Joe Orton “is still persuading people to just be yourself and do whatever makes you happy”
- Credit: Archant
His sister, Leonie Orton says: “Over the years, young men I’ve never met have come up to say they were closeted until they read Joe’s diary, that’s part of his legacy.”
Joe Orton’s youngest sister didn’t know about his sexuality in his lifetime, only learning about her brother through his risqué plays and explicit diaries.
For 73-year-old Leonie, his murder on August 9, 1967 was both a private and public tragedy.
“In his last two plays he really had found his voice,” she says.
“The great shame is that Kenneth took his life when he was right at the top of his game.”
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She adds: “It’s difficult to put into words even now the sorrow and awful tragedy of losing a dearly beloved brother. I still reminisce about the times I spent with him, how endearing he was towards me – he would have been in his 80s now and I often think ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful be able to jump on the train and go down to London – I don’t think he would have left London - to ring him up and say I’m coming for a couple of days’. Of course I miss that.”
Back in the 60s when she would visit Joe and his partner Kenneth Halliwell at their flat in Noel Road Islington she was a young mother.
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“Being uneducated as I was, I was more nervous about saying the wrong thing but now having managed to do a degree with the Open University I would have been able to talk to him. Now I could say anything to him.”
Ironically it was revenue from Joe’s estate that helped fund her studies.
“I had two small children and couldn’t have afforded to do O Levels. Him dying bought me the opportunity to get an education – he would have thought that money had not been wasted.”
Orton was raised in a working class Leicester family and Leonie recalls a brother who was “lovely and kind, never condescending.”
“He was always a funny boy, not jokey, he would say things that shocked you.
“Like when he took my sister to see Jailhouse Rock and said Elvis gyrating ‘looks like he’s having a wank’ She was shocked!”
His diaries, which inspired the 1987 movie Prick Up Your Ears, detailed his casual sex in London’s cottaging spots.
“Over the years, young men I’ve never met have come up to say they were closeted until they read Joe’s diary, that’s part of his legacy. He’s still persuading people to just be yourself and do whatever makes you happy.”
As co-administrator of his estate she is set to appear at several events marking the 50th anniversary of his death: “Each successive generation are finding him anew. The plays are still going on all over the world. He’s a popular and important playwright who loved overstepping the bounds - go and see Loot, you will still be shocked by these two boys on stage messing about with a woman’s body. When they did What The Butler Saw in Leicester recently, audiences were packing the theatre every night. It’s anarchic but also wonderfully entertaining.”
Leonie believes her brother meant the diaries to be published.
“It’s like he wants to be this really tough guy, but he wasn’t that tough he just wasn’t prepared to show that underbelly. Being gay in the early 60s you could be given aversion therapy or evil stuff..”
Leonie only met Halliwell “five or six times” but has mixed feelings about the man who killed Joe before committing suicide.
“I’ve never heard anybody say anything nice about Kenneth, people who knew him say he was morose, always complaining about Joe or correcting him in public. People didn’t want him around and he was more and more marginalised angry and depressed.
“People say ‘I feel sorry for Ken’ but never ever do I see a poor Kenneth. Take your own life if you don’t want to live ithis world, but he didn’t have to take Joe’s.
“It was selfish. No-one else was going to share him or have any part of him.”
It’s 50 years since homosexual sex was decriminalised and when Orton was writing his authority-baiting plays he could only refer to his real life through innuendo.
Michael Fentiman who directs Orton’s Loot says like Shakespeare, he imbued his plays with ambiguity to protect himself from state monitoring.
“He was writing at a time when it was illegal for him to be homosexual. To express himself as an artist he had to put that in his plays in a creative way to avoid being shot down by the censor.”
Until 1968 The Lord Chamberlain licensed new plays and could prosecute or make cuts if they weren’t fit for ‘good manners and decorum’. Loot had several phrases excised and Mrs McLeavy’s corpse had to be shrouded before being stuffed in a cupboard.
“Police were waiting in the wings but the play was too clever for them. When Joe was sentenced to eight months for defacing books at Islington Library they were really punishing him for being gay but couldn’t prove it.”
The Beatles had just released Sgt Pepper and Loot was in the West End when Orton was killed by Kenneth Halliwell at their Islington flat. At his funeral at Golders Green cemetery, Harold Pinter read the eulogy and the coffin entered to A Day in The Life.
Fentiman says the farcical comedy featuring a coffin, two bank robbers, ill gotten cash and a psycopathic copper “stands the test of time.”
“It’s a major play by a post-war writer. It’s beautiful writing, freewheeling, surreal and gives intelligent dry, dark wit to working class characters while subversively whipping up amoral naughtiness.
“Even though the play attacks, the church and police; institutions we’re now more used to seeing attacked, its poking fun at hypocrisy and contradiction is universal. It’s very much a 60s play but the human themes never die.”
Fentiman adds that the production is “a celebration of Joe’s life marking an important writer and a life cut short.”
“Orton found earnestness and prurience ridiculous so any po-faced attempt to make his death tragic he’d find absurd. It’s better to understand his wit, energy, and contempt for authority rather than treating him as a bit of history.”
Loot runs at The Park Theatre Aug 17-September 24.