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You are in: Leicester > Entertainment > Theatre and Arts > Features > The Essence of Orton

Joe Orton (Photo: Leicester Mercury)

Not so average Joe

The Essence of Orton

It's been almost 40 years since Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton died. During his life he was known as many things: from a rising star of the new working class culture, to a criminal, and then finally, a murder victim. His sisters tell his story.

According to Leonie Orton, the essence of her brother Joe was not found in his risqué black comedies or in his 'Jack the lad' reputation, but in the way he treated her and their other sister, Marilyn:

"He was a perfect gentleman, very kind and considerate - absolutely charming."

So who was the real Joe Orton?

Listen: Interview with Leonie and Marilyn Orton

BBC Leicester's Katharine Sutton spoke to Joe Orton's sisters about his childhood, his rise to stardom and his relationship with Leicester…

From his early life on the Saffron Lane Estate, to his dramatic death in Islington Orton's legacy lives on – and sometimes in the places you'd least expect.

Joe's Leicester

Orton was born in 1933 and lived with his mother, father, younger brother, Douglas, and two younger sisters on Fayrhurst Road in Leicester.

Leonie (left) and Marilyn Orton

Leonie (left) and Marilyn Orton

According to Leonie and Marilyn, Joe's childhood was not a very happy one, as their working class family had little money so their house was always cold and they were left alone for hours when their parents went out to work.

"Poverty", "routine" and "ordinary" are the words that Leonie uses to describe her brother's view of the city, and his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) at the age of 18 was his way of escaping an unpleasant past:

"The thing is with Joe, and a lot of people, is that we have energy, we have ambition, but you have to have the opportunity to channel it somewhere – to find a channel for it – and fortunately for Joe he found the amateur theatre.

"First here in Leicester, and from there he realised that there was an escape route, and he took it like a rat up a drainpipe."

Kenneth Halliwell

At RADA he met Kenneth Halliwell, who would become his friend, mentor, lover and eventually murderer.

Halliwell was an actor and writer, seven years older than Orton, and he had a great influence on the young playwright's work.

Joe Orton (Photo: Leicester Mercury)

Leicester-born Joe Orton

For the 13 years that they were together they lived an almost monastic life.

They didn't work for long periods of time, so to keep their outgoings low, they went to bed when it got dark outside so as not to use electricity.

However, according to Leonie, the relationship was unequal from the start.

Halliwell was Oxbridge educated and with a substantial inheritance, whereas Orton was a "working class kid from Leicester." Orton had great respect for Halliwell though and thought he was a wonderful editor.

But upbringing was not the only difference. Orton was openly promiscuous, whereas Halliwell preferred monogamy, and it is thought that it was this difference that lead to Orton's murder.


Orton began writing plays in the early 1960s, with 'Entertaining Mr Sloane', 'Loot' and 'What the butler saw' becoming some of his most famous work.

"I think maybe he would have dried up as far as a writer was concerned. Because very often writers have a life, especially dramatists."

Leonie Orton

Audiences were amused and outraged by his dark comedies of sex and death, and the term 'Ortonesque' has become a recognised term for 'outrageously macabre':

"His plays were controversial at the time, don't forget. 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' is about a young guy who is bisexual, and who shares Kathy and Eddie.

"They're vying for his affection, and that's pretty hot stuff for the 1960s, you know – when you'd still go to prison for committing a homosexual act."

Orton revelled in his success and poured out more plays, but whereas he was working hard, energised and happy, Halliwell was increasingly depressed and argumentative.

'Leicester criminal dies'

Leonie and Marilyn believe that their brother didn't realise how ill Halliwell was, and had no intention of leaving Halliwell in the days before his mentor and lover killed him.

During the night of 09 August 1967, Halliwell killed the 34-year-old playwright with nine hammer blows to the head, then committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Halliwell's suicide note referred to Orton's diary, "especially the latter part", to give an explanation of his actions but the last eight days had been ripped out, so the reason that Halliwell supposedly killed Orton remains a mystery.

When Orton's death was reported in Leicester the local newspaper headline dubbed him a "criminal", in reference to his spell in prison for vandalising library books.

Orton's legacy

August 2007 will be the 40th anniversary of Orton's death, but his influence can still be found in the most unlikely places.

Joe Orton (Photo: Leicester Mercury)

Orton moved to London in 1951

Leicester-born author Sue Towsend recently joined Leonie and Marilyn to give a talk on 'Ornate Suburbia' as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival 2007, and said that her most famous character was deeply influenced by Orton.

Like the playwright, Adrian Mole believed deeply in his own extraordinariness, using formal and pretentious language as a way of distinguishing himself from the masses.

So if Orton was alive now, would he have continued in the same outrageous strain? Leonie thinks not:

"I think maybe he would have dried up as far as a writer was concerned. Because very often writers have a life, especially dramatists.

"Think of Harold Pinter, you know, he's not written anything for years, and I just think maybe he would have gone into the pursuit of happiness."

last updated: 19/06/2008 at 18:08
created: 21/02/2007

You are in: Leicester > Entertainment > Theatre and Arts > Features > The Essence of Orton

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