Looking Back At PRICK UP YOUR EARS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s ears are dutifully pricked.
Sometimes, a film or TV show is so compelling that it naturally attracts every possible example of high talent to it.

That’s what you’re dealing with when it comes to Prick Up Your Ears.

First of all, it’s based on a book written from interviews with living people and first-person sources, and it tells the story not only of the lives it biographizes, but also of the search for information about those lives.

The book is by John Lahr, and is a biography of playwright Joe Orton.

Never heard of Joe Orton? He came to prominence in the mid-Sixties. He had a skill with dark comedy that went far beyond the waspish, and a frankness about the human condition (and particularly its sexual mores) that led The Times to label one of his plays, Entertaining Mr Sloane, as “making the blood boil more than any other play in the last ten years.”

You like him already, don’t you?

You’ll like him even more once you’ve watched Prick Up Your Ears, because in the first instance, Lahr’s book was turned into a screenplay by long-established National Treasure and arguably in some senses, inheritor of Orton’s gift with tone, Alan Bennett.

Every possible example of high talent? Oh, we’ve barely started. The film was directed by Stephen Frears, and was one of his earliest efforts at opening up interesting lives through biographical dramas. If you’re trying to remember where you’ve seen his name, he directed everything from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, to Philomena, to Victoria and Abdul.

Want to talk about the cast? A young Gary Oldman adds charm and humour to the on-screen Orton. Alfred Molina stars as his lover, Kenneth Halliwell (about whom, more later). Vanessa Redgrave joins the party as Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay, who discovered the bodies (laaaater). Frances Barber is Joe’s sister Leonie, and Julie Walters (already adept at playing older than her years by 1987), is his mother. Margaret Tyzack, Lindsay Duncan, Joan Sanderson (you’re thinking of the deaf Mrs Richards from Fawlty Towers), Richard “Victor Meldrew” Wilson, and perhaps oddest of all, Wallace Shawn (of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Young Sheldon, and so much more), stars as Lahr himself.

Get a cast like that together, in a film about a leading, shocking, intoxicating playwright, and give it to Stephen Frears to direct and you’re going to have gold dust.

And you do. Prick Up Your Ears is pure gold dust, all the way through. It’s almost two hours long, but you feel like you’ve barely started when it ends – a sad but poignant resonance of Joe Orton’s creative life.

Because that’s more or less the story Prick Up Your Ears shows us. John Orton, born in Leicester, gets a scholarship to RADA, where he meets the pseudo-intellectual and snob, Kenneth Halliwell.

Halliwell and Orton become lovers at a time when it’s still illegal in the UK. They write together, they pick up men together, they even do some time for writing lewd words on the jackets of library books.

But Halliwell’s writing begins to stall, while Orton feels the urge stir in him. And Orton, over a shockingly brief period, becomes a cause celebre of the English theatre, driving Halliwell further and further into the background, into what was regarded in the Sixties as the “wife’s position,” tending house, helping his partner with his career, rather than pushing forward with his own.

Halliwell grows increasingly bitter and neurotic, especially as Orton continues to meet men for sex, and put the details of those encounters in his all-too-readable diary.

And then, one morning, there are two dead bodies in their Islington flat. One has nine hammer blows to the head. One has a bloodstream full of Nembutal.

Joe Orton, who had lit up the stage with works like Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane, was cut off in his creative prime at just 34. A suicide note from Halliwell made it clear that he had been the aggressor.

That’s the story of Prick Up Your Ears – The rise, the fall, the stasis, and the end of an intense, sometimes comical, sometimes vicious and poisonous, frequently loving relationship that charted the course of a towering creative talent, from its first flowerings to a peak of success that could only have been bettered in years to come as Orton’s talent matured. When he died, he was writing a film script for the Beatles, which in 1967 would have brought him international fame and taken his reputation to a whole new level. How the later works of Joe Orton would have looked and sounded, we will now never know.

But Prick Up Your Ears is a stunning film. Its tone is naturalistic, as you’d expect from Alan Bennett. Its cast, some of them in very minor parts, shine without exception. It’s weird to see so impressive an actress as Margaret Tyzack in just a couple of minor scenes as Orton’s early elocution teacher. Richard Wilson has barely a handful of lines as a prison psychologist. Even Julie Walters as Joe’s mother has only a handful of scenes. The fact that in 1987, all of them would turn out to act in such minor roles is evidence not only of the quality of the script from Alan Bennett, but also the esteem in which Orton was, and remains, held by actors who like to get their teeth stuck into great material.

Perhaps oddly, while a young Gary Oldman has the energy, the insouciance, and the wicked, wild, freewheeling smile to make you fall in love with Orton and want to read or see his plays, he’s not the character on whom you find yourself most regularly focused.

That would be Alfred Molina’s Kenneth Halliwell. Yes, technically, we’ve spoiled the ending for you, but you can get as much from Molina’s performance knowing how it ends as you can watching it without a clue in the world.

Molina soars when he’s given a faux-intellectual to play (see him prove as much in Hancock, playing tortured alcoholic comedian Tony Hancock, somewhere on Youtube). He revels in neurotics, and is never afraid of looking ridiculous in the process of revealing the truth of a character, whether they’re fictional or real.

In Prick Up Your Ears, he’s the most interesting character to watch because he is – or feels he is – the wounded party in the relationship, almost all of the time. There are levels (which he reveals to us) on which he can generate our sympathy en route to the end, because clearly, Orton was not especially easy to love and live with. And as Halliwell descends into neurosis, bitterness at feeling unappreciated, depression, and antidepressant and barbiturate use, Molina lets you feel the coming apart of an ego at the seams, while standing perpetually in the shadow of a triumph of his own making – the success that was Joe Orton.

Prick Up Your Ears is a mesmerising way to spend nearly two hours of your life. It glistens with wit, glows with dedicated performances from every single player, and tells a story that would be fascinating it were fiction, and is wonderful and horrifying by turns because it is true.

If you’ve lived this long without ever seeing Prick Up Your Ears, congratulations – your time of sadness is up. Stroll along to Britbox now and add the story of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell to your experience. You can thank us later.

Watch Prick Up Your Ears today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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