Writer Peter Burton interviewed Joe at the Jeanetta Cochrane theatre in Holborn, a few days before the opening of Charles Marowitz's award-winning production of Loot in September 1966

This extract is taken from Peter's memoir 'Parallel Lives' which covers a multitude of themes, including the mod clubs of the 1960's. his teenage literary apprenticeship, touring with Rod Stewart, and the rise and fall of Gay News. Today Peter reviews fiction for the Daily Express, he is a regular columninst for several magazines and has recently edited a number of anthologies of short stories, including A Casualty of War: The Arcadia Book of Gay Short Stories published April 2008.

Parallel Lives: Published by Gay Men's Press 1985 .




I met Orton in the foyer of the theatre. I hadn't known quite what to expect - certainly not the casually dressed, deceptively boyish figure who greeted me. I rather suspect that I too came as a surprise. I had an impression that he expected The Stage to be represented by a fuddy-duddy - and not by a perky twenty-one year old dressed in a serge sailor suit and clutching a large sketchbook rather than a shorthand pad.

We talked about education; Orton telling me that he'd learned little at his council school and was basically self-taught. His conversation showed him to be of catholic literary tastes; he talked of the classics, Sophocles, Waugh and Firbank. History he spoke of as "comforting" and added to this by saying that if one has a knowledge of history then the irresponsible actions of men today do not seem quite so frightening, as men have been indulging in them for centuries. This didn't mean he was a "political animal", he explained. "I'm neither fascist nor right," he pointed out when I asked him whether his plays held any message. "Any message in the plays happens as part of the play and characters and is not put in deliberately."

One point Orton asked me especially to make was that his plays seemed to have been disliked by left-wing intellectuals - those who spoke (in those days) of bringing culture to the working classes - and yet his were exactly the kind of plays they would enjoy. He was certainly not immodest when he added that his plays "would give them entertainment and culture".

On the subject of writing, Orton felt that too many of the then current crop of new dramatists became obsessed by dialogue: "This works against the play." It was almost Rattiganesque to hear one of the 'new' dramatists expressing such concern about plot - a remark he qualified by saying that he enjoyed writing dialogue but found that it could go on and on without a plot and sub-plot and ultimately lead nowhere. "A plot gives you something to fall back upon and given rise to lines itself," he told me.

I remember asking if he had any desire to write novels, and Orton continued along the same track he'd already been pursuing by saying that any novels he wrote would be in dialogue form and that they would really be envisaged for the stage. Therefore, he concluded, he would continue to write plays.

We discussed Pinter and Orton remarked that the sexual situation in the second act of The Homecoming obviously shocked the majority of the play's audience. "But I feel that audiences must be shocked," he continued, "to rally them out of their basic lethargy. The only field still heavily unexplored which will shock is the sexual one."

We'd talked about future projects and Orton confided that he had an idea for a prison play - "though it won't be until the play after the next play - or maybe later." Discussion of the prison play provoked me to ask about the prison sentence imposed after he had been found guilty of defacing library books. "I wouldn't have missed it," he told me. "It was an experience. And no one should be that sensitive that they couldn't stick a short term 'inside'."

So often I've found that the most fascinating part of an interview comes after the subject has muttered those important words: "This is off the record." We'd been discussing the original production of Loot and Orton had pointed out that the version due to open a few days later was the play as he'd written it. Material which had been written into the touring production had been removed, the lines cut at the Lord Chamberlain's request had been restored.

Then Orton said the magic words: "This is strictly off the record" and proceeded to tell me about the traumas surrounding that first production of Loot. Of course, this all happened nearly twenty years ago - and the sketchbook containing my notes has long since disappeared - but I do distinctly remember him telling me that the play had almost been destroyed by Kenneth Williams' performance. "He became more outrageous every night," he told me.

Meeting people one admires can often be disappointing, all too frequently they don't live up to the image that one has created of them. Orton was one of the rare exceptions. As an interviewer, I was inexperienced - but he didn't seem to mind. He was charming, funny - most of all, he was friendly.

Image © Ed Heath   Text © Peter Burton with kind permission  

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