When police finally broke into the tiny, dirty bedsit apartment in North London, even the most hardened were nauseated by what they witnessed. Blood was everywhere. Lying on the bed was the body of the younger of the two men, his head cratered as a result of nine fierce blows from the hammer that lay on his chest. The bloodied naked corpse of the older man lay prostrate on the floor, dead from a massive overdose of barbiturates.
The plot which soon unravelled is the stuff of murder mysteries. One of the two deceased was indeed a writer and a highly successful one at that. But mystery novels were far from his genre. Outrageously gay and totally promiscuous mostly at a time when gay men had to stay very much in the closet, Joe Orton was one of the exceptions. Hailing from a cheap housing estate in the city of Leicester, Joe had left school early, later proudly telling friends, "I'm from the gutter." He knew he was gay and he did not care who else knew it. Rough trade was his delight. He'd soon be cruising around London's public lavatories and red light districts, later filling volumes of diaries with details of each encounter.
By the Swinging Sixties, London was finally breaking free from the deprivations of the post-war era. It was a time when Britain led the world in almost everything from Carnaby Street fashion to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Were his diaries how Joe came to realise he had a talent for writing? Who knows? Eventually he won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to study acting. At RADA in 1951 he met a fellow student seven years older, a withdrawn, morose, insecure and prematurely balding man from a wealthier family named Kenneth Halliwell. No one seemed to like Halliwell much, whereas the impish, no-nonsense Joe was the life and soul of every gathering. What Joe saw in Halliwell apart from as a cash cow is equally mysterious. There is no doubt that at the start of their relationship Halliwell, being the more educated of the pair, did help Joe quite considerably with his writing. That apart, though, perhaps it was simply that the adage 'opposites attract' was true in their case. Even so, the relationship did absolutely nothing to stop Joe's promiscuous behaviour.
On leaving RADA, both tried their hands at acting, without much success, writing and then doing various other jobs. They even landed in jail for a few months for defacing hundreds of library books. On their release, they spent the rest of their lives in a dingy one-room flat in North London. Eventually, Joe's superior writing skills resulted in one of his plays being produced. A modest success, he then embarked on what was to become his first major hit.
"Entertaining Mr. Sloane" was very much a play of its time. Kath, a bored middle-aged spinster, runs a boarding house. One day a strikingly handsome. blonde young man calls looking for a room. Kath fancies this Mr. Sloane. When her younger brother Ed arrives, he too fancies the stranger. But Sloane is a psychopath who goes on to murder their ailing father. When brother and sister find this out, they come to an agreement. In return for not reporting the crime, Sloane will spend a few months of each year bedding first one and then the other.
It was typical Orton, black comedy with serious overtones of sex, scandal and a middle finger raised against the conventions of the day. Some were outraged. As Orton became more famous with his ensuing plays "Loot" and "What the Butler Saw", one Edna Welthorpe was a constant presence in the letters' columns of the major daily newspapers, writing about "the filth" and "moral disgrace" of Orton's plays. Welthorpe was none other than Orton himself! Ever the prankster, he was merely engaging in a bit of self-promotion. He laughed all the way to the bank!
As Orton's success grew worldwide, Halliwell's career went nowhere. Popping all manner of pills to keep depression at bay, he grew both intensely jealous of Joe's success and desperately afraid he would leave him. They took a long, 80-day holiday in the very gay resort of Tangier bedding all the trade that came their way. But it did nothing to allay Halliwell's fears.
Joe was finally in a position to live the good life if that’s what he wanted. He had been asked to write the screenplay for a new Beatles movie. He had just signed a contract for the American film rights to his second play “Loot” – for £25,000, an enormous sum in those days and the equivalent of almost £500,000 today. Soon Joe told a journalist friend that he had started another relationship and would finally leave Kenneth. Did Kenneth find out? Was Joe really serious? Again we will never know.
Whatever the reason, Kenneth’s increasingly tormented mind could take no more. He bludgeoned Joe to death before committing suicide. It was August 1967. Joe was just 34 years old. Many regarded him as one of the brightest creative talents the theatre had ever known.
Apart from his plays, Joe's life and success is perhaps best known today as a result of the biography written after his death. In 1987 this was made into a film with Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina and Vanessa Redgrave. Appropriately both have the title, "Prick up Your Ears", ears being a very obvious anagram for ‘arse’! Joe would have loved it!
Anything and everything about gay life anywhere in the world, especially Asia, other than Thailand.
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