"With madness, as with vomit, it's the passer by who receives the inconvenience" - Joe Orton.
I'm not quite sure how thirty years have passed since the release of Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears and I'm even more uncertain of how, as those three decades elapsed, I'd never got round to seeing it. It's not as if it wasn't raved about at the time of its release and I was quite aware of Gary Oldman (who plays Joe Orton in this story of his life and death), having travelled up to a now defunct cinema in Camden to see him as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy just a year before.
The BFI Southbank were showing the 1987 film as part of their Orton:Obscenities in Suburbia season so I was finally getting my chance to lay this ghost to rest. But thirty years later would it have the same impact on me as it did those who saw it on its release? Would it seem impossibly dated? Do people even know, or care, who Joe Orton is now?
Well, I can't answer the first question and the third is up for debate but on the question as to whether or not it looked dated the answer is yes, it did. But that wasn't a problem. It would've looked dated when it came out in '87. The rain soaked London streets, the seedy public toilets, the now vintage police cars, and the unflattering y-fronts all spoke of the late sixties far more than they did the late eighties. There's virtually no sunshine in the film. A fair amount of it is shot in the poky Islington flat Orton shared with his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) and rarely do they venture outdoors during the daytime. Even when they travel to Morocco to enjoy some dubious, potentially underage, sex the skies seem to be permanently overcast.
Alan Bennett's responsible for the screenplay and if that comes across in the slightly dour settings it does so even more in the amount of wonderful one liners dished out by Orton, Halliwell, and Orton's sister Elsie (played by Frances Barber). There are also appearances from Julie Walters (Joe's mum, Elsie), Richard Wilson (as, I don't believe it, a psychiatrist with a poor understanding of homosexuality), Eric Richard (a man whose features are etched into the mind of anyone of my generation after a decade long shift playing Desk Sergeant Bob Cryer in The Bill), and an uncredited cameo from Derek Jarman.
But the film belongs to Oldman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Molina. Oldman, in his handsome pomp, is a near perfect fit to play Orton, his star rising at the time the film was made as Orton's was at the time the film was set. He's got the insouciance, the devil-may-care attitude, the taboo busting disrespect for civilised society, and the sexually cavalier attitude down to a tee. Witness him checking out men's packages in the park and leaving a prestigious award in a urinal as he celebrates the winning of it with a leather clad gay orgy in a public toilet so grim looking you can virtually smell the piss.
It looks fun to play. Molina gets more of a challenge. Halliwell is a frustrated, fastidious, fusspot full of insecurities and jealous about Orton's success, promiscuity, and full head of hair. He jokes that it would take him three days to plan a wank and then enviously allows Orton to escort various articles of rough trade into tube station alleyways and tower blocks for dimly lit knee tremblers.
Halliwell even joins in sometimes and it's to Frears' credit that he shows us the duality of Halliwell's character, how he's changed. We see him both as Orton's crabby, complaining house husband and, by use of a non-linear narrative, his passionate lover and a once talented, if horribly hammy, writer and actor himself. By the avoidance of strict chronology Frears and Bennett are able to paint more rounded pictures of Orton, Halliwell, and their relationship, carried out for the most part, it's worth stressing, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.
We jump from the years of Orton's success, and Halliwell's mental collapse, back and forth to his days growing up in Leicester where his mum paid for him to have elocution lessons so he can make something of himself. A third strand that weaves in and out of the film involves American biographer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and his wife Anthea (Lindsay Duncan) working, posthumously, on a book about the playwright. This gives Vanessa Redgrave, as Orton's theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, a chance to lay the groundwork for Joanna Lumley's Patsy Stone character in Absolutely Fabulous a few years later.
It's not the most interesting part of the film and when the action was on Lahr & Ramsay I was always wanting it to switch back to Orton and Halliwell and their banter, badinage, and brawling. In 2017, despite homophobia still being undoubtedly a very real thing, homosexuality is more accepted than it was in 1987 by wider society so it's unlikely this film will have quite the impact on its re-release as it did when it first came out (if you'll pardon the pun) but that takes nothing away from its brilliance.
Enjoy the jokes about East Croydon being in the countryside, pubs being so gentrified they now serve salad, and the running theme of Orton ramming his typewriter up anyone he's taken a dislike to's arse but also come to marvel at a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, period piece that feels very very English indeed. It's a deliciously saucy seaside postcard but it's stained with the blood and barbiturates of the era too.