Rose Collis is an author and journalist whose critically-acclaimed biographies include 'A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain' (Cassell, 1997) and 'Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment' (Virago 2001) Her latest book is Coral Browne: ‘This Effing Lady’ (Oberon Books, 2007)

See Rose's web page here



In 1997, I fulfilled one ambition which I shared with Joe Orton: I bought a home in Brighton. Of course, history tells he didn’t live to do the same. Nonetheless, the city is a place which has so many links to Orton and his work.

In February 1965, Loot was produced at the Theatre Royal Brighton, starring Kenneth Williams, Ian McShane and Geraldine McEwan. The Argus loved it: ‘brilliant farce…first-class writing’ while the Brighton Gazette critic declared: ‘I think it is stupendous.’

In 1970, Loot was made into a film and shot mostly in Brighton. The opening scenes were filmed on the now-derelict West Pier; other Brighton locations you can spot are Bear Road, Warren Road, Hartington Road, West Street and Woodvale Cemetery.

In 1969, came What The Butler Saw, starring Ralph Richardson and Coral Browne, the actress who Kenneth Halliwell had originally recommended for the part of Mrs Prentice. Coral said: ‘The greatest loss to the English theatre was the death of Joe Orton. He was a genius, in tune with today and only just getting started.’But, as she told her friend Frith Banbury, by 1969, she had considerable misgivings about doing the play: ‘Sir Turnip [Richardson] will be v slow and fuck it up so it won’t run long and I HATED Mr [Robert] Chetwyn’s “Importance” so don’t fancy him either AND I’ve cooled on the play. It’s hung fire too long.’

She insisted that the producers paid for Balmain to design her an £800 mackintosh and matching lingerie: ‘I was in terribly good taste,’ she said. ‘I’d been on a diet for three years; oh yes, it was very nice underwear. Going on stage with nothing but your undies at my time of life, you’ve got to be wearing something very pretty and delicate, otherwise you look like old Frilly Lizzy, or a can-can girl.’

Oscar Lewenstein favoured Ralph Richardson to play Dr Rance, but Orton had had his misgivings – he believed the venerated actor was ‘a good ten years too old’ and not possessed of the comic skills the part required; he believed Arthur Lowe would be better.

For his part, Richardson was enthusiastic about What the Butler Saw – he
considered it to be ‘Literature, beautifully written…flicks like Restoration comedy’. However, as Coral Browne told Orton’s biographer, John Lahr, ‘Sometimes it was difficult for him to learn because he had no idea of what the words meant. He couldn’t get nymphomaniac right because I don’t think he’d heard of one of those. He would refer to it as “nymphromaniac”.

The play opened in Cambridge, then came a week in Brighton: Coral told Lahr, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. He was attacked. People were writing him letters. Ralph got terribly depressed, terribly down, thinking he’d made a mistake. Taking a part in a “dirty” play. He replied to every one of those letters.’ Stanley Baxter remembered that ‘there were old ladies in the audience not merely tearing up their programmes, but jumping up and down on them out of sheer hatred’. Adam Trimingham, veteran Argus reporter, recalled: ‘This was pretty strong stuff for the delicate regulars of the Royal Circle. One by one they took their leave with the creaking of seats and muffled whispers of outrage almost providing more amusement than Orton's black comedy.’

Orton, of course, would simply have loved it all.

Peggy Ramsay, the agent who discovered Orton and, after his death, ran his literary estate, had a weekend home at 34 Kensington Place in the North Laine area for many years. In his diary entry for 29th July, 1967, Orton said, ‘We went to Peggy's house... 'her little place'. It was a nice old house in a back street. Built mid-nineteenth century. Peggy had it filled with bric-a-brac. All of it interesting but really there was too much....She took me downstairs and showed me the garden... I liked the garden. Cluttered gardens are fun. Cluttered houses I'm not fond of.’

Peggy also owned another property in adjacent Trafalgar Lane for the use of some of her clients, who included Alan Ayckbourn, Willy Russell and Edward Bond.

Orton was put in touch with Ramsay by John Tydeman, the BBC radio producer who produced his play The Ruffian on the Stair. He told Joe, ‘She can be a bit of an old cow, but if the chemistry is right, it will be terrific.’ After a faltering start to their professional relationship, it was indeed ‘terrific’.

Image Courtesy Rose Collis   Text © Rose Collis Orton Quotes: © The Orton Estate  

Copyright Notice: Reproduction of material on Joe Orton Online is not permitted without prior approval from the owner of the
relevant intellectual property rights. For full terms of use click here
Joe Orton Online was created and developed by Alison Forsythe.
Web Design © Alison Forsythe.