John Kingsley Orton was born on January 1, 1933 and died on August 9, 1967 – a little over a week after parliament had voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality. However, that political event gets no mention within Prick Up Your Ears, a film that takes its title from the play that Orton was about to start work on at the time of his death.
The film tells the story of Orton (would was rechristened “Joe” instead of “John” once he achieved literary success) and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, mentor, friend and partner-in-crime (even if that crime was defacing library books). The two had met back at the beginning of the 1950s at RADA, with Orton intrigued by, and ultimately attracted to, the older, well-read Halliwell. The last entries in Orton’s first period of diary-writing gives the reader a good idea of how their relationship was progressing:
15 May: Started at RADA. Oh bliss!
19 May: Someone in the other class keeps looking at me
21 May: Was Eyed.
25 May: Met Ken at Charing Cross road. I don’t quite understand Ken.
2 June: Am beginning to understand Ken.
8 June: Met Ken. He has invited me to live with him.
11 June: Must leave my digs
12 June: Ken offers again.
13 June: I say no.
14 June: Ken offers again.
16 June: Move into Ken’s flat.
17 June: Well!
18 June: Well!!
19 June: Well!!!
20 June: The rest is silence.
Writing later, Orton spoke of how he found RADA to be “complete rubbish,” and that, at the end of his two terms there “I had complete lost my confidence and my virginity.”
Orton and Halliwell wrote works together over the next decade, but it was only when they were separated that Orton’s creative genius came into its own and his radio play, eventually entitled The Ruffian On the Stair, was picked up by the BBC Third Programme. It was based on an unpublished novel by Orton and Halliwell called The Boy Hairdresser and, as you will see in the film, marked the beginning of both jealousy and rage on the part of Halliwell that he was not got getting the recognition and acclaim that Orton was, something which only became magnified with the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, and Orton’s commission to write a film for The Beatles, a film which was never produced.
The film actually begins at the end, with the finding of the dead bodies of Orton and Halliwell, From there, it jumps forward more than a decade as author John Lahr writes Orton’s biography with the help of his wife and Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsey. At first, the film suggests that it is going to be a relatively straightforward account of the last six months in the lives of Orton and Halliwell, told in flashback. However, about a third of the way into the film, the flashbacks take us to the early 1950s, telling us how the two men met and, ultimately answering the inevitable question that most will have after watching the 1967 segment: why were these two men living together?
The relatively complicated flashback structure is unsurprisingly handled with ease by the masterful Alan Bennett, whose script switches from moments that are unflinchingly dark to others that are uproariously funny. He also manages to filter in parallels between the past and the present. When Orton becomes famous after the production of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Halliwell keeps reminding him of the contributions that he has made to Orton’s script and success. In the present-day sequences, we see the same thing with Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, wife of Orton’s biographer, trying to remind Orton’s agent that the book wasn’t a sole effort and that she was working on it as well.
Bennett’s screenplay does take some liberties with both the timeline and the truth at various points. For example, Orton and Halliwell made three trips to North Africa and not just the one that we see within the film (although one of those only lasted a day). One of those trips was made with Kenneth Williams, who may not be portrayed in Prick Up Your Ears since he was still alive at the time the film was made. Their trip together was, however, dramatized as part of the BBC film Fantabulosa, a dramatization of Kenneth Williams’ life starring Martin Sheen. Williams and Orton had become friends back in 1964, during the time when Orton reworked his next play, Loot, as a vehicle for Williams. However, it was a flop during its try-out in Cambridge, and Williams didn’t continue his association with the play which, after many re-writes, would become a success and win Orton the prestigious Evening Standard Award. Bennett’s screenplay pays very little attention to the troubles that Loot had from its inception through to its eventual success. Meanwhile, it is understood that the telephone call between Brian Epstein and Orton regarding the film script for the Beatles never happened, with the script being turned down with no reasons given. In Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton proudly talks about having sold the film rights for Loot. The film was made in 1970, as was an adaptation of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but, rather interestingly, the general opinion was that they had not translated to the screen well.
Alan Bennett as scriptwriter headed a production whose cast reads like a who’s who of British acting talent. Gary Oldman was cast as Orton on the back of his acclaimed performance as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. Prick Up Your Ears was Alfred Molina’s breakthrough role, although he had also appeared in films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Letter to Brezhnev. The supporting cast of the movie is likely to have many audience members of a certain age thinking “oh look, it’s him,” at various points as Lindsay Duncan, Frances Barber, Eric Richards, Sean Pertwee (if you look close enough), Richard Wilson, and Julie Walters flash up on the screen. It’s interesting how thirty years can make a difference to an actor or actress’s life – Walters, playing Orton’s mum, is on screen for all of five minutes, and yet her name is proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the most recent DVD release of the film as if she is one of the main performers. Stephen Frears directs the film, just two years after he was at the helm of another gay-themed movie, My Beautiful Launderette.
It is interesting to note that the film received largely good reviews in the UK, but not so in the US, although one perhaps has to disagree with some of the comments by Philip French, written in the Observer. He says that the “film’s sympathies ultimately lie with Halliwell, a sad, pathetic, vulnerable figure. He is made to think himself in grave need of psychiatric help because his fidelity, loyalty and tolerant kindness have turned him into a jealous monster. As opposed to the cruel, opportunistic, amoral Orton, who radiates psychic health while exhibiting the air of false innocence and psychopathic absence of guilt associated with his bisexual hero, Mr Sloane.” One can only wonder if the critic’s sympathies for Halliwell rather than Orton had to do with the time in which the film came out and the review was written: 1987, when the AIDs crisis was at its peak, and conservative Britain (with both a small and capital C), only a year away from imposing section 28, was not allowing itself to sympathise with a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed meeting strangers for sex in public toilets – whether he was violently murdered or not.
Nearly a decade after Prick Up Your Ears was made, British queer film would take an altogether lighter form with a cycle of gay romantic-comedies spurred on by the success of movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, among others. There is little sign of that levity within Prick Up Your Ears, though, despite the fact that is very funny in places. Instead, the movie is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1950s, where the dour Serious Charge and the sobering The Trials of Oscar Wilde paved way for 1961’s Victim, which was then followed by A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, The Killing of Sister George, Nighthawks, and Sunday Bloody Sunday. This dark, gritty tradition of queer-filmmaking that the Orton biography is a part of would continue through The Fruit Machine in 1988, Young Soul Rebels in 1991, Priest in 1994, Like It Is in 1998, and even on through the acclaimed Weekend in 2011.
Like so many of those films that I have just mentioned, Prick Up Your Ears makes no excuse for the flawed nature of its protagonists, or even how there are moments within the film when they come across as thoroughly unlikeable. At times within the film, both Orton and Halliwell appear to hit the self-destruct button, although it is unlikely that either of the two men could have envisaged how their story would end. Perhaps Orton realised, however, that his success would eventually bring unhappiness, writing in his diary just two months before his death that “to be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”