Prick Up Your Ears | 1987
In the Sixties, Joe Orton had virtually elevated the status of playwright to that of rockstar, gleefully baiting the establishment with such dark, anarchic comedies as Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, when he was murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell.
The hedonistic Orton kept scandalously detailed diaries, providing rich material for John Lahr’s 1978 biography, which took its risqué title, Prick Up Your Ears, from an idea suggested by Halliwell for one of Joe’s plays.
Alan Bennett’s adaptation is so brilliant, and the performances so spot-on, it’s shocking that the film isn’t better known.
The couple lived at 25 Noel Road in Islington, north London, in a cramped top-floor flat which now boasts a celebratory plaque. In 1967 the frustrated Halliwell, increasingly eclipsed by the charming and reckless Orton, finally snapped and bashed out the writer’s brains with a hammer, before killing himself.
Despite what many people believe, the film was not shot at Noel Road. Islington, now a byword for middle-class trendiness, has been subject to wholesale gentrification and Noel Road is no longer the scruffily sidestreet it was 50 years ago. The house in which Orton (Gary Oldman) and Halliwell (Alfred Molina) live out their pressure-cooker existence is a few minutes walk away at 10B St Peter’s Street, opposite Cruden Street (it’s just around the corner from the Mods’ cafe from Quadrophenia).
The brief seaside holiday frolic was filmed in Tangier, Morocco, and the scenes of Joe Orton’s original home in ‘Leicester’, in Thornton Heath, south London, but most of the film is made in central and north London.
The real Orton and Halliwell first met up when they were both drama students at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), 62-64 Gower Street in Bloomsbury, the training ground for countless of the UK’s most revered stage actors. You can see the real RADA briefly in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 Stage Fright, but Prick Up Your Ears uses the Central School for Speech and Drama, 64 Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage NW3, as a stand in.
Orton and Halliwell enjoy the Festival of Britain fireworks by the Royal Festival Hall, built for the post-war celebration of Britishness in 1951, one hundred years after Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition. The site is now the South Bank arts complex, which includes the British Film Institute Southbank and the National Theatre.
The pair served six months in prison for the heinous crime of defacing library books. Chelsea Library, in Chelsea Old Town Hall on the King’s Road, SW3, stands in for its counterpart in ‘Islington’ where diligent librarians trace the wickedly imaginative work back to the subversive couple. The book jackets were saved and, with a hint of irony, proudly put on display at Islington Local History Centre in 2012. Today Orton and Halliwell would be more likely to get the Turner Prize than a custodial sentence.
The tirelessly priapic Orton picks up a bit of rough trade in Aldwych Tube Station, the disused tube line station on the Strand, a regular film backdrop which can be used without disrupting train schedules, seen in productions such as Atonement and The Krays.
After collecting his Evening Standard writers’ award at a glitzy ceremony, Orton typically celebrates with a spot of ‘cottaging’ – gay slang for recreational sex in public lavatories. The cottage, in which he removes the lightbulbs to join in an exquisitely balletic orgy, is the old-fashioned underground gents’ convenience on the traffic island of Bermondsey Square, at the junction of Tower Bridge Road and Abbey Street. It’s still a place of entertainment, though now more mainstream, housing the Bermondsey Arts Club, 102 a Tower Bridge Road.