I’ve always been fascinated by the writing of, and indeed, the legend of playwright Joe Orton. It was so refreshing to discover someone who was, shock horror, a confident homosexual in the 60s rather than some simpering, guilt-ridden closet case. I remember when I arrived in London to study film, a friend told me about an organised tour entitled The Joe Orton Walk that went to the sites of public lavatories where Joe looked for casual sex. A worthy tribute as ever there was one.
Stephen Frears’ 1987 film adapts John Lahr’s fantastic biography of Joe with the working-class boy from Leicester venturing to London to join the RADA (darling) and pursue a career in acting. It’s here that he meets Kenneth Halliwell who becomes his partner and co-conspirator. But this union would come to a horrifying conclusion as the tutored (Orton) would eclipse his teacher (Halliwell) and accomplish everything he wanted to but that which was beyond his grasp (you could say it was ‘Beyond Our Ken’ haha).
We get a fantastic depiction of being gay in London in the 1960s where sex was everywhere with a knowing look or if you knew the relevant places to frequent. We also get a vivid depiction of the gay paradise of that era, Morocco.
Orton was ‘punk’ before ‘punk’. His plays poked fun at society’s hypocrisies through his amazing use of language and his fantastic, laser-sharp wit. The library books he altered the covers of and wrote new liner notes for were another example of his playful subversion. I love the fact that the existing examples of these books have now been preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come. And to think that this act actually earned Orton and Halliwell six months holiday at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Outrageous.
Frears’s directs amazingly aided and abetted by a screenplay by none other than Alan Bennett. The cast is also uniformly brilliant with Prick Up Your Ears being an example of perfect casting- Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as the regal but irreverent Peggy Ramsey.
I also loved the parallels between Kenneth Halliwell and Lahr’s wife that the film establishes. This is very perceptive indeed.
And something else which is remarkable about the film is that it’s currently on YouTube for your delectation. Watch it before it gets taken down.