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

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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

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