bastards in there? They don’t care.”
Aaron: “Well, when you’re dividing the world between you, you need a little background music. A pity it has to be Haydn.”

So the play explores the world of art and humanity, which is at the mercy of a quartet of ruthless power-brokers.

CM: Have you made any changes to the play since it first premiered?
DP: I have made a few changes to the dialogue in the various productions, but the structure and the action has remained much as I originally wrote it.

CM: How often has it been revived over the years? Have you been closely involved with this new production of it?
DP: The play was originally commissioned by Yvonne Arnuad Theatre, Guilford and performed in 1973. Then there was another production in 1980, directed by David Giles, with Clive Swift, Freddie Jaeger, Peter Eyre and Jerome Willis at the Lyric Hammersmith.

It was broadcast with the same cast by the BBC in 1981. Then ‘The Potsdam Quartet’ was directed by Jacques Levy at the Lion Theatre, New York in 1983. Anthony Biggs’ present production of my play at the Jermyn Street Theatre on 29th October will be its first revival for thirty years. And, yes, I have been involved with the rehearsals.

CM: This play is one of a trilogy, isn’t it? What are the other two about?
DP: My ‘Stalin Trilogy’ examines aspects of the murderous and tyrannical life of Joseph Stalin.  In the first play, ‘Lenin in Love’,  I focus on the young Stalin; then ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ is a dark comedy about Stalin’s macabre dinner parties between 1938 and his death in 1952.  In ‘The Potsdam Quartet”, Stalin remains off-stage, although his shadow looms over the proceedings.

CM: You are probably best known for your 1967 novel ‘Ritual’, which was adapted to become the film ‘The Wicker Man’, which is now regarded as a cult classic. How did you come up with the idea of that novel, and how was it to see its offshoot entering popular culture so markedly? Did the film meet with your expectations?
DP: I wrote ‘Ritual’ while I was playing the lead in ‘The Mousetrap’ in London because – at the time – I was fascinated by occult rituals and paganism in the countryside, and I wanted to combine the elements of a thriller with witchcraft.  The film takes various elements from my novel but it has an entirely different ending. The fact that ‘The Wicker Man’ has achieved cult status is remarkable, but at the time of its original release as the B movie, with ‘Don’t Look Now’, I doubt any of us would have believed it possible. Naturally I am delighted by its on-going success.

CM: Which do you find most fulfilling, writing plays or prose?
DP: I have written more plays than novels because I enjoy writing comedic and dramatic dialogue, and the theatre is my natural world because I began my career as an actor.

CM: You’ve also had a prolific career as an actor. How does performing compare to writing?
DP: I haven’t acted on the stage for over ten years but I used to greatly enjoy it. However, latterly I prefer writing because you don’t have to learn any lines; you simply have to write them!

CM: Apparently, you’ve just finished writing a sequel to ‘The Ritual’. When is it likely to be released?
DP: Sometime time next year.

The Potsdam Quartet is on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 23 Nov. See the venue website for info and tickets.

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