Filth, fury and the funny way Britain feels about Joe Orton

You never forget your first time. I was 19 years old. I descended into a dark, cramped basement where student actors brought to life a weird, twisted sexual triangle. Going to student drama productions in odd spaces around the University was one of my greatest joys of those years in the late 1980s. But this one was like no other. I knew nothing about author or play. It was timeless and simultaneously a nightmare version of a British tv culture familiar and strange from old sitcoms and Carry Ons and earnest black-and-white archive news programmes. Twenty year olds were dressed in nylon negligees and leather trousers and those weird sixties NHS specs playing a sexually frustrated older woman and man; an Adonis like something out of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Modern, So Appealing?

Richard Hamilton (1956)

That performance of Entertaining Mister Sloane and one shortly after of What The Butler Saw sucked me in to a lifelong fascination with Joe Orton, whose plays were hugely popular among my generation of students, 20 years after his death. After graduating I would spend evenings after work listening to the audio version of Kenneth Williams’ brilliantly articulate if misleading published autobiography, talking about his admiration of Joe Orton, and reading Joe Orton’s own graphic diaries alongside them. I endlessly rewatched Stephen Frears’ film of the John Lahr biography Prick Up Your Ears, which remains one of my favourite films of all time, thanks to Alan Bennett’s delicate screenplay.

Most of all I was intrigued by the Malcolm Gladwell-10-thousand hours-esque ten years from RADA to fame. Fifty years after his appalling murder I asked to make a special Front Row for Radio 4 on Friday Aug 11th about this remarkable talent. A working class man of incredible determination and graft, who spent a decade in London reading and writing and honing his skills before fame came. I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who we spoke to for their interviews and generosity. Special thanks to my wonderful producer Ekene Akalawu who did such an amazing job shaping this programme and editing it.

London made John into Joe Orton, but we wanted to go back to people who knew him and to Leicester, the city that bore him.

The house on the Saffron Lane estate is gone. Joe’s sister Leonie told me she’d pleaded with the council to keep just that one house. The replacement bungalow has a tiny shabby blue plaque easy to miss and almost too high to read. As I look at it I think with frustration of the lucrative tourist industry around Paul McCartney’s National Trust owned council house in Liverpool. I wonder why the councillors of Leicester didn’t see that too?

With Leonie Orton at the Pork Pie Library, Leicester 7th Aug 2017

The Pork Pie Library (it wasn’t called that then, officially) is just round the corner. Leonie Orton, Joe’s youngest sister, who’s become his proudest and most generous champion, drove 3 hours from Norfolk, where she now lives, to talk to me. It’s a stunning art deco building which hasn’t really changed at all since Joe first started bringing her – she was 4, he was 15. She leads me to where they’d go – the children’s section. He’d read her Enid Blytons and Alice in Wonderland. She remembers how much he loved reading Shakespeare and Greek classical drama. One time they walked out and he produced a copy of Black Beauty he’d nicked and gave it to her: “Here, you can keep that.” She was too young to be able to really think about what he’d done. It’s not that anyone thinks the theft is alright. What hits me again and again is the breaktaking sense of anger and defiance of authority alongside the self-instruction that comes from every aspect of Joe Orton’s life. It’s a privilege to talk to Leonie for an hour. Sorry we couldn’t fit it all in the programme.

With Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock, who starred in the Broadway production and a 1968 BBC film of Entertaining Mr Sloane shared amazing stories of their friendship. Both had been born the same year, both working class and both overlapped at RADA though they didn’t know eachother as students. She fondly remembers walking with Joe around Greenwich village, pushing her pram, having Sunday lunch with her mum. Given his murder by his partner Kenneth Halliwell, she still feels regret at whether her encouragement of Joe to leave Noel Road and move on might have contributed to their arguments. Her insights into why his work has such enduring power and the impact of it in the still very deferential early 60s is hugely valuable.

John Lahr, author of Orton biography Prick Up Your Ears

John Lahr, who wrote the definitive biography Prick Up Your Ears told me he’d come to the conclusion that revenge was what motivated the greatest comedy. He felt it had motivated Orton and also his own father, the actor Bert Lahr. He also reflected on the sheer power of Orton’s eloquence; how his love of precise language is a skill that is being lost in our instant sharing age.

Daily Mirror August 10th 1967

I also asked John about the modern accusation that his biography, framing Orton in his murder, could be seen to have unfairly defined this writer by his sexuality and his tragic death; a gay martyr. John firmly challenged that idea.

With Dr Emma Parker at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester

Nor did we shy away from difficult questions about Joe Orton’s sex holidays exploiting teenage boys in Morocco.  Both Leicester University’s Dr Emma Parker and Nikolai Foster, artistic director of Curve theatre, acknowledged how he was a working class iconoclast, who nonetheless displayed a colonial mindset as a sex tourist. Dr Parker does point out that it’s clear from his diaries he never slept with boys under the local age of consent. And it seems important to acknowledge the importance of British criminal law and social attitudes in persecuting and distorting gay men’s lives.

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In the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery Dr Parker and I took a closer look at copies of some of the remarkable book covers Orton and Halliwell made and reflected on their excessive 6 month jail sentence for criminal damage. There are two excellent exhibitions on Joe Orton right now. One at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester What The Artist Saw: Art Inspired by the Life and Work of Joe Orton and the other at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham: Crimes of Passion – the Story of Joe Orton. If you thought it was just tearing up books and scribbling in the margins, look again. Dr Parker also had an intriguing theory about Orton defacing only the Arden editions of Shakespeare, used by grammar schools and universities, not the cheaper Everyman editions which he owned and loved.

Nikolai Foster, Curve Artistic Director

Nikolai who directed an acclaimed Curve production of What the Butler Saw, starring Rufus Hound earlier this year, is passionate about how much Orton still speaks to modern Britain about class and deference and sexual taboos. We had a wonderful conversation about how Orton and working class talent is still held at a distance by the theatrical establishment; how much of a battle there still is for fair access and respect. Watching many of the films in the BFI archive, some of them being screened at BFI Southbank this month, it struck me that his work really comes truly alive only as theatre including the potential of TV, rather than the cinematic films which tried to open the stories up into other locations. The Bacchae-inspired TV play The Erpingham Camp, about a revolt in a holiday camp, is still remarkable viewing, and connects like an arrow to the world of Chris Morris and Black Mirror.

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Like Curve, Soft Touch Arts, a community based arts project, has done fabulous work to engage young people in Leicester in Joe Orton’s work. Jenna Forbes, who grew up on the Saffron Lane estate, like Joe, was wonderfully passionate, thoughtful and articulate about how he changed her life. Young people have made their own boardgame based on his life. Jenna told me today how it was the most popular object on Wednesday’s opening night of their exhibition. There’s also art work by young prisoners and a copy of Generation X – the 1960s book about young people’s attitudes in which Joe Orton got quoted extensively, after lying about his age. Do visit their show, Breaking Boundaries: Joe Orton and Me at Soft Touch Arts, right opposite the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

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After spending a few days absorbed in Joe Orton’s world view, even opening the local Leicester Mercury offered me up an unmistakably Ortonesque headline:

Leicester Mercury August 8th 2017

Sitting in the Pork Pie Library Leonie says what hurts is the thought that now she and Joe would, should have been sharing their stories, and reminiscing. She’s 71; he would have been 84. They should be golden years. Grief must be compounded by an anger we should all feel that he was robbed of all the years he would have gone on to achieve so much more. Her terrific memoir, I Had It In Me, raises important challenges to some of the artistic licence taken in the film of Prick Up Your Ears. It reveals unpleasant truths about how the family has been treated over the years by the literary establishment of agents and lawyers as Leonie tried to take responsible ownership of her brother’s papers. I’m most shocked by the fact that the original London diary has disappeared. Only partial typescript copies survive of the original that John Lahr was able to use in his research. The missing last few entries in the days before Joe’s murder have never been found. There are theories about whether they were removed to protect famous names alive at the time. Perhaps some or all of these papers are sitting in a lawyer’s vault. It still feels as if there’s a middle class Establishment attempt to control and limit the raw power of what Joe Orton could do with words.

My Front Row Joe Orton special  produced by Ekene Akalawu is on BBC Radio 4 on Friday August 11th at 715pm and via this link and iplayer after.

Further  reading

People at Work: Richard III and the 60s Town Planner (2013)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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