Halliwell was displaced to the sidelines. Orton raced towards meteoric celebrity while Halliwell was left at the starting gate. his status now little more that that ofa secretary. The anguish. jealousy and frustration now flowing between them led to the brutal events of August 1967.
‘desire for revenge‘
Lahr worked on Prick Up Your Ears from 1970 to 1978. talkingto people like Kenneth Williams and Orton‘s redoubtable literary agent Peggy Ramsay. As his labours neared completion he called upon Alan Bennet and Stephen Frears to join him in planning a screen version of his book. ‘I had been to America earlierin 1977 and talked to somebody at Warners. a woman, and she had said this is a great idea, do you think you could make it about an American playwright? Although I knew it before that confirmed my desire to make sure that the material was kept honest.‘
Alan Bennet set to work on the script of Prick Up Your Ears in 1977 with two problematic areas foremost in his mind; his own dislike of Orton and his difficulty in depicting the story as anything other than a grim homosexual murder. His ultimate solutions came through the use of humour and his decision to view their homosexual union from a heterosexual perspective. Bennet‘s view is that Orton and Halliwell‘s relationship was a marriage with Halliwell the gay equavalent ofthe abandoned first wife who nurtured and supported Orton when no one else cared. only to be unacknowledged and relegated to oblivion when Orton triumphed.
The wit and invention of Alan Bennet‘s screenplay is acknowledged by everyone who
worked on the film, not least by Vanessa Redgrave who plays Peggy Ramsay. ‘I have seen some of his plays and know that they were written very well. What struck me about Prick Up Your Ears was that it was so funny. It seemed to me to catch the terms ofexpression and idiosyncracies of speech of certain people in the profession as well as seeming to me, as far as I can judge, to catch the expressions that belonged to Joe‘s background as well. You can‘t compare Joe Orton with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan but there is a relation between the two types of comedy and Alan Bennet himself. He has been able to do something which I think is very difficult and that is without copying or mimicing in any way Joe Orton‘s writing he has been able to convey the essence of what his humour and background were about. And it is terribly funny.‘
In 1981 Prick Up Your Ears was almost filmed by Chrysalis until it was discovered that their intention was to produce an English La Cage Aux Folles. With the sort ofgrim irony that Orton might have appreciated it was only at the height of the AIDS hysteria in 1986 that his promiscuous exploits finally went into production.
‘he was full ofcharm‘
. Director Stephen Frears has been with the project since the beginning and his contribution shows in the film‘s jaunty, even high-spirited, tone and his casting choices. Vanessa Redgrave, for instance, looks nothing like Peggy Ramsay but is perfect. ‘Peggy Ramsay is an extremely small and extremely elegant, fragile lady which I‘m not. But it isn‘t a drama-documentary portrayal of her and there‘s something there of her and I’m sure
‘ that‘s the reason why I was cast. I
think it was a good choice. We actually filmed in Peggy‘s office. Dressing her scenes for the right period, ‘64 or‘67 as the scenes were, a lot of her own theatre posters were brought out ofstorage and put up on the walls. It was rather strange at times to suddenly see up on the walls one of my posters for a production I was in. Suddenly you‘re confronted with your own past.‘
Frears admits. ‘We couldn‘t cast the film in 1981. I never found anyone who was right. I did actually meet Gary Oldman then but he was much too young. Now, it‘s as though the world changed in some way that I don‘t quite understand and Gary appeared. I know that Alfred Molina doesn‘t look like Halliwell but he was able to play him with many of the right qualities. If you talk to people who knew him he was a very. very unattractive, embarrassing man. Very painful to be with, but we wanted sympathy for Halliwell and Fred made somebody unpleasant sympathetic.‘
Molina has previously been seen on screen as Peter Firth‘s fellow sailor on the town in Letter to Brezhnev, and turns the doleful, neurotic Halliwell into an understandably bemused figure. ‘One ofthe ways I prepared for the character was by preparing two lists — one about the character himself and the other about what other people thought about him. Then you sort of compare the two and make something out of that. I‘d say Kenneth‘s sense of self-loathing was just as acute as people‘s loathing of him. He never came to terms with his homosexuality. He hated what he was. And he was horrified by Joe‘s promiscuity.‘
The film is neither coy nor exploitative in its portrayal of Orton‘s sexual appetites and
includes an almost balletically choreographed scene of mass gratification in a cavernous cottage. Molina regarded his character‘s homosexuality as just another demand of the acting profession. ‘Kissing a man in a film isjust like kissing a woman in a film. There was one point where I had to kiss a man in it and I got scratched by his beard and that made me realise for the first . time how my wife must feel. The film, however. is not just about homosexuality. but about the corrosive effects ofjealousy, guilt
and angerin arelationship—soit applies to any relationship. I know of a lot of marriages that break up for precisely the same reason.‘
Although Prick Up Your Ears is not a judgemental film it does manage a balanced presentation of the Orton-Halliwell legacy by showing the former‘s calculating charm and the latter‘s sense of being adrift from the rest of the world. ‘Kenneth was Joe‘s teacher and Joe gave him no credit for that at all — to him he was just the ‘first wife‘ ‘ but I think the film does give him credit,‘ Molina suggests. whilst adding, ‘I personally find Joe very attractive. very witty and bright. People said he was great to be with. But Kenneth was a colossal pain in the arse with his stupid comments. There is a story about him going to the theatre when Laurence Olivier was there and screaming out that he was a terrible actor. He was pathetic really.‘ Vanessa Redgrave too attests to the charisma ofJoe Orton; ‘I never met him and didn‘t even see his plays while they were on because I was working at the time. but he was a very likeable and appealing sort of guy I gather. Apparently he did have a smile and a way that just whenever
‘ ‘ v y , he met people. even tfthey felt quite
I .. g ‘ I .12, ' -~ j’ r hostile to him,he was so fullofa very .- 7'4 . .. ‘13 z"
5 ' I i 1 won them over.‘
It is left to Stephen Frears to sound a final note ofcaution against the tendency to view Orton as some innately beguiling anti- establishment rebel of the Swinging Sixties. ‘I think he was earlier than that. I really think he was from the Fifties. I think he was rather a conformist fellow. He wasn‘t like John Lennon or anything like that. He was much more sly and ingratiating in a nasty way. He wanted to be a West End playwright, he didn‘t want to attack the West End. What he was going for was park inspectors and policemen and librarians. In the Sixties people attacked the American President and rather grand themes but he was obsessed with petty officials who made his life a misery. What he would be doing today were he still alive doesn‘t bear thinking about. He‘d probably be a member of the Saville club.‘
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Prick Up Your Ears opens atthe . «gag. Cannon, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow r and the Edinburgh Cameo 01129 May. See Cinema Listings for details. 35:31);
The List 29 May — 1 1 Junc5 _