Joe Orton: a talent remembered

[Joe Orton & Kenneth Halliwell]
“Are you the 2.30 or the 2.45?” the ushers of Golders Green Crematorium had inquired matter of factly, without the slightest appreciation or awareness of the unintended pun. Up above, the crackly speaker projected out the words of John Lennon, “I read the news today oh boy” over and over, due to a malfunctioning gramophone needle. Below sat Donald Pleasence and the likes, absorbed in the appellations of Harold Pinter, who was advising the congregation to “not be moved or you’ll miss the joke”. Outside, the TV crews were hankering around like vultures, keen to take advantage of the prominent guests that had come to pay their respects. For this was the funeral of the illuminating playwright, Joe Orton. Indeed a befitting ‘full stop’ for the man whose writings and own brief life had scandalized audiences with its scrutiny of moral corruption, cruelty and sexual rapacity. Today, the adjective ‘ortonesque’ can intimate the oblique innuendo and elaborate on such words as vicious, scathing, vindictive, merciless, scheming, tricky, jocular, tongue-in-cheek, scintillating, extravagant, unorthodox, left-field, piquant, absurd and sensational, – which was everything that Joe was and would have still been today had the hammer-wielding arm of his jealous lover, Kenneth Halliwell, not come down in a rain of exactly nine blows on his unsuspecting body the night of August the 9th, 1967. Kenneth himself then took his own life by swallowing 22 nembutals with the juice from a tin of grapefruit.
©  The Leicester Mercury/Islington Council
© Islington Council
© Islington Council/The Leicester Mercury
Coming to London from the bleakest of upbringings in Leicester during the 1940’s, Joe found himself ‘accidentally’ in the arms of Halliwell during dancing exams at RADA in 1951. Halliwell was a man full of grandiose pretension that Orton mistook for being ‘cultured’ and in a desperate bid to escape his unsophisticated background he formed an alliance with Halliwell, moving into his one-bedroom flat on 25 Noel Road in Islington and living off the dole and Kenneth’s inheritance. (They used the phrase ‘flat-mate’, least we forget these were the days that being openly homosexual was still a capital offence.) Creatively, they proved to be the perfect team – with Halliwell proving to be the learning and disciplining force to the thrill-seeking and almost Dionysian energy of Orton. However, they had a common goal, which was to get educated, get published and be famous. From the confines of their cramped apartment they lived a frugal diet of rice and fish or rice and golden syrup. They did everything together, insisting on attended meetings together, answering the phones mimicking the other to perfection just to confuse the caller, finishing off and correcting the other’s sentence and whilst they would both sit and write together it was Halliwell that at first seemed the most promising of the two. Friends claim he was a brilliant editor, had an astute way of imagining fantastical and elaborate plots with an acute sense of the ridiculous. It was Orton who would sit in the corner, typing up dictations and ideas gushing from Halliwell. Tracing the camp and witty elements through the English literature of Marlowe, Congreve, Austen, Wilde and Firbank they wrote many a fanciful and often horrendously bad spectacle, carving up a cast of ‘queer’ suspects of religious and royal figures that would reappear through all aspects of their later work. Many of their first manuscripts were rejected as being “entertaining…but unpublishable.”

Through lack of serious work and perhaps boredom too, the two would constantly amuse themselves with pranks and mischievous escapades. Orton imagined and assumed the alter ego of Edna Welthorpe (Mrs), a Mary Whitehouse and theatre snob of the 1950’s, – a staunch guardian of public morals through letters that unwittingly prodded authority figures into divulging their own inborn stupidity and narrow-minded stance. Orton would go on to employ Edna as a fierce critique on his own plays even at the height of his fame.

“Dear Sir, I recently purchased a tin of Morton’s blackcurrant pie filling. It was delicious. Choco-full of rich fruit. Then wishing to try another variety, I came upon Smedley’s raspberry pie filling. And I tried that. And really! How can you call such stuff pie filling? There wasn’t a raspberry in it. I was very disappointed after trying Morton’s blackcurrant. Please do better in the future. And what on earth is ‘EDIBLE STARCH’ and ‘LOCUST BEAN GUM’? If that is what you put into your pie fillings I’m not surprised at the result. I shan’t try any more of your pie fillings until the fruit content is considerably higher. My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin. Yours sincerely, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs).”

“Dear Sirs, I am puzzled by several letters I have received from you. Apparently you are under the impression that I am organizing something for you, or at least that someone in this flat is. I assure you that there is no one called Mr Orton living here. I am a widow and dwell alone. You state that catalogues are expensive. I have no doubt that they are, but what, may I ask, has that to do with me. You surely cannot imagine that I have stolen your cata-logue. And as for selling anything which your firm makes…Please believe me if I arrived at the New Acol Bridge Club with a catalogue under my arm and explained to my friends that all goods were at cash prices, yet payable by small weekly installments, why I think they would laugh at me. Will you please stop sending letters to me, or I shall seriously have to consider putting the affair into the hands of my solicitor. Yours faithfully, Edna Welthorpe. (Mrs).”

“Dear Sirs, may I add my thoughts to those of David Benedictus on the subject of those much-talked-of awards? I agree that no one could seriously nominate as the play of the year a piece of indecent tomfoolery like LOOT. Drama should be uplifting. The plays of Joe Orton have a most unpleasant effect on me. I was plunged into the dumps for weeks after seeing ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE. I saw LOOT with my young niece. We both fled from the theatre in horror and amazement well before the end. I could see no humour in it. Yet it is advertised widely as a rib-tickler. Surely this is wrong? I certainly wish Joe Orton joy of his awards. He is a clever young man. Perhaps, in time, he will turn his undoubted talents to more worthwhile subjects. Meantime David Benedictus does well to point out the inadequacies of our present honours system. Yours truly, E. Welthorpe.”

© The Orton Estate/ Leicester City Council

© Appears courtesy of the Islington Local History Centre/The Orton Estate

Another avenue of devilment came in their penchant for defacing library books. Dogging both the South and Central Islington libraries, Joe and Kenneth would smuggle the books out, then vandalize the covers with distasteful collage and doctor the inner jacket blurb with shock-tactics. Replacing the books on the shelves they would retreat and observe their audience’s disapproval with relish. For Joe and Kenneth thrived on ruffling people’s feathers, on seeing how far they could disturb, how far they could surprise, maybe as a way of relieving their forbidden ‘gaiety’ on the public in a way that was still hidden. Joe’s sister, Leonie, claims the family didn’t know about him being gay. It simply wasn’t a discussion point in those days, but she remembers when she and her mother first came to stay, they found a picture of a naked man painted above the sink of the toilet and was under the impression of being ‘set-up’ just in order to see their reactions. So everything was a performance for Joe and Kenneth, an amusement provided by the resulting riposte and repercussion. The librarians only became aware of the books by the increasing consternations of ladies of the ‘elder sort’, and despite themselves finding the matter mildly amusing they found they had to take the matter further because it was, nevertheless, lawless sabotage. Suspicions arose against Orton and Halliwell and when a fake letter about an abandoned car on their street was corresponded, the typewritten answer matched the letter type of the revised blurbs. Both men were sent to prison for a staggering 6 months, which they vehemently believed was more over suspicion of being gay rather than the actual crime itself.

© All book covers appear courtesy of the Islington Local History Centre

Prison had an adverse effect on the men and creatively they seemed to branch off at this point. Orton literally thrived and started writing on his own, whereas Halliwell became quite mentally unstable and expressively stagnant. Orton went on to complete his groundbreaking plays “Entertaining Mr. Sloane’, ‘Loot’ and ‘What the Butler saw’, where in contrast Halliwell became a figure of self pity riding off the success of Joe. The combination that they were living in each others’ pockets in cramped living conditions, of Halliwell’s jealousy for Orton’s rampant predilection for public and promiscuous sex and the actuality that Orton was going everywhere and Halliwell nowhere, – many believe that these factors resulted in a ‘fear’ of sorts in Halliwell. He felt so unhappy and lonely in himself. He no longer wanted to live and being so entwined and dependant on Joe, he did not want to die without him. We will never know the real reasons for his moment of insanity, maybe Kenneth somehow believed that murder may put them on equal footing again. Nevertheless, the ultimate legacy remains with Joe.

[© Photograph by Lichfield, ‘In Group’ commissioned by Jocelyn Stevens on 18th July for Queen Magazine. Back row (left to right) Susannah York, Peter S. Cook, Tom Courtenay, Twiggy, centre row (left to right) Joe Orton, Michael Fish, front row (left to right) Miranda Chiu, Lucy Fleming.]

If there is anything that we can take from their life together is that they were a dedicated, dissident duo who were not only outraged at the lack of acceptance for homosexuality but for all attitudes that were petty and small-minded. For the first time ever, the complete series of surviving defaced book covers has gone on display at the Islington Local History Centre. Ironic that this time round they hold pride of place. It just may go to show just how hard to shock we really now have become.

Malicious Damage exhibition at the Islington Museum, in conjunction with the new book by Ilsa Colsell, runs from 14th of October 2011 – 25th of February 2012.

Other useful links:

Joe Orton Online

Joe’s sister, Leonie Barnet-Orton, Interview

Joe Orton TV Interview

Joe Orton, Arena ‘A genius like us’ excerpt

Prick up your ears Movie Trailer

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Check out my new story on Dennis Severs’ House (my blog post on July 13th, 2010) in Time Out Guide Book  2012 Things to do in London, pgs 172-174.

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About londoninsight

A compassionate photographer working to better her understanding of her town, her village, London.
This entry was posted in Alternative Living, Art, Comedy, Crime and Punishment, Guerilla activity, Interesting Men, Literature, Plays, Shows, Theatre and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Joe Orton: a talent remembered

  1. Don Bross says:

    Wow this was phenomenal, I wish I could write like you. Where did you learn how to make post like that?

  2. teresastokes says:

    I’m a great fan of Orton and have read all his diaries and the excellent memoir Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr. Great fun to see the defaced library books, amazing that they were actually kept all this time and not restored back to their original condition. I wish I had known of this exhibition when it was on. It does seem incredible that the men went to jail for merely defacing library books. I wonder if Robert Helpmann, then in his fifties, ever knew what they had done to that book on him!

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