Pinter's work influenced a generation of British dramatists, defined the "kitchen sink" drama and introduced a new word to the English language.

"Pinteresque" describes painfully taut silences peppered with threats or half-stated meanings.

Critics dubbed Pinter's chilling masterpieces "the theatre of insecurity".

The son of a working-class Jewish tailor gave little help to audiences struggling to unravel his plays.

"There are no hard distinctions between what is real and unreal," he said.

Theatre's face changed

From 1958 to 1978 a flurry of Pinter plays changed the face of British theatre.

Then silence fell for 15 years until the London production of his next full-length play, Moonlight.

In later life Pinter became almost as well known for his political activism as for his art, campaigning for human rights and nuclear disarmament and speaking out against Western foreign policy.

"The crimes of the US throughout the world have been sytematic, constant, clinical, remorseless and fully documented but nobody talks about them," he said.

Pinter also carved out a distinguished career as a screenwriter with hits such as The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Servant.