Joe Orton

Joe Orton in London 1964
Joe Orton outside his flat in Noel Street, London N1, 22 May 1964. Photograph copyright Leicester Mercury

John Kingsley (Joe) Orton was an English playwright and author. He is best remembered for his playsEntertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot (1967) and What the Butler Saw (1969).

Joe Orton was born in Leicester on 1st January 1933 to William Orton, a gardener for Leicester City Council and his wife, Elsie, who was a machinist. Joe was the eldest of four children and the family lived in lodgings near to Clarendon Park Road before moving in 1935 to a council house at 9, Fayrhurst Road on the Saffron Lane estate. A Blue Plaque is now located at this address. Joe's childhood home was not a happy one, with little money to spare and both William and Elsie working long hours there were constant family quarrels. Joe attended Marriott Road Junior School in Leicester but due to constant ill health, including asthma, he missed a lot of his early schooling. Consequently, when he took his 11+ examinations in 1944 he failed to gain a grammar school place.

His parents were reluctant for him to attend the local secondary modern school and subsequently arranged for him to attend Clarks Commercial College where he prepared for a future as a clerical worker by taking a secretarial course where he learned typing and shorthand. On leaving college he took a series of dull, tedious clerical positions, all of which he loathed. To relieve the tedium of his daytime work, Joe Orton joined a number of drama groups including the Leicester Drama Society. In 1951 Orton moved to London to study at RADA.

Blue Plaque - Joe Orton
A Blue Plaque on Joe Ortons old house in Fayrhurst Road near Saffron Lane.

It was during his time at RADA that Joe Orton met the man who was to become the greatest influence on his life. Kenneth Halliwell was an actor and writer and was seven years older than Orton.  He was sophisticated, middle class and Oxbridge educated, in fact everything that the ‘working class’ Joe Orton aspired to be. Orton began writing plays in the early 1960s including 'Entertaining Mr Sloane', 'Loot' and 'What the Butler Saw'. His dark comedies dealing in sex and death were controversial at the time but Orton started to enjoy his success as a playwright and a celebrity.

Unfortunately Kenneth Halliwell became increasingly more depressed as Orton's success grew and it put a distance between them that he found difficult to cope with. Orton was also openly promiscuous and in 1967, after a violent argument, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death before killing himself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

The Joe Orton Archive, which includes manuscripts, letters and other original material, was purchased from the Orton Estate in 1997 by the University of Leicester and a large part of this collection was displayed at the Leicester New Walk Museum in 2007. The official Joe Orton website also contains  a wide range of information on Orton's work and life  and has been endorsed by the Orton Estate and created in partnership with Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester and Islington Council.

The official Joe Orton website:

Joe Orton