The summer I left school I discovered Joe Orton. I was about to embark on a Drama course and was encouraged to read as many playwrights as possible. I don’t remember if Joe Orton was actually on any recommended reading lists but it was his work that I became side-tracked by.
My eighteen year old self appreciated the rebel, the working class boy made good, his love at taking swipes at the establishment and most of all his use of language, rooted in what people actually say, which has always been for me one of the things I find most funny and has led to my love of Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood even right along to “Gogglebox” which just last the other night had me crying with laughter at an observation made by one of the regular viewers (Izzi from Leeds actually).
The more I read by and about Joe Orton the more obsessed I became. His violent end appealed to my sense of the macabre and I devoured his diaries, probably not the most suitable reading material for an impressionable teenager. When I eventually went to college I spent a good chunk of my first term producing an essay on, if I remember rightly, a quote of his about his work being from “the gutter”. I don’t think I ever researched anything with such enthusiasm and it was probably my academic peak as I remember the assignment being awarded with an “A”.
His work has never entirely left me. I read his plays, the diaries, and John Lahr’s masterful biography regularly and all three would appear on my lists of my favourite books. The 1987 film, based on Lahr’s work, “Prick Up Your Eyes” with its screenplay by the perfect choice, Alan Bennett, is one of my all time favourite films and features career best performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. Over the years I’ve seen a number of productions of his plays. They are not always easy to get right. Probably the best I’ve seen live was a touring version of “Loot” with Letitia Dean. That was certainly better than the 1970 film version starring Richard Attenborough and Lee Remick in the part of the nurse played by Letitia Dean. I do, however, rate the film version of “Entertaining Mr Sloane, also from 1970, mainly because of the delightfully grotesque performance by Beryl Reid.
Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina from “Prick Up Your Ears”
Joe Orton Laid Bare was an 80 minute documentary on BBC2 which marked 50 years since the death of the playwright at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and then took his own life. It featured a range of talking heads and extracts of Orton’s work- none of which fully conveyed the full flavour his work. Orton specialised in farcical comedy which needs layers to be built as the play proceeds so to see a section out of context is probably not the best way of viewing his work. The repertory company including Antony Sher, Jaime Winstone, Ben Miles and Freddie Fox who portrayed these segments with great gusto but they were perhaps the least successful aspect of the programme. Orton was a writer who was perhaps just finding his peak at the time of his death, his last play “What The Butler Saw” is acclaimed his best. There was a dramatization that I hadn’t seen before of a piece submitted for “Oh Calcutta!” which was embarrassing in its crass crudity which I think if I was producing this documentary I would have cut.
There were sections taken from the diaries brought to life by actors portraying a young and older Joe Orton which worked well. There’s a recognition generally that the British Prison Service made Orton the playwright. It took him away from the influence of the older Halliwell whose belief in his own literary skills was stultifying Orton’s writing and gave him the chance to find his own voice. Both Orton and Halliwell were imprisoned (and this sounds incredible now) for defacing library books. As someone who works within libraries I would have to take a dim view of this but there is something about the enthusiasm and care over the period of time that they did this and the outrageousness in what they came up with that always makes me laugh (against my better nature of course!)
One of the many defaced library books which ended up in a prison sentence
There was a shining light in this programme which made it memorable to me who wasn’t expecting to find out a great deal of new things about Orton and that was the participation of his sister, Leonie as consultant and talking head. Leonie, I believe manages the Orton Estate and is memorably portrayed in “Prick Up Your Eyes” by the fabulous Frances Barber. Leonie in real life was more Julie Walters, (who played Orton’s mother in the film and who had the immortal line, and I may be paraphrasing a little, “I bet Dirk Bogarde never distempered his mother’s tablecloth!”) and her contributions to this programme were an absolute joy.
Joe’s sister, Leonie
For fifty years she has lived with the memories of her brother, from a working class Leicestershire background, who absorbed his parents into his characters (the weak men were his father, the surreally outrageous often coming from his mother). She told a story about Joe returning home and hiding a microphone behind a loaf of bread to record his mother’s utterances which were then used in his work. There were the few months of the golden era when Joe became the feted star of the West End – a radical new voice who won awards, appeared on the telly, was asked to write a screenplay for the Beatles and began to aspire to an existence completely baffling to the family. And then, all of a sudden it was all over. Leonie had to live with the repercussions of such a violent, horrible death, the discovery of the diaries and her inheritance of the whole of the Orton output, including unpublished works which she says pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and yet, she says with a twinkle in her eye, are still funny. Fifty years may have gone past but you can tell from Leonie that the presence of that naughty older brother, 11 years her senior, is still very much with her and a very real love for him shone through.
Other talking heads included biographer John Lahr and those that appeared in the original productions of his plays including Kenneth Cranham, Patricia Routledge and Dudley Sutton and those who knew him and Kenneth Halliwell in their professional capacity and even a casual pick-up of Joe’s . I felt Kenneth was moved further back than usual, certainly more so than in the film, which focuses on his mental deterioration to the point of murder of suicide and which elicits a fair amount of sympathy in Alfred Molina’s portrayal. There was less sympathy in this documentary, nobody really had anything good to say about Halliwell. What was interesting was the willingness to apportion some blame into a direction I had not heard before. Peter Wills was the head of Rediffusion Television Drama who seemed to be guilty of continually undermining Kenneth publicly when he was obviously suffering from serious mental health issues, he interfered with treatment and seems to have exacerbated Halliwell’s paranoia. Kenneth Cranham said “Almost certainly I think that Peter Wills brought about the murder…I think there was something Machiavellian going on….I think Peter Wills is a nasty piece of work.” This view was echoed by other talking heads. There was a tape-recording from the doctor who treated Hallilwell who showed how far we have thankfully come in the treatment of mental health patients.
The documentary built up towards the grisly killing in the small claustrophobic flat they shared as Halliwell began to fear separation from Joe, because of both what he had read from the diaries and from what Joe and others had been saying. An air of continuing mystery is maintained by the latter days of the diaries going missing, taken by Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent when she arrived to identify the bodies.
These 80 minutes fed my continuing fascination with Joe Orton. I think the balance of the programme was right. I’m not sure how well Orton actually benefits from academic research on his output. I’ve read some over the years and it doesn’t ever come off. It was important to let those like John Lahr, who has spent decades examining the man and his work, those who worked with him and especially sister Leonie to have their say to commemorate this extraordinary individual who burnt brightly and whose influence on comic writing still can be felt today.
Joe Orton Laid Bare was first shown on BBC2 on Saturday 25th November at 9pm. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player