In memory of the playwright Joe Orton, whose career ended in violent death 50 years ago, the BFI is showing a season of films of and about his work. Top of my to-see list was this compendium, which comprises a 1982 BBC documentary alongside clips showcasing some of the work referenced in the documentary – What the Butler Saw, which is also being shown as part of the season, with a Q&A by Lahr, Leonie Orton and Ken Cranham – and an excellent clip of Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid playing a scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane which made me wish I’d made it to see the 2009 production starring Mat Horne.
The main documentary works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an exploration of Orton, his life and death, and the people who knew him. Most of the screen time goes to Orton’s sister Leonie, biographer John Lahr and agent Peggy Ramsey as well as close friend Kenneth Williams. As a result, there’s little in the film that can’t be learnt by reading John Lahr’s biography Prick Up Your Ears. And yet, it’s the people who barely knew Orton that are most fascinating: the Islington librarian who can barely control his laughter as he describes Orton and Halliwell’s desecration of public property. The jolly publishers who betray every scrap of class prejudice they must have felt on meeting Orton for the first time in just a few minutes of chat. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to interact with Orton, and also what it must have felt like for him, attempting to enter circles presided over by the prejudiced. No wonder he had to cultivate unease and rebellion to get ahead.
The film is also a tantalising taste of documentaries past – the sort of thing I just about remember watching growing up. No slick editing or grinding repetition of recaps and soundbites, that blight today’s TV ‘documentaries’. Each subject is given space and time; they hesitate; they reflect; sometimes their words trail off and you learn as much about them as about their late lamented friend. It’s impossible, for example, not to like Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours, the Salvonis, and their simple acceptance of the two men as a couple – and one that would stick together no matter what. As Mr Salvoni repeats this sentiment about them sticking together, it’s as if he’s grasping for something else, perhaps something about love, that perhaps he can’t quite bring himself to say in this context. And yet, you know he gets it. Orton’s sister’s responses range in tone from cheeky wit when she is summing up her parents (“My father would have loved a greenhouse…but…he never aspired to that.”) to heartbreaking when she talks about the unhappiness of her childhood, or the gap her brother’s death left in her life – at that point, 15 years after it happened.