Vivien Merchant
Portrait of Vivien Merchant by Cecil Beaton
Ada Thomson

(1929-07-22)22 July 1929
Manchester, Lancashire, England
Died3 October 1982(1982-10-03) (aged 53)
London, England
(m. 1956; div. 1980)

Ada Brand Thomson[1] (22 July 1929 – 3 October 1982), known professionally as Vivien Merchant, 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, winning the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress in 1964. For her role in the film Alfie (1966), she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and won the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer. In 1967, she starred in the Broadway production of Pinter's The Homecoming, and received a Tony Award nomination. Her other films included Accident (1967), The Offence (1972), Frenzy (1972), The Homecoming (1973), and The Maids (1975). Suffering from depression and alcoholism as her marriage ended, she died in 1982, 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 won her the BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer 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. She starred as Ruth in The Homecoming (1964) on stage in both London in 1965 and New York in 1967, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play. She went on to star in the film version 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 Coward's The Vortex at the Greenwich Theatre.[2]

Personal life

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.[3]

Their marriage began disintegrating in the mid-1960s. From 1962 to 1969, Pinter had a clandestine affair with Joan Bakewell, which inspired his play Betrayal.[4] In 1975, he began a serious affair with the historian Lady Antonia Fraser, the wife of Sir Hugh Fraser, which he confessed to his wife that March.[5] At first, Merchant took it very well, saying positive things about Fraser, according to her friend artist Guy Vaesen (as cited by Billington); but, Vaesen recalled, after "a female friend of Vivien's trotted round to her house and poisoned her mind against Antonia ... life in Hanover Terrace [where the Pinters then lived] gradually became impossible". Pinter left, and Merchant filed for divorce and gave interviews to the tabloid press, expressing her distress.[6][7] 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."[8] Merchant believed Fraser to be the basis for the character of Emma in Pinter's play Betrayal, never learning about his prior affair with Joan Bakewell.[9]

The Frasers' divorce became final in 1977, and the Pinters' in 1980. In 1980, Pinter and Fraser married.


Merchant became deeply depressed after the end of her marriage to Pinter and turned to drinking. She died at the age of 53 on 3 October 1982, from alcoholism.[10][11]



Year Title Role Notes
1966 Alfie Lily Clamacraft BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture
1967 Accident Rosalind National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress (runner-up)
1969 Alfred the Great Freda
1972 Under Milk Wood Mrs. Pugh
Frenzy Mrs. Oxford
The Offence Maureen Johnson
1973 The Homecoming Ruth Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
1975 The Maids Madame


Year Title Role Notes
1948 Virtuoso Miss Coleman
1955 Sunday-Night Theatre Elsa Perkins Episode: The Fifty Mark
1959 The Infamous John Friend "Crown Inn" Landlady Episode: Episode #1.4
1960 Armchair Theatre Girl Episode: A Night Out
ITV Television Playhouse Rose Blatchford
Sally Gibbs
Episode: The Honeymooners
episode: Night School
1962 Studio 4 Olivia Episode: The Weather in the Streets
1963 The Lover Sarah
Maupassant Henriette Episode: Wives and Lovers
ITV Television Playhouse Angela Fairbourne Episode: In Confidence
1965 ITV Play of the Week Kathy Grayson Episode: The Fall of the Sparrow
1966 Theatre 625 Natalia Petrovna
Episode: A Month in the Country
episode: Focus
Seven Deadly Sins Jane Episode: My Friend Corby
Thirty-Minute Theatre Ella Episode: Ella
1968 ITV Playhouse Tessa Episode: Funeral Games
Play of the Month Evelyn Daly Episode: Waters of the Moon
1969 ITV Saturday Night Theatre Maureen Instance Episode: The Full Cheddar
1970 ITV Saturday Night Theatre Augusta Fullam
Episode: Wicked Women: Augusta Fullam[12]
1971 Aquarius Anna in Old Times Episode: 5 June 1971
Play of the Month Dona Ana Episode: Don Juan in Hell
1972 A War of Children Nora Tomelty TV movie
1973 Play of the Month Jane Noble Episode: The Common
Softly, Softly: Taskforce Maggie Jarman Episode: Cover
1977 The Lover Sarah TV movie
The Man in the Iron Mask Maria Theresa TV movie
The Velvet Glove Elizabeth Fry Episode: Beyond This Life
Secret Army Mile. Gunet Episode: Growing Up
1980 Breakaway Isabel Black Episode: The Local Affair
A Tale of Two Cities Miss Pross (TV miniseries)
1982 Crown Court Judge Episode: Face Value: Part 1, (final appearance)


  1. ^ Billington, Michael. "Pinter, Harold". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/100647. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ "The Vortex (1975–1976)" Archived 10 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Timothy Dalton – Shakespearean James Bond, accessed 28 June 2012
  3. ^ 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.)
  4. ^ Billington Harold Pinter, pp. 256–267
  5. ^ Michael Billington (1996) The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, p. 253, Faber and Faber, ISBN 0571171036
  6. ^ E.g., "Actress Tells All", Daily Mail, as cited in Billington, Harold Pinter, pp. 253–254.
  7. ^ Cf. "People" Archived 20 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Time, 11 August 1975. Archived in the Time Archive: 1923 to the Present. (Page 1 of 2 pages.)
  8. ^ Peter Guttridge "Those choice words that say 'I hate you'", The Independent, 26 January 1996
  9. ^ Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind, Joan Bakewell, Virago, 2016
  10. ^ "Death of Vivien Merchant Is Ascribed to Alcoholism", The New York Times 7 October 1982, accessed 13 September 2007.
  11. ^ 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 his maternal grandmother's maiden name Brand after his parents separated (Harold Pinter pp. 276, 255)
  12. ^ Wicked Women at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata