Did you see… 1973 

1 April 2023 tbs.pm/78451

Did you see…

Sunday 1 April 1973




Feature on Joe Orton


One play in the life of Joe Orton


Six years after his death, at the age of 34, Joe Orton is still a potent force in contemporary theatre. The Ruffian On The Stair, one of his earlier plays, is being shown on ITV on Sunday. It is a play of bizarre twists and black humour – characteristic of Orton’s later plays such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot. Peter Willes, Head of Drama at Yorkshire Television, knew Orton well. Now he talks for the first time about his relationship with this tragic “cult” hero of the Sixties


JOE ORTON’S DEATH was as dramatic and sensational as his life. In August 1967 he was killed, as he slept, by hammer blows from the man with whom he had lived for 15 years.

The cremation ceremony at Golders Green, London, was appropriate to the decade which allowed him to emerge. A Beatles tune, A Day In The Life, served as funeral music; a poem, read by Donald Pleasence, served as the funeral oration. It ran: “They will not weep for him. They know that if they did, he’d think they missed the joke.”

That evening at the Criterion Theatre, those of the cast of his black farce Loot who attended the ceremony returned to the dressing-rooms. A coffin, the central prop in the play, was placed on stage. And the performance continued as usual.

Peter Willes, elder statesman of television drama. and senior executive for 20 years, was the unlikely master of the ceremony. With Orton’s agent, Margaret Ramsay, he had arranged a secular funeral… he believed Orton would have preferred it.

Willes himself, at his office in the Mayfair base of Yorkshire Television, is a familiar, rather daunting figure approaching 60, accustomed to working in business

Orton, on the other hand, had a taste for attending formal parties in pointedly casual clothes. He was the son of a Leicester gardener, became a merchant seaman and later an actor. Finally, he became a labourer, working to finance his writing, done in a sparse third-floor flat in London. Willes rarely discusses his affection for Orton, and habitually refuses interviews. “Perhaps people expect something sensational. The Sunday Times asked for an interview. I refused. A representative came to see me. He said: ‘What do you feel about the murder of Joe Orton?’

“If you were murdered how would your father feel if he were asked that question? That is the relationship I had with Joe Orton.

“He was young. I am old. Elderly people seldom anticipate the loss of someone so young and so talented. It is his complete originality that I miss most of all.

“I suppose in the last 17 years I have produced as many authors as the other man. But I can count on one hand those who have meant something special to me. Joe’s plays, although they were incredibly difficult to do, gave everyone a chance to attempt something different.”

He met Orton through his agent just before the author left for America for the production in New York of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Though Sheila Hancock was nominated for an award for her performance in it, the play was, commercially, a flop. The cast returned within a fortnight.

Willes said: “I saw him again in my office and I told him how I thought Entertaining Mr. Sloane should be done. It’s easy to say how something should be done when you have seen a production of it. I can imagine what everybody felt when they created the play for the first time.

“Joe adapted it for television. I was the producer and it was directed by Peter Moffatt. Sheila Hancock re-created her part. And Edward Woodward and Clive Francis appeared in it.

“Joe said he saw the brother in Entertaining Mr. Sloane – the part played by Edward Woodward – as the kind of Scoutmaster every mother trusts. It was a typical remark of his, though obviously he intended no offence to the Scout movement.”

Sloane himself, based on aspects of Orton’s own personality, was visualised as a young man with a cherub’s face and a thug’s body. He becomes the lodger in a house and his favours are competed for by both the landlady and her brother. The horrifying extensions of this sort of situation were characteristic of most of Orton’s writing.

Willes continued: “Joe Orton was a very private person. He was invited to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. I said I thought that would be fun for him. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s much too late.’ He went to bed at 9p.m. I suggested to him perhaps the Lord Mayor might change the time of his dinner.

“Joe lived, as everybody knows, in a ‘monastic cell’, near King’s Cross Station. I seem to remember spending evenings sitting on a three-legged stool. There was no other thing to sit on.

“He tried to educate me, but he soon gave it up as hopeless. I have always resisted education because I had it thrust upon me. Joe had studied in depth. He had read every writer from Chaucer onwards.

“We talked a lot about what we described as his lot, and my lot. He was determined that success should change him not one iota. He was afraid that meeting people would distract him from his work.

“I gave him two of my favourite books to read: Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Pie and Patty-Pan by Beatrix Potter. I think he was at that time writing his final play, What The Butler Saw.

“He was very cross. He said it quite put him off. ‘Well,’ I replied. Beatrix Potter was a very superior writer.'”

Often their differences were of a more impish nature. “He used to pretend when I asked him to dinner that I meant lunch. I refused to call lunch ‘dinner’, and he refused to call dinner ‘lunch’. But this was a small obstacle in a deep friendship.

“He was very young in heart, but old in execution.

“He would write things in his plays just for the sake of teasing me; just to see what I would do. I can see him now, watching me with my pencil poised. If I cut a word I always knew if he had put it in to tease me because he allowed the cut. But woe betide anybody who altered another syllable, every one of which he had so carefully worked out.

“I wonder in what directions he would have gone. During the war I learned to believe that those the gods love die young. It was the only consolation, as it has been over Joe’s early death.

“It is rare when one is old to go on mourning people. Especially when there is no emotional involvement. But if one admires a talent, it is somehow irreplaceable. People are not. Talent is.

“I once took a great star, Mrs. Dorothy Dickson, to the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre to see a performance of Loot. Joe was in the foyer. ‘Oh Miss Dickson?’ he said, ‘I have just been playing one of your records. An unusual remark from a young writer to a great lady of the theatre, whose biggest successes he could never have seen.

“He drank very little, and never smoked.

“He was a representative of the early 1960’s, as Noël Coward and Harold Pinter are representatives of their eras. I am doing The Ruffian On The Stair as a period piece, of 10 years ago. I think that would have made him laugh.

“I hope it will be perfect. To produce a play by an author no longer alive is a great responsibility. I hope I shan’t let down my friend, or disappoint the public.

“One always hopes for success. On this occasion it could not be more important to me.”


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