Joe Orton

From Academic Kids

Joe Orton (January 1, 1933, Leicester, England - August 9, 1967, Islington, London) was a satirical modern playwright. In a short but brilliant career from 1964 until his death he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. Ortonesque became a recognized term for "outrageously macabre".


Early Life

He was born John Kingsley Orton in Leicester to a poor working class family and grew up on the Saffron Lane council estate with a brother and two sisters. He was poorly educated at an unsuitable private school, Clark's College, from 1945 to 1947 before starting menial work as a clerk. He became interested in performing and joined a number of different dramatic socities, while working to improve his appearance and physique. He then lost his job and still 'stage-struck' applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1950. He was accepted, and left the Midlands for London with little regret.

Meeting with Kenneth Halliwell

Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951, moving into a flat with him and three other students in June. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means. They quickly formed a strong relationship. Neither did well at the academy although Halliwell did worse. After graduating both went into regional repertory work but soon returned to London, moving into a small and austere flat in Islington in 1959. They lived on Halliwell's money and the dole, working occasionally and making friends and contacts in London, among them the actor Kenneth Williams.

Pranks and hoaxes

They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels, but lack of serious work led them to amuse themselves with pranks and hoaxes. In one episode, Orton and Halliwell borrowed books from the local library, and would subtly modify the cover art or the blurbs. A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned to the library with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed middle-aged man. They were eventually discovered, and prosecuted for this in May, 1962. The incident was reported in the national newspaper the Daily Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses". They were charged with damaging more than 70 books and were jailed for six months.

Ironically the books that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have become the most valued of the Islington Library service collection.

Orton as playwright

Neither Orton or Halliwell had much success as a novelist but in the early 1960s Orton began to write plays. He wrote his last novel in 1961 and following the praise for a 1962 reject he finally had a work accepted. In 1963 the BBC paid for The Boy Hairdresser, it was broadcast in August 1964 as The Ruffian on the Stair.

Orton revelled in his achievements and poured out new works. Over the next two years he had two full-length plays staged, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, as well as three shorter works broadcast by Rediffusion. Critical opinion was wildly divided, but certain influential figures such as Terence Rattigan ensured his work was performed. Sloane, which opened in the New Arts Theatre transferred to the West End within a month and was being performed in New York, Spain, Israel and Australia within a year as well as being made into a film and a television play. He was even approached by the Beatles, writing the screenplay Up Against It for them, but the project fizzled out.

Orton's violent death

In 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer and immediately committed suicide with Nembutal tablets. Halliwell, who had supported and loved Orton, felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates.

A biography entitled Prick Up Your Ears, a title Orton himself had considered using, was published in the 1970s by John Lahr (son of Bert Lahr).



The 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears is based on his life. Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, and Vanessa Redgrave. The screenplay was written by Alan Bennett. The interior used for Joe and Ken's flat was the actual flat where they lived. It is at 25 Noel Road Islington, London.

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