What led to the murder of Joe Orton? His favourite actor and close friend, Kenneth Cranham, reflects on a gifted life and its end
Kenneth Cranham was Joe Orton’s favourite actor. He saw the writer courted by the Beatles, as his plays flourished on stage and screen – while Orton’s boyfriend, maddened by failure, descended into a green-eyed rage
It was all thanks to the radio that I ever got to meet Joe Orton and appear in his plays. Because he and Kenneth Halliwell – his lover, who murdered Orton, aged only 34, on 9th August 1967, half a century ago – were so hard up, they listened to the radio a lot. That’s why Joe heard my radio debut – in Boy Dudgeon, a play written by Ray Jenkins, head of drama at my old school, Tulse Hill Comprehensive.
Tulse Hill, in Lambeth, south London, may not be very glamorous. Noël Coward once said of a performance by Margaret Lockwood that ‘she had all the chic of a whist drive in Tulse Hill’. As for Tulse Hill Comprehensive – eight storeys high, with more than 2,000 pupils – well, one alumnus, Ken Livingstone, said, ‘If you can survive Tulse Hill School, you can survive anything.’
Still, it had this extraordinary drama department. I played the Earl of Westmoreland in Henry IV, Part 2, and the title role in Macbeth. After a girl from the nearby Dick Sheppard School got pregnant in one of our joint plays, all the women were played by boys. I remember my Lady Macbeth hitching his skirts up to play football.
Inspired by the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea, then in its heyday, we acted in all sorts of productions at school. I did an Ionesco play, a Dorothy L Sayers play, an updated Molière and a new play by John Mortimer.
And I appeared in that Ray Jenkins two-hander, Boy Dudgeon, shortly after I left Tulse Hill in 1963, when I was 18. It was the turning point of my life. At that point, I’d failed once to get into RADA, and I’d been kicked out of the New College of Speech and Drama, a teacher training college.
I was in a miserable office job when it all changed. I got into RADA on my second go. And, best of all, Joe Orton heard Boy Dudgeon on the radio. And so, when his first radio play, The Ruffian on the Stair, was being put on by the BBC in 1964, Joe wanted me to play the ruffian. I recorded it between terms at RADA.
When I left RADA in 1966, I joined the Royal Court. And then along came Joe again. Ruffian on the Stair was being done, on 21st August 1966, as a Sunday night show – ‘Productions without Décor’, they were called, performed in a rough and ready way on the set of whatever play was on at the time.
Joe said I should play Ruffian. The first half of the evening was a piece of sub-beckett, which irritated the audience. I could hear their restless boredom. As our play started, I waited in the wings to make my entrance. I felt like a boxer who knew he was about to dominate the ring.
The play’s opening scene was a brilliant piece of comic, domestic banality. Sheila Ballantine and Bernard Gallagher were getting great reactions and huge laughs.
Towards the end of the play, the Irishman, played by Bernard, has a gun and shoots the boy, who’s been threatening his wife. I had to chew on this blood capsule, to get it full of saliva. On being shot, I fell to my knees and let the blood drip from my mouth. My line was ‘Am I dying?’
A woman in the audience said, so clearly, ‘I hope so.’
But the audience was so on the side of the play that they didn’t give her the laugh her timing so richly deserved. We never did the play again, but I knew we could never have done it better.
That performance of Ruffian turned around Joe’s fortunes on that single night. Everybody in the game was there: the producers, Oscar Lewenstein and Michael White, and the theatrical agent
Peggy Ramsay. All of them turned out to be extremely important for the fortunes of Joe’s play, Loot.
When it first toured in 1965, Loot flopped. It had a great cast – including Geraldine Mcewan as the nurse – but the central flaw was the casting of Kenneth Williams as Inspector Truscott. He has to beat up Hal, the young thief played by Ian Mcshane. I never saw the production but I just cannot imagine Kenneth beating up Ian.
In 1966, they put on a new production of Loot at the Jeanette Cochrane Theatre, in Holborn. I played Hal, and Michael Bates was perfect for Truscott; he was a character actor who looked like a vicious Toby Jug. It transferred to the Criterion, where it played for a year.
Everything suddenly took off for Joe. Jane Asher took Paul Mccartney to see Loot at the Cochrane Theatre. The
Beatles organisation thought Joe could write a film, Up Against It, for them. Joe’s 1967 film script for the Beatles may have been rejected – but, even then, Oscar Lewenstein gave him £10,000 for it. (Three years earlier, Joe only got £64 for The Ruffian on the Stair.)
It was then that I started seeing a lot of Joe and his boyfriend, Kenneth Halliwell. Kenneth was seven years older than Joe, and, for a while, richer, thanks to an inheritance. In the early days of their relationship, he was a sort of mentor to him, acting as his financial supporter and his guide to literature. They met at RADA in 1951, and both turned from acting to writing, collaborating on several novels.
Kenneth was also Joe’s partner in crime. They stole books from Islington libraries, pasting the covers on the walls of their flat. They also altered the book jackets and rewrote the blurb, inserting
rude words and images. They served six months in prison as a result.
I remember first seeing the flat, in Noel Road, Islington, where Joe and Kenneth lived – and where Kenneth would end up murdering Joe. Those images stuck to the walls attacked you. ‘Noise for the eyes,’ I called it at the time. Leonie Orton, Joe’s youngest sister, thought that an apt description. I was able to recall the colours, patterns and images, and pass on these details to the designers of the 1987 Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears. Days later, they phoned me to ask where the gas cooker had been. I had no idea.
A journalist once wrote that Ike and Tina Turner’s house looked like it had been decorated with a million dollars spent at Woolworths. Joe and Kenneth’s flat looked like they’d spent £100 at Greggs – there were cakes and
‘Loot’, Cochrane Theatre, 1966: Sheila Ballantine, Simon Ward, KC, Michael Bates
All to play for: Joe Orton in his pomp, March 1967, with everything, at last, going his way. Five months later, he was dead