I’d been invited by Stewart Campbell who is hosting the Gay Icons Project at Sheffield University to deliver a talk on the Gay Icon - my brother Joe Orton - so on a bitterly cold Sunday night on 28th November I travelled up to Sheffield with my friend Marilyn Ricci. The venue was held at Firth Hall which is a stunning Edwardian building on the University campus. The audience of approximately sixty was, I felt, all Orton devotees. I decided to start by saying that if their experience of Joe was derived from Gary Oldman’s representation of Orton, they had been misled, as my brother was not at all like the man Oldman had portrayed in the film of Prick Up Your Ears. To me and the people who knew him he was a good-natured anarchist. Yes, he was angry at the way society was organized, especially in the 1940’s and 50’s when he was growing up in Leicester.
I wanted to give the audience a feeling of what it was like growing up in the Orton household and particularly of our father and mother’s relationship. I explained that my father was a timid man. He did everything slowly, not from thoroughness but more from the fatigue of a lifetime of being the underdog to my mother who mockingly called him Creeping Jesus. She remorselessly taunted him about his inadequacies as a husband and a provider. Her comments varied but took the same theme ‘ I’ve been mother and father to these bleeding kids’ and her favourite ‘ I’ve raised four kids on one lung’ a reference to the TB she’d suffered from as a girl. Our father never retaliated. He was a poor role model. His sons rarely spoke to him. This weak, ineffective father, this ‘done to’ man was to be indelibly printed on my brother’s mind as this same character surfaces later in Joe’s work. The Dada in Entertaining Mr Sloane is goaded and finally beaten to death by Sloane; Mcleavy in Loot is dragged off at the end of the play wailing ‘I’m innocent I’m innocent. Oh what a terrible thing to happen to a man who’s been kissed by the Pope’. And I recalled how disturbed I was when I heard the character Geraldine say in What the Butler saw ‘I lived in a normal family. I had no love for my father’.
I went on to speak about Joe’s early enthusiasm for the theatre, which came from his participation in local amateur dramatic groups. In his early diaries he records his feelings sitting in the wings waiting for the curtain to go up and the determination to get to RADA. I find his longing to escape the humdrum of Leicester life so sad but essentially crucial to his career.
I read excerpts from Joe’s diaries. The entries that related to his visits to Leicester and the hugely funny stories surrounding our mother’s funeral and the recovery of her teeth, which he used to frighten the cast of Loot with, was met with laughter. The Q&A’s were interesting - one man seemed particularly concerned about the fact that we were left on our own a good deal. ‘Was there no one in the family who could have looked after you? Aunts, Grandparents? ‘No‘ I said.
Leonie Orton Barnett. 7th December 2010