Hey Joe 12

I want to be the most perfectly physically developed writer of my generation (Morley Portrait)


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.

3 Orton Defaced Dust Jackets

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.’

12 thoughts on “Hey Joe

  1. Reply Shehanne Moore Apr 30,2017 1:03 pm

    Fascinating post Paul. One that tops the lists of blog catch ups today. I know ‘Entertinaing’ and ‘What the BS’ and yep he was cut down I feel before he could realize his full potential.

    • Reply Paul Apr 30,2017 7:47 pm

      Dear Shey, you are so right he was brilliant and yet everything is of its time and ages up to the point where it becomes a classic. Then it’s safe for posterity and taught in schools! I think many successful works are victims of their success because their style influences those who come after them. As Orton’s quick fire lines and outrageousness became the norm we lost sight of how revolutionary it was at the time. In your music choices you had the Beatles…That’s why I included the bit about Orton writing the film script for them and why it would never get made… There is a lot more to the story I couldn’t do justice to in the time, but basically it had Brian Epstein frothing at the mouth that Orton was prepared to sully this carefully sculptured wholesome image of his product. Somehow I don’t think the Beatles would have cared given how intelligent, creative and anarchic each of them were.

  2. Reply Robbie Cheadle Apr 26,2017 5:15 am

    Another fascinating post, Paul. I had not heard of this man or his plays but they do sound right up my street.

    • Reply Paul Apr 26,2017 11:24 pm

      Dear Robbie, check out the you tube links in the article- the film about him is a really good place to start and stars a young Gary Oldman

  3. Reply dgkaye Apr 25,2017 2:57 pm

    Funny, I had only ever known about Joe Orton, also from mention in the bio of Brian Epstein. You are such a wonderful historian Paul, and I have only to pop over to learn about another slice of nostalgia. 🙂

    • Reply Paul Apr 25,2017 11:30 pm

      Dear Debby, thanks so much for the compliment but I am not really such a good historian… I just come across interesting things and get curious. I think it is to do with my Chinese Horoscope sign…the Year of the Monkey… But that doesn’t mean I won’t take the compliment!!!! Luv PX

  4. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Kevin Morris, Curry Lives, D.G.Kaye, Paul Andruss and Thom Hickey | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  5. Reply Sally Cronin Apr 23,2017 9:03 am

    I of course had heard of the plays but never saw the film versions. It would have have been intersting to see where he would have gone as far as his career was concerned and it is a tragedy that he died so young. It seems to be a pattern with some talented people that they burn as a bright candle for a short time and are snuffed out. Like Bolan they leave behind a legacy that is perpetuated by the tragedy of a short life.

    I am sorry that he did not love someone who gave him a life he deserved. Another brilliant expose of the life behind the work.

    • Reply Paul Apr 23,2017 10:58 pm

      Thanks Sally, so glad you enjoyed it. You are absolutely right it is a massive tragedy when people get cut down even before they have realised their potential no matter what that might be and it is so wrong that others think they have some form of ownership of another person… to the extent that they feel no mater what they do it is somehow justified.

  6. Reply Stepen Perkins Apr 22,2017 9:06 pm

    In a biography of the life of Brian Epstein, Marianne Faithful talked about Joe Orton, the Beatles, and Andy Warhol as all part of a cohesive and coordinated art movement to change society-fascinating.

    • Reply Paul Apr 22,2017 11:38 pm

      Hi Stephen I am really pleased that this post resonated with what you have been reading and thinking about. That biography of Brian Epstein sounds right up my street I will start looking out for it. All my best mate and thanks for alerting me to it. Paul

Leave a Reply




%d bloggers like this: