Joe Orton 1.

© Words Simon Wells
“With madness, as with vomit, it's the passerby who receives the inconvenience.”

Joe Orton (1 January 1933 – 9 August 1967)

“The only thing I get from the theatre is a sore arse.”

Paul McCartney, January 1967

The time was the 1960s, a period that even while 50 years has now since passed, still has the power to enchant, enwrap and consume us. The strands that ran off of every day of this remarkable period could fill numerous books, and probably will do by the time we are all dust.  As we are annoyingly reminded, we are worse off for not having lived through it, and have borne the brunt of it ever since. Punk may have been great, House may have liberated many, but the sixties still reigns supreme.

/London 1967.London was evidently at the centre of this cultural explosion, and leading the way were The Beatles – by 1966, they’d conquered every level of society – globally and culturally. Most importantly, they’d torn down the walls that separated class and division – giving working class artists the broadest canvas ever. It’s clear that every young celebrity who came to prominence during this period owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Beatles.

Playwright Joe Orton was one creative soul who benefitted from the cultural freeing up The Beatles had engineered. By 1966, he’d charmed all levels of the British theatrical aristocracy –a landscape previously ring fenced to such upstarts from the hinterlands of England. While Orton was a good few years older than The Beatles, he revelled in his youth and the freedom it allowed. 34 he may well have been, but his mind (and trousers) was still firmly set in an extended adolescence.

Orton’s cheeky celebrity masked an even more outrageous private life. Revelling in his homosexuality at a time when one could have been jailed for one’s preferences, Orton treated London as a giant sexual playground, excitement tucked around every corner. The permissive 60s were tailor-made for Orton’s insatiable promiscuity – favouring the public lavatory to schmoozing in West End clubs. Orton’s interminable dallying at the arse end of London’s sexual adventures gave him and his observational writing a razor’s edge and a rare salacious humour.

While Orton’s contemporaries in the rock music world were also satisfying their collective libidos at every opportunity, they rarely collided – theatre and pop at that point separated by a thick wall of snobbery that, despite Orton’s attempt at tearing down social barriers, was still infused by stifling class attitudes and ineffable snobbery.

With the benefit of hindsight it would appear obvious that Orton would collide with The Beatles at some point. The group’s abandoning of concert work in 1966 had allowed them time to explore London – at that point the centre of the world, and like all quarters engaged in the arts, theatre was starting to become accessible.

/The Beatles 1966

As songwriters of their generation, Paul McCartney and John Lennon had been approached to write a musical –a predictable rite of passage to exploit their enormous talent. Nonetheless, despite the considerable riches for the taking, the pair didn’t care too much for the theatre. While they’d mingled in drama circles, their short attention spans wouldn’t allow for prolonged spells in auditoriums where the action was slow. While McCartney (the most artistically adventurous of the group) had famously mentioned that all he got from the theatre was “a sore arse”, there was some talk that some sort of musical would appear with the “Lennon and McCartney” tag attached to it.

Film was a far more viable (and lucrative) option for the group. As the astronomical success of both A Hard Days Night and Help! had witnessed - a third movie was a formality, and had been pencilled in for 1966. A proposed script with a Western theme entitled A Talent For Loving had been optioned for the band during late 1965 – and found favour with the band. Written by The Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon, the concept lifted The Beatles over to the Wild West of the 1870s.  Despite public announcements that the film would go into production during 1966, the group would ultimately pass on the movie. Another idea that only reached proposal stage was a reworking of Alexandra Dumas’ Three Musketeers. While the boys were excited at the prospect of having Bridget Bardot playing Lady De Winter, the project would ultimately be rejected, although it would be successfully revived by Richard Lester in 1974.

/LSDThere were other elements that were fast changing The Beatles view of their life. The band’s discovery of Marijuana and LSD had coloured the lads’ vision considerably, reducing their egos to a point where the frippery of predictable plot-lines was of little interest. Nonetheless the group had an existing three-picture deal with United Artists, who were desperate for the band to realise the contract while their popularity was still at its global peak.

To keep United Artists at bay, Brian Epstein had negotiated a deal for Yellow Submarine, an animated project that he hoped would satisfy their contract, while minimising his charges involvement. While Epstein was quick to sign the deal, he ignored the small print embedded in The Beatles’ contract with UA – that was implicit on the group’s actual involvement in the film – animated Beatles no substitute for the real thing. Epstein had a poor track record as regards film deals. His tepid deal with A Hard Day’s Night and a disastrous tax haven plot with Help!  had drawn derision from the band. Similarly, Lennon and McCartney mocked him when he suggested that they compose the music for Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book in 1965

Producer of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Walter Shenson had invested a lot of his reputation in successfully bringing the boys to the screen. Nonetheless, his terrier desire to ensure they continued their movie career was being sorely tested by the Fabs less than enthusiastic responses. The group’s gradual retreat from their hectic timetable meant that there was tepid enthusiasm to turning over 12 weeks for filming.

In an attempt to elicit some interest, Shenson had commissioned 45-year-old TV screenwriter Owen Holder to put together a script that was in line with the experimental atmosphere that was invading cinema during 1966. With Blow Up forging a new sensibility for the screen, Shenson sensed that the Beatles current experimental phase (as per Revolver) would be well suited for the cinema. With a brief (of sorts) handed over to Holder, he went away and began constructing a script.From the few parts of Holder’s script that have escaped, it certainly was light years away from the silly nonsense plots that had been embedded in their previous films.

Holder’s basic premise was that each of the Beatles would be an aspect of one person. That person would be called “Stanley Grimshaw” – reportedly going to be played by John, while the rest of the boys would play the other personalities in his mind. While little else has been revealed, the film’s love interest would pursue all four members of the group with a proposal of marriage (which the script coyly fails to reveal which Beatle accepts). A treatment by Holder was clearly prepared by August 1966 – and had found some favour with the group.

Blow Up 1.

“Somebody gave us a good idea,” said George Harrison in answer to a question regarding the film in August 1966. “We told him to go and write it into a script. So we won't really be able to tell if we're gonna make the film until we've read the script. And as he hasn't finished the script, we haven't read the script- so we won't know yet until about Christmas, maybe. But if it is a good one and we like it, we'll probably start it 'round about January, February, or March... or December."

With the working title of Beatles 3, Holder’s draft formed the basis of several meetings. With a green light to complete a script, Holder would complete a 109-page document. The signs at that point were promising, with reportedly a budget larger than the group’s previous films and a far more creative hand afforded to the group. The added carrot for the producers (of course) was the likelihood of a soundtrack album containing half a dozen songs –with recording slated for the last quarter of 1966.

However, as was becoming a formality for the group during the mid-60s, projects would come and go with frightening speed. Nonetheless, in lieu of any group filming commitments, members of the group were involving themselves in projects relating to the movie industry. Paul McCartney had been contracted to write the score for a Boutling Brothers’ production, The Family Way. Despite his lackadaisical persona, John Lennon had already agreed to star in Dick Lester’s pacifist film How I Won The War in the autumn of 1966 - a subject Lennon was eager to associate himself with. With George in India and Ringo busy playing husband and father, any talk of the group’s film project was not considered a high priority.

/How I Won The War John Lennon 1.Owen Holder’s script not maintaining any great continuity – and at the tail end of 1966 – and with the Fab Four locked in the studio – a decision of sorts was made to jettison Holder’s draft. While the idea was still considered worthy of further investigation, with Sergeant Pepper taking a far greater precedence– and drugs filling in the rest of their time – none of the Fabs were that interested in pursuing it any further at that stage.

The beginning of 1967 saw The Beatles retreat to the studio, while Joe Orton was the toast of London’s drama society – lauded by critics, loved by audiences and at the beck and call of producers. His first two productions Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane had become West End sell-outs and collecting rave reviews and provoking controversy in equal measures. With Loot destined for Broadway, film rights and a television play The Good and the Faithfull Servant in rehearsal for ITV, Orton was rightfully chuffed by his endeavours.

The crowning moment of this period was his award from the London Evening Standard for Loot becoming “Play Of The Year” for 1966. The televised award ceremony at the swanky West End eatery Quaglino’s on 11th January 1967 drove a sharp wedge in his relationship with his companion Kenneth Halliwell, Orton’s refusal to allow his unpredictable flatmate a dinner place at the ceremony was just one in series of rejections that would ultimately lead to Orton’s untimely death just month’s later.

Orton’s Beatlesque rise to fame and celebrity would prompt producer Walter Shenson to make a very cogent connection that an amalgam between Orton and the Fabs may well prove fortuitous. Holder’s script dangling in limbo, it was decided to approach Orton to beef up the initial premise that at least ideas wise, had initially excited the group. Shenson had evidently mentioned Orton’s name to the Beatles at this period who had green lighted the approach. As was the way of things, a phone call was made to Orton’s flat in Islington on 12th January 1967.

“'I've discussed it with the boys,” said Shenson to Orton. “I mean, I’ve mentioned your name to them. They’ve heard of you. |they didn’t react too much, I must say. But I think I can persuade them to have you.”

Joe Orton 2.j

Orton’s working-class confidence, elevated by sharp rise to fame - would spare no time in returning Shenson’s slightly tepid approach.

“Well, I’m frightfully up to my eyes at the moment,” replied Orton. “I’m writing my third play.”

Undeterred, Shenson pushed for Joe to show some interest. Rarely, if ever did someone turn down an opportunity to work with The Beatles – and Shenson was aware that the connection with Orton would prove exciting. “I’d certainly love to have you take a look at this draft,” pushed Shenson.

Orton acquiesced and shelved his momentary nonchalance. “Please send the script over and I’ll read it” he said.

On that cordial note, the script was couriered over to Orton’s flat the following day. The third play that Orton had referenced to Shenson was What The Butler Saw – a romp much in the vein of Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane and with a heavy expectation placed on it. With no immediate pressure on the “Butler” script (it had reached first draft status) – Orton took two days to read The Beatles script. While he had never written a film script as such, he was intrigued by the approach that Holder had taken, especially the possibilities for sexual adventure within the split personality angle.

“Like the idea,” wrote Orton on turning the final page. “Basically it is that there aren’t four young men. Just four aspects of one man. Sounds dreary, but as I thought about it I realised what wonderful opportunities it would give.”

/Entertaing Mr Sloane.Inspired by the possibilities, Orton called Walter Shenson and arranged to meet him over lunch to discuss the project – the date being 16th January 1967. Before he ventured to the producer’s office, he conferred with his agent (Margaret) Peggy Ramsey.  Beatle money commanding the highest tier of rates, Ramsey informed Joe that she’d ask for an advance of £10,000 on the first draft (around 100k in today’s money).

The meeting with Shenson over lunch proving warm and cordial, Shenson would leave with a magical possibility. “Don’t be surprised if a Beatle rings you up,” said Shenson as they bid their farewells. Fired on all cylinders, Orton immediately began working on the script straight after the meeting with Shenson. By the end of the first day, he’d typed two pages and had a title, “Up Against It”. Ever the magpie, even when it came to his own work, he began to incorporate elements of “The Silver Bucket”, his first novel written in 1953 with lover Kenneth Halliwell and parts of “The Vision Of Gombold Proval” Orton’s first solo novel from 1961. Orton’s ribald imagination would go into the stratosphere with his ideas for the group, leaving Holder’s script as nothing more than a skeletal template. With plans to expand all known boundaries to the Beatles’ screen lives, Orton’s characterisations would explode and challenge every known convention – redrawing the group’s cinematic personas in directions that were completely alien to the world at large.

Sensing the alliance’s enormous potential, Orton pushed his agent to up the fee for the script to £15,000.  A contract would be prepared with a clause that would allow Orton to buy back the script if indeed The Beatles did not go through with their intention to film.

While words and promises were typically inconsequential in the 1960s, a call from The Beatles office made its way to Orton on 23rd January 1967 – requesting a meeting with the playwright.  Excited by conferring with the group, Orton duly travelled up to the Beatles’ office in Argyll Street in London’ West End the following afternoon. While Orton had become largely inured by the contrary attitudes of the show-business world, he’d be seriously irked by what he encountered that day. “All the boys' appointments have been put back an hour and a half.” reported Peter Brown, Epstein’s P.A. to Orton as he sat waiting in their office. “I was a bit chilly in my manner after that,” wrote Orton in his diary that night. Brown then attempted to defer Orton with the promise of a date in the future. “What guarantee is there that you won’t break that?” said Orton, now aware that there were no Fabs in the building. “I think you better find yourself another writer,” snapped Joe – as he prepared to leave.

Brown, used to the world and his wife grovelling at The Beatles’ alter, quickly moved to stymie Orton’s exit. Excusing himself to an office, he swiftly returned with Brian Epstein – not a Fab, but the closest one could get to the gilded inner circle. On first impressions, Orton wasn’t that impressed with the world’s most famous impresario’s aura. “I’d imagined Epstein to be florid, Jewish, dark-haired and overwhelming. Inside, I was face to face with a mousey-haired, slight young man.” Epstein quickly ushered Orton into his office, and attempted to placate him. “Could you meet Paul and me for dinner tonight?”  said Epstein. “We do want to have the pleasure of talking with you.”  While Orton had a theatre engagement that night, he made vaguely positive noises that he would be over that night. While Epstein had offered the services of a chauffeur driven car to get the playwright to his Belgravia home, Orton was far happier travelling on a bus.

/London Bus 1967.

Part Two Here

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