Portrait of Vivien Merchant by Cecil Beaton
22 July 1929
Manchester, Lancashire, England, UK
|Died||3 October 1982
London, England, UK
|Spouse(s)||Harold Pinter (1956-1980)|
Vivien Merchant (born Ada Thompson; 22 July 1929 – 3 October 1982) was an English actress. She began her career in 1942 and became known for dramatic roles on stage and in films. In 1956 she married the playwright Harold Pinter and performed in many of his plays. Merchant achieved considerable success from the 1950s to the 1970s, but she suffered from depression and alcoholism as her marriage ended, and she died two years after her divorce.
Merchant took her stage name as a composite of the actress Vivien Leigh and her brother, who was a merchant seaman (cited by Michael Billington). She began acting professionally in 1942, with supporting juvenile roles in repertory, progressing to West End roles in such works as Noël Coward's Sigh No More and Ace of Clubs, becoming an established lead in repertory in the early 1950s. Merchant subsequently performed in many stage productions and several films, including Alfie (1966), Accident (1967), Frenzy (1972) and The Offence (also 1972). Her performance in Alfie gained her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.
After Merchant married the playwright Harold Pinter in 1956, she appeared in many of his plays, including the 1960 revival of his first play, The Room at the Hampstead Theatre, A Slight Ache, A Night Out, The Collection and The Lover; the last was also a celebrated television production partnering Alan Badel at Associated Rediffusion, for which she was given an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Newcomer and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress, both in 1963.
Merchant subsequently appeared as Wendy in Tea Party opposite Leo McKern in 1965 and as Ruth in The Homecoming (1964) on stage in 1965 and screen in 1973. The last of his plays in which she performed on stage was Old Times (1971) as Anna. She played Lady Macbeth to Paul Scofield's Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
Merchant took the role of Madame in the Greenwich Theatre revival of Jean Genet's The Maids partnering Glenda Jackson and Susannah York: this was filmed in 1974 by Christopher Miles. In 1975, Merchant and Timothy Dalton headed the cast of a revival of Noël Coward's The Vortex at the Greenwich Theatre.
Merchant was the first wife of Harold Pinter, whom she met while working as a repertory actress; he was then working as an actor under the stage name of David Baron. They married in 1956, and their son, Daniel, was born in 1958.
Their marriage began disintegrating in the mid-1960s. From 1962 to 1969, Harold Pinter had a clandestine affair with Joan Bakewell, which informs Pinter's play Betrayal. In 1975 Pinter began a serious affair with the historian Lady Antonia Fraser, the wife of Sir Hugh Fraser, which he confessed to his wife that March. At first, Merchant took it very well, saying positive things about Fraser, according to her friend artist Guy Vaesen (as cited by Michael Billington); but, Vaesen recalled, after "a female friend of Vivien's trotted round to her house and poisoned her mind against Antonia ... [L]ife in Hanover Terrace [where the Pinters then lived] gradually became impossible". Pinter left, and Vivien Merchant filed for divorce and gave interviews to the tabloid press, expressing her distress. Merchant made some unflattering comments about Fraser at this time: "He didn't need to take a change of shoes. He can always wear hers. She has very big feet, you know."
The Frasers' divorce became final in 1977 and the Pinters' in 1980. In 1980 Pinter and Fraser married.
- "The Vortex (1975–1976)", Timothy Dalton - Shakespearean James Bond, accessed June 28, 2012
- Details about the Pinters' marriage and their family life are provided by Michael Billington The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (London: Faber and Faber, 1996); rev. ed. Harold Pinter (London: Faber and Faber, 2007). (Pinter's official authorized biography.)
- Billington Harold Pinter, p.256–67
- Michael Billington (1996) The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p.253, Faber & Faber, ISBN 0571171036
- E.g., "Actress Tells All", The Daily Mail, as cited in Billington, Harold Pinter, p.253–54.
- Cf. "People", Time, 11 Aug. 1975. Archived in the Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. (Page 1 of 2 pages.)
- Peter Gutteridge "Those choice words that say 'I hate you'", The Independent, 26 January 1996
- "Death of Vivien Merchant Is Ascribed to Alcoholism", The New York Times 7 October 1982, accessed 13 September 2007.
- According to Billington, Pinter "did everything possible to support" Merchant until her death and regrets that he became estranged from their son, Daniel, after their separation and Pinter's marrying Antonia Fraser. A reclusive writer and musician, Daniel does not use the surname Pinter, having adopted as his surname from his maternal grandmother's maiden name Brand after his parents separated (Harold Pinter pp.276, 255)