A Genius Like Us: A Portrait of Joe Orton


Last week’s reading was the script of Joe Orton’s Loot after finding one of the first published editions of the play. Reading a play is never the same as seeing it performed, of course, but it’s still very funny, and many of its digs at police corruption haven’t dated at all. There is a film of Loot but it’s poor stuff, with Richard Attenborough miscast as the belligerent Inspector Truscott. Much better is Douglas Hickox’s film of Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970) which appeared shortly before Loot, and which is worth seeing for Beryl Reid reprising her stage role as the unfortunate Kath.


Orton’s brief career—a mere four years from complete obscurity in 1963 to his death at the hands of partner Kenneth Halliwell in 1967—is explored in A Genius Like Us: A Portrait of Joe Orton, a 70-minute BBC Arena documentary from 1982. Anyone who’s seen Prick Up Your Ears (1987)—Stephen Frears’ Orton biopic with a script by Alan Bennett—will be familiar with the train of events. Pamela Brighton and Nigel Williams’ film interviews some of the real people who appear in Prick Up Your Ears, notably surviving members of Orton’s family and Orton biographer John Lahr. In addition there’s a substantial contribution from Kenneth Williams, a close friend of Orton and Halliwell’s who was also badly miscast as Inspector Truscott in the first disastrous performances of Loot. Between the interviews there are some scenes from a lacklustre TV performance of Loot, a stage performance of What the Butler Saw, and bits of Entertaining Mr Sloane.


Previously on { feuilleton }
Malicious Damage
Joe Orton Online
Joe Orton

Weekend links 186


One Hundred Lavish Months of Bushwhack (2004) by Wangechi Mutu.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to call Benjamin Noys’ contribution to the recent The Weird conference at the University of London a highlight, but it was a surprise to find Lord Horror in general and the Reverbstorm book in particular being discussed alongside so many noteworthy offerings. Noys’ piece, Full Spectrum Offence: Savoy’s Neo-Weird, is now available to read online, a very perceptive examination of the tensions between the Old Weird and the New.

• Le Transperceneige is a multi-volume bande dessinée of post-apocalypse science fiction by Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette. Snowpiercer is a film adaptation by Korean director Bong Joon-ho featuring John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Anne Billson calls the director’s cut an “eccentric masterpiece” so it’s dismaying to learn that the film is in danger of being hacked about by the usual rabble of unsympathetic Hollywood distributors.

• This month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Public Domain Review posted some of the paintings mentioned in Swann’s Way (or The Way by Swann’s as the latest translation so inelegantly has it).

How the Paris World’s Fair brought Art Nouveau to the Masses in 1900: a huge picture post about my favourite exposition.

• Mix of the week: “Sport of Kings” Mix by Ricardo Donoso. Related: Paul Purgas on five favourite records.

Ernst Reichl: the man who designed Ulysses. Related: Hear all of Finnegans Wake read aloud over 35 hours.

• “Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?” A splendid rant by Sam Kriss.

• Love’s Secret Ascension: Peter Bebergal on Coil, Coltrane & the 70th birthday of LSD.

• Malicious Damage: Ilsa Colsell on the secret art of Joe Orton & Kenneth Halliwell.

• Just Say No to the Bad Sex Award, or the BS Award as Tom Pollock calls it.

• Lauren O’Neal’s ongoing PJ Harvey Tuesdays: One, Two, Three and Four.

Neville Brody on the changing face of graphic design.

A Brief History of the London Necropolis Railway.

Des Hommes et des Chatons: a Tumblr.

• At Pinterest: Androgyny

• Virgin Prunes: Pagan Lovesong (vibeakimbo) (1982) | Caucasian Walk (1982) | Walls Of Jericho (live at The Haçienda, Manchester, 1983; I’m in that audience somewhere)

Weekend links 180


One of Jonathan Andrew‘s photos of coastal bunkers and concrete defences from the Second World War. In 2006 JG Ballard looked at the way these structures embody the functional nature of Modernist architecture.

• “Utamaro, whose prints of famous courtesans were regarded as the very models of sober beauty by 19th-century Western collectors, in fact produced more Shunga books and albums than non-erotic works.” Adrian Hamilton on the Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art exhibition.

• “…in Samoa, as in many traditional cultures around the world, androphilic males occupy a special transgendered category.” Alice Dreger on gay male couples and evolution.

• Robert Fuest’s film of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel, The Final Programme (1973), is out on (Region 2) DVD this month.

Masked by reticence and cloaked in tweeds, [Herbert] Read was the unexpectedly ardent and frighteningly prolific champion of nearly everything that was radical in the first half of the twentieth century: Imagism, Surrealism, abstraction, the Bauhaus, Marxism, anarchism, Freud and Jung, progressive education, Gandhian nonviolent resistance. Though now somewhat dimly remembered, he was, for decades, the Victoria Station of the arts, England’s primary explainer of the modern.

Eliot Weinberger introduces Herbert Read’s strange fantasy novel, The Green Child (1935).

• KW Jeter’s steampunk novel Fiendish Schemes is published (with my cover art) by Tor on the 15th. There’s an extract here.

• Mix of the week: An early Halloween mix (and interview) from Joseph Stannard of The Outer Church.

• At Dangerous Minds: Codex Seraphinianus: A New Edition of the Strangest Book in the World.

A trailer for the forthcoming Blu-ray release of Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

• Kenneth Halliwell: lover, killer… artist? Philip Hoare on the collages of Joe Orton’s partner.

• Clive Hicks-Jenkins looks back at Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête here, here and here.

Anastasia Ivanova‘s photo portraits of lesbian couples in Russia.

Christopher Fox on electronic music’s sound of futures past.

• At Strange Flowers: Melchior Lechter’s book designs.

Vaughan Oliver‘s favourite 4AD album covers.

Swinging Sixties Japanese film posters.

John Foxx’s favourite albums

Beauty And The Beast (1977) by David Bowie | Slow Motion (1978) by Ultravox | I Am The Green Child (2000) by Coil

Malicious Damage


I was going to title this post “Fucked by Monty” but thought that might give the wrong impression. The phrase was one of several titles added to the cover of The Collected Plays of Emelyn Williams by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell when they were happily defacing the books of Islington Library, London, in the early 1960s. Despite the outrage of the librarians at the vandalism most of the defaced books were put aside and are now prized items in Islington’s collection. This week the library announced an exhibition of the books, Malicious Damage: The crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. The Guardian has a gallery of the covers here (and there’s more at Joe Orton central), rare examples of what might be called “guerilla collage”.

In addition to tarting up boring cover designs, Orton and Halliwell also typed their own descriptions of some the books’ contents. Gollancz volumes were apparently good for this since the publisher left the inside of their famous yellow dust jackets blank. John Lahr in Prick Up Your Ears gives an example from a Dorothy L Sayers novel which is also read out in the 1987 film adaptation:

When little Betty Macdree says that she has been interfered with, her mother at first laughs. It is only something the kiddy has picked up off television. But when sorting through the laundry, Mrs. Macdree discovers that a new pair of knickers are missing she thinks again. On being questioned, Betty bursts into tears. Mrs. Macdree takes her to the police station and to everyone’s surprise the little girl identifies P.C. Brenda Coolidge as her attacker. Brenda, a new recruit, denies the charge. A search is made of the Women’s Police Barracks. What is found there is a seven inch phallus and a pair of knickers of the kind used by Betty. All looks black for kindly P.C. Coolidge…. What can she do? This is one of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers.

It is the only one in which the murder weapon is concealed, not for reasons of fear but for reasons of decency!

READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. And have a good shit while you are reading!

Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears and that line about “It is only something the kiddy has picked up off television” could well have been one of his own. Orton said that when the pair ended up in court the greatest outrage was shown not towards their obscene amendments but to simple bits of Surrealism such as the adding of a monkey’s face to the cover of Collins Guide to Roses. Schoolboy humour is understandable but don’t dare do something that makes no apparent sense.

Malicious Damage is a free exhibition and runs until January, 2012.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Joe Orton Online
Joe Orton

Joe Orton Online


Joe Orton by John Haynes.

Last April I wrote that pioneering gay playwright Joe Orton was poorly represented on the web, unaware at the time that an official Orton site was being planned. Now web designer Alison Forsythe has written to say that the site was launched yesterday on what would have been Orton’s 75th birthday.

Joe Orton Online is exactly the resource I’d been looking for, with detailed information about the writer and a wealth of biographical material, reminiscences from collaborators and enthusiasts and a collection of ephemera. It’s especially good to be able to see the library books which Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell defaced (I’d say improved) for their own amusement, and which led to them receiving short prison sentences for vandalism.


Two of the defaced library books.

Also present are a number of manuscript extracts, including samples of his very early works, and some of the “Edna Welthorpe” letters, another Joe and Ken wheeze which adopted the persona of a priggish middle-aged woman to poke fun at the Welthorpes of the world by agreeing with their petty outrages.

For those impatient with the written word, there’s a fair amount of Orton-related material on YouTube, including what appears to be all of Prick Up Your Ears. (Buy the DVD you cheapskates!) Most fascinating and valuable for Ortonites is a section of a documentary about Kenneth Williams which discusses the actor’s association with Orton and features a rare TV appearance by the man himself.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The lost boys: Brian Epstein, Joe Orton and Joe Meek
Joe Orton