When Joe Orton’s future agent, Peggy Ramsay, said she found his first play derivative, Joe blithely replied: “I’ll try ’n write you a better one, dear.”
To which she answered: “That would be gorgeous!”
Peggy was referring to his one act drama called ‘Ruffian on the Stair’ aired by BBC Radio on 31 August 1964.
Joe had only started writing seriously a year or so before, after his release from prison. He served a sentence for defacing library books. Ornamenting the dust-jackets with preposterous collages, which Islington Local History Centre now treasure as works of art.
In his short career Orton did indeed write Peggy better plays – 3 maniacal farces that shocked audiences in the nineteen sixties. Plus an outrageous script for the new Beatles’ film (which didn’t stand a cat’s chance in hell of getting made: in one scene the fab four are in bed together) and a sketch for ‘Oh Calcutta’ : a rude, nude, and it must be said a somewhat tacky, review about the nascent permissive society. He was also about to start work on a historical farce provisionally entitled ‘Prick up your Ears’. It’s an anagram. But that’s Orton’s humour for you!
In his first play ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ (1964) a middle-aged nymphomaniac and her gay brother decide to share her handsome psychopathic lodger, Mr Sloane, – judging they have enough on him after he murders their aged father.
Entertaining Mr Sloane’s initial run lost money but received critical acclaim. It was voted the Critic’s Choice for Best New Play. As momentum gathered pace, the audience lost their outrage and began to appreciate its dark satiric comedy. It was later made into a film.
Loot (1966) is another black comedy about two young bank robbers. who seem more than ‘friends’. One works in a funeral parlour. Attempting to cover their tracks, he stashes the loot in his recently deceased mother’s coffin after taking out the body, which inconveniently keeps turning up round the house and having to be concealed from a suspicious Police Inspector. In the end the coffin, and the money, is cremated. It too was made into a film.
Dealing with police corruption, the Catholic Church and attitudes to death, Loot was rushed into production despite a flawed script. It opened to scathing reviews after half the audience walked out during the 1st act. The attempt to prop it up with continual rewrites didn’t please Kenneth Williams, playing the Police Inspector, and he said so in his diaries. Despite closing before its London run, Loot was revived the following year becoming a huge success and had a successful Broadway run.
What the Butler Saw took its name from Victorian end-of-pier photographic peep-show machines. Orton now growing in confidence wanted to restore the farce to its outrageous Restoration roots by flirting with faithless marriage, seduction of innocents and incest – while lampooning the oooh-err-missus & drop-your-trousers cheeky seaside-postcard humour of Brian Rix’s cosy middle-class, bedroom farces that were hugely successful at the time.
Before the play debuted Joe Orton was dead, murdered at the age of 34 by his partner Kenneth Halliwell.
Orton, popular and fun, possessed great personal charm and animal magnetism. In short he was a randy little get, a bit of a wide boy who could charm the pants off… anyone he damn well wanted actually: as his dairies so graphically recount. Socially awkward Halliwell compensated for his inadequacies with a condescending grandiose manner that left him alienated. People said he was holding Joe back. But Joe was loyal.
The two had met in RADA, the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art, in 1951. Kenneth, seven years older than Joe, was an orphan who paid for his tuition with his inheritance. Feeling an outcast he affected an cultured, worldly, sarcastic superiority that left the other students uncomfortable.
Having failed his 11+ exam Joe was not educated beyond secondary school and secretarial college. When asked in a job interview if he could spell, he famously replied, ‘Yes, but not accurately.’ After paying for acting lessons from his job as a clerk and getting some experience in local rep, Joe won a scholarship to RADA: by amusing the examiners with an animated portrayal of Smee from Peter Pan.
Halliwell fell for Joe. Joe fell for Halliwell’s sophistication. The two became lovers, moving into an oppressive one room bedsit in Islington where they survived hand to mouth on meager unemployment benefit.
Once Joe gained confidence, his native wit quickly outstripped Halliwell. Through luck, talent, charm and sheer hutzpah Joe met with a great deal of early success. Needless to say Kenneth did not handle Joe’s fame well, especially with the failure of his own writing aspirations.
Thinking Joe’s new friends did not like him, Kenneth became even more morose; sliding into depression and thoughts of suicide. Symptoms were alleviated by anti-depressants and sleeping tablets. Unreasonably he blamed Joe. Friends told Joe to leave Kenneth but he wouldn’t. Although Joe might have been considering separation prior to his death. He told a friend 4 days earlier he planned to leave Kenneth but did not know how.
On the night of 9 Aug 1967, Kenneth bludgeoned the sleeping Joe to death with nine hammer blows to the head. He then committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping tablets. They were both found dead next morning. The police report believed Joe may have lingered for some hours after the attack as his bed sheets were still warm.
Halliwell left a note saying the police would understand his actions if they read Joe’s dairies… especially the last part. The last entries were no different from the rest.
For those with a twisted sense of humour and an appreciation for rapid-fire (if dated) one-liners, the BBC production of What the Butler Saw is here.
For more on Joe Orton – check out the laugh-out-loud film (screenplay by Alan Bennet) of John Lahr’s brilliant biography – ‘Prick up your Ears.’