The British playwright Joe Orton (1933-1967 murdered) had the shortest of careers in the mid-1960s before his long-time lover Kenneth Halliwell (1926-67 sleeping pill overdose) hit him nine times on the forehead with a hammer in their London bedsit and then committed suicide.
It is a part of the legend of Orton that he was murdered and that the cause of this murder was jealousy and the fact that the writer’s diary detailed his promiscuous sexual adventures in the underbelly of that city in a time when the homosexual act was illegal.
I was introduced to Orton by my maternal grandfather – the nudist Freemason – who kept a VHS copy of Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970) in his collection. I had seen the other Orton based movie Loot (1970) as well before the legend of Orton was cemented by the publishing of John Lahr’s (1941-) biography called Prick Up Your Ears, as well as Orton’s diaries themselves, in 1986. The word ‘ears’ in the biography is an anagram which may delight some readers.
Lahr, by the way, is the son of Bert Lahr (1895-1967 pneumonia), who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and like his father, he’s straight. You can still be fascinated by Orton even if you don’t follow the same sexual path and politics. He challenged hypocrisy and that is why people love his life and works.
The two movies made from Orton plays are slightly dated and a third play What the Butler Saw was turned into a British tv movie in 1987. Shortly after the biography came out, so to speak, the movie Prick Up Your Ears (1987) starring Oscar winning actor Gary Oldman as Orton was released.
Joe Orton’s plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot were altered, or opened up, for the movie versions and the dialogue also changed. They are films which relate to the underworld of the 1960s, or people who live on the fringes, and are related to the emerging works of playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008 liver cancer), whose play The Birthday Party, which was published in the late 1950s, was turned into a movie in 1968 starring Robert Shaw (1927-78 heart attack). It is the idiosyncratic dialogue and characters which were of interest as well as the appearance of a mysterious outsider/s entering a home and often wreaking some kind of psychological havoc. Orton’s plays were more fun than the works of Pinter whose work has endured better in comparison.
As for the legend of Orton… He got accepted to RADA in the early 1950s where he met Halliwell who was seven years older. Orton was just a country boy from Leicester that was impressed by Halliwell who seemed to be sophisticated to Orton but really Halliwell was just insecure. Halliwell had seen his mother die in front on him at the age of eight after she was stung on the tongue by a wasp. As a teenager, his father committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven and Halliwell had made a cup of tea and shaved before reporting his death. Halliwell was a troubled man doomed to failure.
At RADA, Orton wasn’t exclusively gay at this stage and according to the movie Prick Up His Ears had his first gay experience in a lavatory at the age of fourteen at a cinema with a man in a raincoat. Orton tried to seduce women but they would draw the line as if they preferred to marry first. Orton and Halliwell moved in together with Orton as the student and Halliwell guiding him in his education as reader and writer. Halliwell helped educate and form the artist that was Joe Orton.
“It’s not corruption, it’s collaboration,” said biographer Lahr about their relationship.
They collaborated on a couple of novels together and one of them was called The Boy Hairdresser. They were unpublishable novels that were before their time and the publishers told them so. The publishers thought they were “a strange pair”. Halliwell was, in his later years, completely bald and would wear wigs and berets to sometimes hide the fact.
Surviving on tins of sardines and salmon and creamed rice, the pair existed happily together on a social security payment of two pounds and ten shillings a week for several years rather than work.
The pair came up with the idea of defacing books at the local library with fake blurbs on the dust jackets as well as gluing images on the covers and upon illustrations contained within. Their targets were conservative books and to shock elderly and ladylike readers. If you become acquainted with their work it is quite clever and there remains a collection of their work to this day. However, the librarians, while amused by the antics of these yet unknown vandals, were concerned at the damage to their stock and reported it to police.
“To me, they were stealers of library books,” said the cop in charge of the case, which saw Orton and Halliwell convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. Orton later said he thought the harshness of the sentence for these “frustrated authors” was because they were gay.
They were sent to separate prisons and Halliwell made the first of his threats of suicide while Orton was galvanised by the experience into becoming an artist.
Orton, incidentally, played another prank during this era and that was the Edna Welthorpe letters. They were a series of letters sent from Orton or ‘Edna’ to a real church vicar asking if she could use the church hall for free so they could show their play which was a plea for an understanding of homosexuality entitled Nelson was a Nance. This title, for those interested, is derived from Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s (1758-1805 bullet wound) dying words which were: “Kiss me Hardy” to naval officer Thomas Hardy (1769-1839), when it was probably the misheard: “Kismet Hardy” or fate. Anyway, the vicar wouldn’t allow the play to be performed and their inane correspondence continued which included a letter from Edna’s sister announcing her suicide and a letter back from the vicar saying she fell in with the “wrong crowd”! Orton resurrected the character later in his career.
“I had a wonderful time in prison…. I didn’t suffer the way Oscar Wilde did in prison… But Oscar Wilde was flabby and self-indulgent,” said Orton in his diary, who as an actor had an interest in bodybuilding. “When I die, I want them to say: ‘He was the most perfectly developed playwright of his day’,” says Gary Oldman’s Orton in the movie Prick Up Your Ears.
Orton thought up the play Ruffian on the Stair while in jail and it was performed on radio and this was the beginning of the Orton style of deadpan comedic lines of black humour which dealt with such taboos as sexuality, incest and other forbidden topics. Homosexuality would be illegal in Britain until 1967 which was the year Orton was murdered.
“It was like uncorking a geyser,” said prolific playwright and director Christopher Hampton (1946-) about the sudden release of original writing from within Orton after the end of his term in prison.
Quickly, Orton wrote Entertaining Mr. Sloane which was first performed on stage in 1964 and during the success of this play in London’s West End he wrote Loot.
It was around this time that comedian Kenneth Williams (1926-88 drug overdose) became interested in performing Loot and he met Orton and Halliwell together one night for dinner. Williams described Halliwell as an almost shrewish wife who would correct Orton over the most minor of details about their daily lives. Orton said he was just exacting. And yet in retrospect Williams said Halliwell was the same when it came to Orton’s writing in that he would correct a line which was too long and make it better. Others friends said it was the reverse. The three would later holiday together in Morocco where their sexual mores were accepted in that country during that period. Halliwell seemed happier there and appeared to be slightly relieved of his own sexual repression… Halliwell, however, grew unhappier as Orton’s success increased because all he could do was produce unsaleable collage.
“He was rather like the elephant in the room,” said actor Dudley Sutton (1933-2018 cancer), who appeared in a stage production of Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane. “He was asked to leave rehearsals. I don’t know how Joe dealt with it when he went home.”
Actor Kenneth Cranham (1944-) said: “They started off with equally strong fantasies of themselves… Joe’s had been totally fulfilled and Kenneth’s had got nowhere… Halliwell became rather grotesque and queenly.”
Look at pictures of the small bedsit they shared together at 25 Noel Road at Islington and the walls were covered in collages by Halliwell. Visitors described it as ‘cosy’ but Halliwell was becoming increasingly unhinged and jealous about Orton’s promiscuity which Orton recorded in his diary and kept in an unlocked drawer. There’s no doubt Halliwell read it and was angry at the fact Orton was enjoying a full sex life albeit one of anonymous sex.
“Have a w#*k,” says Gary Oldman to Alfred Molina’s (1953-) Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears, who responds: “Have a w#*k?! I need three days’ notice to have a w#*k! … It would be easier to raise the titanic! Have a w#*k!!”
Orton’s sister said she was originally shocked by the contents of his diaries: “Nobody’s ever made me laugh like Joe, he’s just so funny.” She said she had a breakdown after his death.
Loot wasn’t a success as a play when it was first performed and Orton did many rewrites until finally it clicked on stage. Meanwhile in America the plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot would both close after barely a dozen performances of each in New York. The humour certainly didn’t click there.
Orton also wrote an unproduced screenplay for The Beatles entitled Up Against It. He submitted it to their manager Brian Epstein (1934-67 accidental drug and alcohol overdose) and it was returned without comment. Epstein, who was gay, died only two weeks after the murder of Orton. The film wasn’t made, although Paul McCartney showed some interest and, in the end, Up Against It was whittled down to three main characters and finally published in the late 1970s. It is said director Richard Lester (1932-) was going to contact Orton about the screenplay in the days before Orton’s death. One scene has the three characters in bed with one woman at the climax. And there is also the line, perhaps meant for Lennon: “My heart is broken but the rest of me is in working order.” Or perhaps Ringo?
Orton was murdered one evening, as I mentioned, by Halliwell using a hammer. Halliwell then took an overdose of sleeping pills washed down with fresh grape fruit juice to make it work faster. He died before Orton whose body was still warm when they were discovered in the bedsit the next morning.
Halliwell left a note which read: “If you read his diary, all will be explained. KH PS: Especially the latter part.”
What is interesting is that the diary stops on 1 August, while Orton died 9 August. It was obvious that there had been pages which had been torn out. It was suspected that those pages were removed by Orton’s theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay (1908-91 heart condition). It may have detailed the fact that a ‘friend’ of Orton’s Peter Willes (1913-91), who was the head of drama at ITV, had arranged for Halliwell to be sectioned the day following the murder through manipulation by the psychiatrist which Willes knew and had recommended to Halliwell. There had also been an intercepted phone call where Halliwell impersonated Orton and learned that he was being excluded from Orton’s life. It is reported that Willes wrote Peggy a letter about keeping the diaries to herself shortly after the murder. Friends of Orton blamed Willes for the writer’s death and called him the second murderer.
Orton had sold the film rights to Loot for one hundred thousand pounds sterling in his lifetime but had remained living in the bedsit with Halliwell.
Orton’s funeral was a fashionable affair by all accounts and Donald Pleasance (1919-95 after heart surgery) was one celebrity who spoke at the eulogy. Only a couple of people turned up for Halliwell’s funeral and that included an aunt. Their ashes were mixed together with the blessing of both families and scattered in the gardens of the crematorium.
Peggy Ramsay said: “If Joe had been a little more careful. Kenneth wouldn’t have killed him. Kenneth was so lonely and so unhappy. The only way he could see out was to kill himself and take Joe too.”
Now for the movies and the first is Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970). My grandfather pointed out to me the ridiculous sight of Beryl Reid (1919-96 pneumonia after knee surgery) at the beginning of the movie, claiming to be 39, as she watches a funeral and sucks a phallic iced lolly while wearing a see-through multi-coloured mini-skirt and possibly no underwear. Well, the actress is wearing some sort of body stocking, but it’s more than hinted at that she’s going bare in more way than one!
She meets Mr. Sloane, who is a man with dyed blonde hair and a good physique, sunning himself on a grave and takes him home to hopefully have it off with him. He meets her father called Dadda and Mr. Sloane maybe recognised as a murderer.
“…I had an idea they had a suicide pact,” Sloane tells Beryl about his parents at the cemetery.
“Were they criminals? …,” she asks him and it seems the legend of Orton and Halliwell is built into the movie script.
The movie also includes the character of Beryl’s gay brother played by Harry Andrews.
“He was a good boy…,” Dadda tells Sloane: “…Sport mad he was … Then one day … I returned home unexpectedly and found him committing some kind of felony in his bedroom.”
“For myself, I usually lock the door,” says Sloane.
It appears that Orton drew the character of Dadda from his own father, who was an ineffectual gardener, while Beryl could be based on his mother as she was a pretentious middle-aged barmaid. Orton is himself perhaps the form of Mr. Sloane who screws Beryl in a padded chair and flirts with Andrews and then becomes his leather-clad chauffeur. Andrews’s car is a pink Pontiac Parisienne, which was apparently bought for the movie from former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett (1946-2006 pancreatic cancer) and painted.
Orton’s work is essentially smut but it is dressed up as a thought which doesn’t immediately make itself clear until the next line of dialogue is delivered. It is like a running conversation of one-liners is happening in his plays and movies. His characters were also of the type that no one had probably ever seen before. It was a type of smut that was far cleverer than the Carry On … movies in Britain at the time.
After claiming she had the upbringing a nun would envy as she removes Sloane’s trousers, Beryl says: “Do you want to go to bed?” Sloane answers: “But it’s only half past three.”
Yes, compared to the nudity and swearing of today it all seems a bit tame, but in its day, it was shocking and funny… By the time the movies came out in 1970, this novelty had probably worn off. But at the time, Orton’s pushed sexual innuendo to the maximum permitted on stage and he even had one of his plays visited by police who were going to stop the performance if a certain line was uttered since it hadn’t been approved by the local censors of the day.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane was directed by Douglas Hickox (1929-88 after heart surgery) and it was his first feature. He was the father of director Anthony Hickox (1964-) who directed the Waxwork movies (1988 and 1992) as well as Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992). His father said he really didn’t relate to the work of Orton but it was an opportunity to direct. He would make the classic Theatre of Blood (1973) starring Vincent Price (1911-93 lung cancer) but little else of note. I guess this director preferred working with John Wayne (1907-79 stomach cancer) on the London-set Brannigan (1975).
Harry Andrews (1911-89 undisclosed) as the brother was a gay actor who was well-known for his award nominated turn as a tough army officer in the movie The Hill (1965). I was surprised when I learnt he lived with another actor for over thirty years. Andrews must have been in his element playing this role. It is actor Peter McEnery (1940-) who is Sloane.
Beryl Reid is the best part of the movie and she was a game actress who had played a butch lesbian soap opera star in the movie The Killing of Sister George (1968). She was nominated for a Golden Globe for that one. She certainly crossed the sexual divide in terms of her lascivious character in Entertaining Mr. Sloane. I get the impression from the actress’s autobiography that after she married twice and had no children that she lived the life of a cat lady in the end. She just loved her cats.
“Perhaps we could share him?,” suggests Beryl at the end of the movie as Sloane is trapped by the siblings for killing their father. It follows in an unofficial ceremony that both Andrews and Beryl marry Sloane. It was probably the first gay marriage ever committed to film. Princess Margaret (1930-2002 after strokes) went to this film’s world premiere in London on April Fool’s Day 1970.
The movie version of Loot (1970) differs in tone to Entertaining Mr. Sloane. This was probably because of the approach taken by two totally different directors and the fact that the two movies were being released the same year and had to differ from one another in case one flopped. I don’t think either film was a box office winner anyway.
The script for Loot was written by well-known British sitcom writers Ray Galton (1930-2018 in sleep) and Alan Simpson (1929-2017 lung disease). The pair, who had worked with comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68 suicide by overdose) and also created the tv show Steptoe and Son in the early 1960s had a bleak type of black comedy related to Orton’s. But Orton’s comedy was far blacker and it was also far more sexually oriented and liberated.
The care that the writers took in adapting Orton’s work had Orton’s agent Peggy Ramsay say that she didn’t know where Orton ended and Galton and Simpson began in the script for Loot. She also didn’t think the movie was very good.
Directed by Silvio Narizzano (1927-2011), he was a bit more experienced than Hickox, as he had directed the Hammer Horror Fanatic (1965) aka Die, Die My Darling! starring Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68 double pneumonia) and found critical success with Georgy Girl (1966).
The darkness of the original play of Loot has been dressed up as a colourful farce, especially in terms of its production design. More so than the Sloane movie it has mod trappings and the music and hairstyles in Loot have dated far more than Sloane but the Orton-esque lines are definitely there in abundance.
A pair of boys in their early 20s seem to be a kind of disillusioned gay couple where the thrill has gone and now one of them beds several women in front of the other in the back of a hearse. This relates to Orton’s relationship with Halliwell once again. The ‘straight’ one is played by Hywel Bennett (1944-2017 heart defect) while his other half who calls him ‘baby’ all the time is Roy Holder (1946-). They rob a bank which is next door to the funeral parlour where Holder’s mother is lying and hide the money in her coffin.
“She’s gone… wherever Protestants go,” says Catholic nurse Lee Remick (1935-91 kidney cancer) upon announcing the mother’s death at the beginning of the movie.
Loot was seen as Orton’s revenge on the police force for his jailing for vandalism of books with Sir Richard Attenborough (1923-2014 after strokes) playing Inspector Truscott with a Charlie Chaplin-type moustache and manner about him. His character is unscrupulous and, in the end, corrupt.
The caper in Loot differs from similar British caper movies such as the very manly The Italian Job (1969) in that the caper in Loot is carried out bare arsed. There is no real subtlety to this movie as the performances are deliberately over the top to make the lines more immediately shocking to an audience whose tastes had probably moved on and had become more sophisticated. Orton today seems too square for many.
The question being of whether Orton would have continued to create the same type of plays was shown with the post-humous release of What the Butler Saw, which he completed shortly before his death. Set in a clinic where the psychiatrist is basically dishonest, the fact it was written just before Orton’s murder and Halliwell’s possible incarceration in a mental hospital by a dishonest psychiatrist may have triggered Halliwell’s decision to commit the crime upon reading this play along with the diary entries.
I happened to be in Sydney with a couple of mates when we went to see a production of this play at the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House in late 1987. It was the height of the rebirth of Orton-mania and it was very funny as it was presented as a door slamming farce in the tradition of French farceur Georges Feydeau (1862-1921 dementia and tertiary syphilis) who perfected the form. This perfection of form Orton reproduced.
What the Butler Saw was rejected by the public when it was first performed on stage in London in 1969 with a cast that included Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-83) and Coral Browne (1913-91 breast cancer). Watch the tv movie version from 1987 which was an episode of Theatre Night and the farce is a little more calculated and slower compared to when I saw it, giving the audience a chance to digest Orton’s clever dialogue.
As for the movie about Orton’s life, Prick Up Your Ears (1987), starring Gary Oldman, and it just seems to be a lesson about picking up men in public, as well as public lavatories, as it tells Orton’s life story and his eventual murder at the hands of his ‘friend’. Oldman is good in the role – he had already been in a stage production of Sloane – and he received a Best Actor nomination from the British Oscars. I guess the movie is an Orton screenplay as he really would have liked it and was finally allowed to be. Oldman’s Orton does take delight in misbehaving in the movie and Orton probably would have been thrilled by director Stephen Frears’s evocation of himself and the period.
Orton’s “love of hypocrisy”, as someone described it, perhaps led to his own downfall, by the playwright continuing to live with a man he no longer loved except as an old bad habit. Today that embrace of the double standards which still endure today are celebrated far more openly in comedies onscreen. There seems to be nothing off limits nowadays, or used to be, as long as it’s gross. It seems the world has perhaps gone as far as it can go and now must contract in terms of the emergence of political correctness… which could be seen as just another form of hypocrisy… The polished lines of truth and wisdom contained in Joe Orton’s plays thrilled many in a world which hadn’t realised that its own hypocrisy was very funny back in the 1960s. Orton’s diaries, which were released from their limbo or prison some twenty years after his murder, helped to further galvanise the legend of promise partially fulfilled … but which, at the same time that the diaries were originally being forged, their creator had been killed by his own jealous creator in the form of Kenneth Halliwell. Is it hypocritical to read someone’s not-so-secret diary? Only if you deny you did.