Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Prick Up Your Ears, 1987

The story of the spectacular life and violent death of British playwright Joe Orton, through the eyes and pen of that other great British playwright Alan Bennett.

In his teens, Joe Orton (a smart working-class boy from Leicester) is befriended by the older, more reserved Kenneth Halliwell, and while the two begin a relationship, it's fairly obvious that it's not all about sex (they were also sent to prison for defacing library books, hilariously treated here). Orton loves the dangers of cruising; Halliwell, not as attractive as Joe, doesn't fare so well (he is bald and wears a wig). While both try to become writers, it is Orton who succeeds - his plays ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE and LOOT become huge hits in London of the sixties, and he's even commissioned to write a screenplay for the Beatles. But Orton's success destroys Halliwell's sanity, whose response ended both their lives.

This 1987 film is a fascinating re-view now, particularly with that great cast: Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina early in their careers as the outrageous playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell who ends up killing them both. Add in Vanessa Redgrave ideal as the agent Peggy Ramsay (a small woman actually), Julie Walters as Joe's dotty mother back in Leicester, Frances Barber as his sister, Lindsay Duncan as the wife of writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) who wrote that great biography of Orton, as we follow him piecing together Joe's life. Its a fascinating saga particularly for anyone who lived through that 1960s era, as I did. 
I did not see MR SLOANE then but remember walking past the theatre where it was playing when I was first new in London in 1964, when I was 18 - but I saw the 1967 production of LOOT at the Criterion, with young Simon Ward and Kenneth Cranham. In 1976 I saw a great revival of SLOANE at the Royal Court, with Beryl Reid reprising her role in the 1970 film (much better than the film of LOOT - see Orton label) with Malcolm McDowell as Sloane in leather trousers! The actual murder of Orton in August 1967 and Ken's suicide was front page news, I was spending the weekend in Hastings on the coast with friends and it was in all the papers ...
Written by Alan Bennett from Lahr's book and directed by Stephen Frears, PRICK is a treat all round and captures both the 80s and 60s perfectly, and their one-room flat in London's Islington. It should be a better-known cult film, it does not shy away from the seedier aspects of cruising (what gays did before all those bars and clubs opened in the '80s - pity Orton did not live to see all that...) its frank language captures it all too. Its also very moving and sad as well as being wildly funny - Oldman (great legs) is perfect as Joe (looks like him too in that leather cap and tee shirt) and Molina is also marvellous as ever. Great to see him recently in that other gay romance LOVE IS STRANGE (and those re-runs of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), while Gary is magnetic in films like AIR FORCE ONE, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY etc (and directed NIL BY MOUTH). 
Lahr's book is a great read too (as are Orton's published diaries), capturing it all, like Joe's final visit to Brighton where he was looking at flats as be was thinking of moving there, once he had left Halliwell (before he returns to London that fateful weekend ... when Ken explodes in murderous rage when Joe suggests they could split up, leaving Ken feeling abandoned by Joe's success), and it also details their friendship with Kenneth Williams and their trips to Morocco etc. Orton's own diaries are very amusingly explicit too on his many sex-capades ...
Great quotes in the film also: like that end comment, before The Beatles's "A Day In The Life" reaches that crescendo ...

Leonie Orton:  [Mingling Joe's and Ken's ashes]
I think I'm putting in more of Joe than I am of Ken.
Peggy Ramsay:  It's a gesture dear, not a recipe.

Kenneth Halliwell:  Cheap clothes suit you. It's because you're from the gutter.

[Halliwell puts his hand on Orton's leg. Orton brushes it off]
Joe:  No. Have a wank.
Kenneth:  Have a wank? Have a wank? I can't just have a wank. I need three days' notice to have a wank. You can just stand there and do it. Me, it's like organizing D-Day. Forces have to be assembled, magazines bought, the past dredged for some suitably unsavoury episode, the dog-eared thought of which can still produce a faint flicker of desire! Have a wank, it'd be easier to raise the Titanic.

[Joe and Ken are cruising a strange man]
Joe:   He's built like a brick shithouse!
Kenneth:  He's probably a policeman.
Joe:  I know, isn't it wonderful?

Peggy:  Ken was the first wife. He did all the work and the waiting and then...
John Lahr:  Well, first wives don't usually beat their husbands' heads in.
Peggy:  No. Though why I can't think.
John:  So what does that make you? The second wife?
Peggy:  Better than that, dear. The widow.


  1. "Have a wank? Have a wank? I can't just have a wank. I need three days' notice to have a wank!"

    I can't help think you posted this review just to get the double entendre of 'prick is a treat all round' in!

  2. Thanks Mike, just read
    I might watch that tonight. I have the DVD but not sat down and watched it properly.

  3. I love Lahr's book and I love the film - and thanks for the quotes!!