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.
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