Joe Orton has been pricking up my ears lately.
On a recent visit to London, thanks to the randomised wonder of ‘dating apps’ – or online cottaging – I found myself, as you do, visiting someone I didn’t know terribly well but wanted to get to know much better. He happened to live on Noel Road, Islington. This is the road where, at No.25, the 1960s queer playwright and keen old skool pre-internet cottager Joe Orton famously lived – and died, fifty years ago next year – in a bedsit with his rather less successful, less attractive, less popular, but possibly more talented, older partner and co-conspirator: the would-be novelist and dodgy toupee enthusiast, Kenneth Halliwell.
Having walked the length of it on the way to my ‘meet’, and past No.25 with its plaque, I can report that Noel Road is definitely no longer the slightly slummy street of rooming houses it was in Orton’s time. Full of new Porsches and Jaguars, the street’s rooming houses seem to have mostly been turned back into very wealthy, if rather lonely family homes. With no doubt the very latest in Wallpaper magazine interior design and decor.
But I expect none of them have anything like the seriously classy wallpaper that Joe and Kenneth had in their bedsit flat at 25 Noel Road. Apparently angered by the ‘rubbish novels and books’ – and perhaps by the poor quality of the general culture they found themselves sentenced to in late 50s early 60s Britain – they used plates culled from books purloined from Islington Central Library to cover the dingy walls of their 16 x 12 room.
Public-spirited vandals, they selflessly improved the dust-jackets of some of the dusty books with their own collages – replacing them on the library shelves, Orton sometimes observing at a distance people’s reaction to their irreverent sabotage:
‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’
The art deviant odd couple eventually had their collars felt by Lilly Law, and were sentenced in 1962 to six months imprisonment – a harsh tariff for first offenders which Orton put down to the fact that the judge had realised ‘we were queers’. The case made the national press, with Orton’s working class family in Leicester only hearing about it after reading a report in the Daily Mirror: ‘Our Joe’s been nicked!’ exclaimed Mr Orton to Mrs Orton. The custodial sentence, served in separate prisons, seems to have broken Halliwell, who tried to commit suicide, but was the making of Orton – who emerged determined to shock more than just a few fortunate readers at Islington Central Library.
In a sense, their criminal collage was the only joint work which was a ‘success’, or at least reached a wider audience. It was also Orton’s first, minor taste of notoriety, before his first play Entertaining Mr Sloane became a huge hit and scandal three years later in 1964, with its dramatic ‘collage’ of British hypocrisies. It was also Halliwell’s last. Not counting his posthumous fame for murdering Orton by attacking his celebrity head with a hammer in 1967 in a drug-fuelled, possibly jealous and/or paranoid state – splattering his brains all over the collage-covered walls.
Last Sunday BBC Radio 3 also pricked up my ears, airing ‘The Visa Affair’ (which you can listen to for the next month) – a fine adaptation by the novelist Jake Arnott of a previously ‘lost’ and incomplete work of Orton’s about his Byzantine attempts in 1965 to obtain a visa to visit the US to oversee the Broadway translation/production of ‘Mr Sloane’.
The prison sentence he’d served for the collages, together with the nature of the crime itself – denoting, in disapproving American official eyes, ‘moral turpitude’ – meant he had to go through a series of darkly comic interviews with US bureaucrats and doctors at the US Embassy in London, which as Arnott points out in his introduction to his adaptation, closely resembles the kind of officious absurdities his own plays lampooned.
This is much more than just an adaptation, however. Partly because, as Arnott explains in his introduction to the play, The Visa Affair was incomplete, and partly because it could not, pre decriminalisation of male homosexuality (which happened in the UK in July 1967 – the month before Orton’s death) ever be really completed. Orton could not be ‘completely’ honest with either the US Embassy or the British public about the real nature of the ‘conspiracy’ between him and Halliwell, and the motivation for their cultural sabotage.
Hence Arnott adds scenes set in the infamous tiny bedsit that deftly and touchingly explore Orton and Halliwell’s conspiratorial (“‘breath together’ – that’s what ‘conspire’ means”) relationship. How Halliwell cultivated and tutored Orton’s talent, and their shared darkly comic – ‘camp’, if you insist – sense of humour. Anatomising their ‘crime of passion’.
Although I very much enjoyed the film version of Alan Bennett’s play Prick Up Your Ears when it was released in 1987, I think Arnott captures something much more convincingly intimate. As well as a boyish vulnerability in Orton that Oldman’s swaggering, slightly renty portrayal obscures with bravura. Sexy bravura to be sure, but perhaps bravura all the same.
Arnott’s The Visa Affair achieves something remarkable, something that no one has really tried before: it lets you glimpse what Joe might have seen in his bald, impossible, unpopular and ultimately murderous ‘flatmate’.
Alan Bennett’s screenplay was actually based on John Lahr’s biography. It’s been a while since I read it, but it does go into Orton’s early pre-RADA theatrical experiences (Tyltyl in Maeterlick’s Blue Bird). And also (I think) that he was a switch-hitter, having a go with a cousin at mum’s funeral party.