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Celebrating 50 years of Joe Orton

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter


"I hope I've never written anything as bad as some of the early Shakespeare's," Joe Orton said shortly before he was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967.

It's a clip from an archive interview with the BBC, which I included in a piece for the Today Programme, marking the 50th anniversary of Orton's first stage play, Entertaining Mr Sloane.

The play was controversial. Some critics dismissed it as corrupting and smutty. But as legendary impresario Sir Michael Codron told me, the rumpus was good for ticket sales.

This collage is from one of the many scrapbooks Orton put artfully together using press clippings and memorabilia from his life and plays.

They form part of an exhibition organised by Dr Emma Parker at Leicester University - now the repository for the extensive Orton archive - which opens this weekend.

The same scrapbook also contains this ticket, the very one which was given to Orton to see his show when it opened in 1964 at the Arts Theatre. The play made quite a splash and transferred to the West End.

image copyrightCOLIN G BROOKS ABIPP

Terrance Rattigan was one of the investors in the production's transfer who thought Orton was an impressive playwright - but the feeling was not reciprocated.

Orton loathed the cosiness and politeness of Rattigan's writing and aspirational situations. He saw himself as an iconoclast.

He was furious - particularly after he and Kenneth had been imprisoned for defacing library books.

The working class lad from Leicester had been brought up on a sprawling council estate. The family had very little money: he had very little education.

He wanted to destroy society, expose what he saw as the hypocrisy and lies upon which it operated. He took sex as a subject because he thought it could be used as a subversive tool to achieve his aims.

Mind you the most radical part of Entertaining Mr Sloane, the bit at the end, was an idea Sir Michael said Orton owed to him.

image captionSir Michael Codron speaks with Will Gompertz

Sir Michael was given the play to read because its publishers had failed to get a response from Joan Littlewood, to whom they sent it first.

At the time he was putting on a new play every four weeks - something that seems remarkable now. He immediately saw the then-unknown Orton's talent and thought he wrote with an elegance and insight reminiscent of Jane Austen.

But he wasn't sure about the ending, which originally had Mr Sloane murdered.

He suggested to Orton he change it, which he did. The new denouement saw Kath and her brother Ed sharing Mr Sloane which, Sir Michael says, got it labelled as a 'dirty play'.

It went from the West End to Broadway. This is a picture from the time: autumn 1965. Joe Orton is standing outside the Lyceum Theatre in New York.

If he looks hacked-off, he was hacked-off. Entertaining Mr Sloan was his first play, it had done well in London, it had done very well in previews in New York. Tennessee Williams came to see it - twice - but the New York Times Theatre critic lambasted the play saying it was disgusting and should be thrown into the Atlantic. It only ran for a couple of weeks.

Sheila Hancock played Kath in that Broadway production and Orton thought she was perfect for the part. He wrote to Kenneth to tell him so…

Sheila Hancock told me that, although the show didn't work out in America, they all had a great time - particularly Orton, who had to be constantly retrieved from this club or that house.

He was a lovely man, apparently. He liked to walk through Central Park with Hancock's mother while the actress pushed a pram in which her young baby slept. He wrote beautifully. The actress said the rhythms of his writing meant if you got just one word wrong the whole passage collapsed.

His legacy is a series of ground-breaking plays that inspired writers from Harold Pinter to Hanif Kureishi.

He was bold and brave: a gay playwright at a time when being homosexual was still illegal. The 50th anniversary of his stage playwriting debut is worth marking.

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