Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Joe Orton
Up | Peter Gill | News | Productions | Pieces | Résumé | Pictures | Studio | Publications | Links

Custom Search

Joe Orton

From an interview with Barry Hanson in the programme notes of Peter Gill's Royal Court production of The Erpingham Camp and The Ruffian on the Stair (Crimes of Passion) June 1967.

"I was born in Leicester thirty-three years ago. Father a gardener, mother a machinist. I had quite an ordinary schooling. I didn't get my eleven plus. I wanted it at the time. So I left school and did this supposedly business course for a year, but it didn't do me any good because I'd no aptitude for keeping accounts and things like that... Yes, I was sacked from all the jobs I had between sixteen and eighteen because I was never interested in any of them. I resented having to go to work in the morning, and very often I didn't bother - I just looked in shop windows, or if it was a nice sunny morning I'd sit in the Town Hall square and have an ice-cream.

Joe Orton by Patrick Prockter

This drawing was given away as an insert in the programme of Crimes of Passion.  The original is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Drawing of Joe Orton by Patrick Prockter

At night I belonged to an amateur dramatic society, in fact I belonged to so many it got ridiculous — the rehearsals for the shows clashed. I wanted to be an actor but didn't know how to go about it so I wrote to the Information Bureau in Leicester. They said I'd have to go to R.A.D.A.. or some recognised dramatic academy and they gave me a whole list of elocution teachers . I went to one called Madame . . . . . , I don't know why they called her Madame, because there was nothing Madamish about her at all, she was just an ordinary, pompous middle-class lady and she didn't think much to me, just a yob, I could tell that; she offered coffee and I said yes, and she asked me did I take sugar and I said yes and she went away and came back with the coffee with sugar, but it wasn't sugar, it was saccharin in the bottom of the cup and so I thought 'Oh, yes, she's a right bitch' and she had these biscuits in a biscuit barrel, you know, these awful cheap biscuits. Oh, she didn't think much to me, she thought much more of a pompous, middle-class young man who was going to her because she thought he was going to be God's gift to the English stage and I was very glad to notice that he turned out to be a disaster. She had no taste.

But she did tell me how to get a grant from the Education Authorities. She arranged an evening show of all her pupils to show how talented they were and I and this girl, her pupil, did the quarrel scene of Oberon and Titania from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and I had a marvellous idea. I thought I'd play Oberon green, so I bought a lot of green distemper from the local shop. I'd no idea about stage make-up, and put on a pair of bathing trunks and just covered myself from head to foot in green, including my hair, surprising I didn't get a skin rash; then I got a green bedspread from my mother's and father's bed and wrapped that round me and appeared on the stage in this fantastic outfit, the bedspread and covered in green distemper while the girl wore a conventional muslin ballet dress as Titania. Anyway, it was very successful because Madame introduced me afterwards to this man who was in charge of giving away grants, someone quite important and I had a long; talk with him and he thought it was all very interesting. Anyway they gave me a very generous grant .....

"I did actually get into R.A.D.A.. the first time. It was rather extraordinary. For audition I did a piece from Peter Pan between Captain Hook and Smee, I think it was, both at the same time, a schizophrenic act, it was quite alarming, I don't know how I did it. It impressed the judges and when I took the letter round to Madame she could hardly conceal her rage that I'd got in, and she continued to be bitchy, because when I went to R.A.D.A.. I was supposed to have had eight lessons, actually I'd had seven, and she kept writing and saying I hadn't paid her for the last lesson. I don't know if I ever did pay her.

I didn't have a very good time at R.A.D.A. really, because I found that in the very first term I actually expected to be taught something. It was complete rubbish. I wasn't taught anything and I learned at the end of the term that I was more enthusiastic and knew more about acting at the beginning of my first term than I did at the end. And during the next two terms, I had two years there, I completely lost my confidence and my virginity.

"Then I went into Rep for four months and I was bored; I did a lot of moaning; then I left the theatre and got married and that didn't work out. Well, I had no real feeling about it at all, it just didn't work out, I mean, I was too young ... .. we just drifted apart, no rows, I mean, those kind of marriages generally last. However one is liberal about modern marriage, there is this responsibility . I don't like possessions and a wife and children are possessions, they have to be possessed and supported. After a year I came back to London and started writing. I never wanted to be a writer, I always wanted to be an actor, but then I did have a talent for writing, but I never got anything published at all, never. I had to take lots of different kinds of jobs.

"I don't have a chip on my shoulder about having been sent to prison. I do know, however, that the kind of people who walked out of "Loot" are the kind of people who are magistrates. Now they can't do anything about me as the author of "Loot", but when I was in their power, the same person before I wrote either "Loot" or "Sloane", then they could do something. No, I realise what I did was unforgivable, I'm just unrepentant. But I objected to public money going on dull, badly written books under the heads of successful lady authors on the backs of their book jackets. I think one was written by Lady Dartmouth. . The libraries had a tremendous amount of space for rubbish but none for good books. I also used to write false blurbs on the book flap which the Magistrate described as mildly obscene. So they made an example of me. My activities had been going on for a long time.

"No, I liked prison. I mean the only things I had against it were the small things. When I was in Brixton, the lavatories were disgraceful, they were always overflowing and were in a filthy state: there weren't enough of them and that kind of thing. I was on remand, you see, so I didn't get out to work in the prison. I was locked in my cell for twenty-three hours a day. This didn't worry me much. I used to read a lot. Not the Bible, which we were supposed to read, but strange things like 'Hatter's Castle', the sort of thing I'd never normally dream of reading, cheap novels and papers. I didn't trust the psychiatrist because I knew anything I told him would eventually be reported to the authorities

"Well obviously you've got to have police they're a necessary evil. I mean I've no objection to them tracking down murderers and bank robbers, clearly you can't have people behaving in a completely anarchic way. I believe though, that they interfere far too much with private morals — whether people are having it off in the backs of cars, or smoking marihuana, or doing the interesting little things that one does. Oh no, they don't terrify me because I know how to deal with them. For instance, you never tell them the truth, you tell the most convenient lie, but one which they'll believe. And, of course, you're awfully nice. I mean, whey they got me into the police station the best thing to do, I found, was to be as nice and utterly vulnerable and open as possible, because it's no good standing on your rights once they've got you in their power. It may be cowardly.. Well, I wasn't actually beaten up, but he hovered around..... whereas if you mess them about they get nasty.

Lady Dartmouth

I think Ulysses was the most horrible book I have read in my life, it is absolutely revolting. How they could even have tried to make a film of it at all amazes me. Filth disguised as art should be banned completely and I speak not just as a councillor but as a mother of boys aged 16 and 17. (Picture: Syndication International)
Lady Dartmouth (Syndication International)

"I hope that the violence in my plays is not of an inconsequential nature, I mean, not violence for its own sake. I'm always horrified by violence in some things, especially American films and novels. I watched an American series on T.V. called "The Invaders" and the violence in that seems to me purely gratuitous. I mean, it was necessary for the old man in 'Sloane' to be beaten up on the purely pragmatic grounds of the plot and I couldn't have had the play working otherwise, in the same way to go back to the old cliche about Shakespeare; you can't have certain scenes in 'King Lear' without having Gloucester's eyes put out. No, violence for its own sake I'm very much against.

"The style isn't super-imposed. It's me. You can't write stylised comedy in inverted commas, because the style must ring of the man, and if you think in a certain way and you write true to yourself, which I rope I am, then you will get a style, a style will come out. You've only got to be sitting on a bus and you'll hear the most stylised lines. People think I write fantasy, but I don't; some things may be exaggerated or distorted in the way some painters distort and alter things, but they're realistic figures. They're perfectly recognisable. I don't like the discrimination against style that some people have, every serious writer has a style. I mean, Arnold Wesker has a style, but people don't normally think of him as a stylist, in the same way they think of Wilde, Firbank or Sheridan. Style isn't camp or chi-chi. I write in a certain way because I can express in naturalistic terms. In the whole naturalistic movement of the 20's and 30's you can't ultimately have anything except discussions of Mavis's new hat; you can't have people.  With the naturalistic style I couldn't make any comment on the kind of policeman that Truscott is, or on the laws of the Establishment. Oscar Wilde's style is much more earthy and colloquial than most people notice. When we look at Lady Bracknell, she's the most ordinary, common direct woman, she's not an affected woman at all. People are taken in by "the glittering style". It's not glitter. Congreve is the same. It's real — a slice of life. It's just very brilliantly written, perfectly believable. Nothing at all incredible.

"In spite of all one hears to the contrary, critics are human beings, and human beings make snap judgments. People always like to put you in compartments and I didn't like this. I think compartments of any kind are bad. They do it in sex 'he's a leather fetishist ' or 'he likes little girls in pink knickers'. Well, I think one should like everything, or try everything in all spheres of life. I don't think one should reject any experience — although I don't really fancy being beaten or anything like that.

"Yes, I was approached to do a film script for the Beatles. I said it would have to be an absolutely original script. Paul McCartney said do whatever you like. I said that means you'll never be able to do it. He said as long as it's good, that's all right. So I did the script and I was very pleased with it and my agent was very pleased with it and she's not an easy woman to please. Well, we sent it away and didn't hear anything for over a month, then we finally get this little note from Brian Epstein, that it wasn't suitable for the Beatles. Well, what did they want? They got a brilliant script. There were, of course, certain things. Because all teenagers were supposed to imitate the Beatles I mustn't have the Beatles doing certain things. I wrote a story, but actually as it turned out, by page 25 they had committed adultery , murder, dressed in drag, been in prison, seduced the daughter of a Priest, I mean the niece of a Priest, blown up a war memorial and all sorts of things like that. I can't really blame them but it would have been marvellous. I only wrote it because I wanted to, I don't have to be careful about what I write. The fact that Brian Epstein says it isn't suitable doesn't worry me, I'll do it an sell it to someone who will. I mean, I hadn't used any foul language. I hadn't gone as far as I can go if I really wanted to. I was very good on that. Oscar Lewenstein thought it was the best thing I'd written and he has every intention of doing it.

"I've always wanted to do a film called 'Carry on, Jesus' which would be a send-up of one of the Hollywood movies, and one could cast Kenneth Williams as Simon Peter. The trouble with the 'Carry on' films is that they should be, even in their own terms of reference, better. There are lots of terribly funny jokes we could make about tools and things like that, you know, all the postcard humour, but I never think it's good enough at present.

"I always rewrite plays. I get an idea and I do several drafts of it. What I usually do is to put it away for a while and then do a final rewrite. In fact 'The Ruffian on the Stair' was written in 1964 and the B.B.C. did it. But the version we're doing in 'Crimes of Passion' is only very vaguely like it, because since then I've had a whole new idea, although the skeleton is the same, a lot of it is totally different and totally new and I'm now satisfied that that is as far as I can go in this particular play and I don't want to do anything on it ever again so that I've got that out of my system.  It's the same with Erpingham Camp, because I did a version of it for television. It all began when Lindsay Anderson gave me this idea . He said he was doing a film which he'd got from the Bacchae. He asked if I could do anything with it. 1 said I'd like to and went away and wrote 17 pages. Lindsay read it, but it wasn't his idea any longer, so I was left with the 17 pages, but what I'd done had really interested me so I turned it into a play for television, and when television had finished with it , there was another gap of a year, by which time I'd thought about it a lot more in stage terms, and I completely rewrote the characters. Now I've got that out of my system.

Joe Orton"I like pop music. I collect old records and new ones on the basis that they may become part of pop history. That's all I'm interested in because I don't like classical music. There was a time when I tried to educate myself to liking it, but I just think it' s a noise — a terrible racket, probably because I'm tone deaf. I love all those stupid songs like 'Marta, rambling rose of the wildwood'. I've just bought a record of Carl Brisson where he does a scene from "The Merry Widow"., it's utterly ludicrous but he does it in style and it's true to itself. It's very moving. I have an old record of Cavan O'Connor singing 'Kathleen Mavourneen' and it's really rather sad as well as being ridiculous.

People have said I'm anti-Catholic: I'm not really, I just think they're very funny. I've never really come into contact with any dangerous Catholics. Those I've known have usually been Irish and I like the Irish, I don't know why. I mean, they're the most infuriating people on earth. I've never been to Ireland. I lust have a sort of irrational feeling about them.

"There have always been reactionaries, I think it's a mistake to call them Fascists because that really only applies to a certain period in history. Where people go wrong when they talk about fascism is that they always think of the Nuremberg Rally and there is really nothing wrong with the Nuremberg Rallies, the emotion, the bands and marching and all that, I mean they're marvellous, I get really involved and very emotional, but it's the purposes to which these things are put that's always evil. And the jackboot; it's a symptom of that particular country. I mean if you really wanted to spot the nasty equivalent of fascism in England you have to read the letters to the Radio Times and the T.V. Times. The B.B.C. is, for instance a monstrous propaganda organisation, the worst since Dr. Goebbels. It did give me my first encouragement in that it accepted 'The Ruffian on the Stair'. In a small enclave of the B.B.C there are people who are fine, the Third Programme. They are genuinely liberal. I don't like the sort of liberal that is the reactionary underneath, you know the kind of Pamela Handsford Johnson liberalism. There's a lot more wrong with the world than teenage sex and drug taking.

"England, I don't know what will happen to it. I think there's a certain section of England that's marvellous. You can call it swinging London, but it just sort of expresses something that is there, a splendid liberalism, but only in a certain little bit of London. I mean, in New York, when Dudley Sutton was in 'Sloane' and had to have his hair dyed, it was very embarrassing. People actually passed remarks in the street, whereas they wouldn't here. You can do all sorts of things in London, and long may it remain so. "

Up | Joe Orton | Orton's plays

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.  Copyright © 1999-2008

Last modified: Wednesday April 23, 2008. Page accesses: 16608