Tag Archive | Leicester

Joe Orton, Genius

Today is a sad anniversary: 50 years ago today the playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.

Joe Orton in 1967.

I have long been obsessed by Joe Orton. I was a young teenager when I first saw one of his works: the wonderful 1970 film of Entertaining Mr Sloane, based on his 1964 play of the same name. It was dark – blackly dark, and funny as hell, and full of the most joyous and brilliant language.

It spoke to me, even more so when I learned that he was from Leicester, the Midlands city where I lived at the time. From then on, I tried to find out as much as I could about him, to see all his plays and read everything he had written, and that had been written about him. It seemed so cruel that such a wicked, witty and scabrous mind had been taken from us at just 34 – what other wonders would he have created had he not died so young?

Joe in the one-room flat he shared with Kenneth Halliwell in Noel Road, Islington, 1964. (c) The Leicester Mercury.

John Lahr wrote a fantastic biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, which was published in 1978. He later in 1986 published Orton’s diaries in edited form.

This BBC Arena documentary from 1982 is a good introduction to Orton:

A film adaptation of Prick Up Your Ears was released in 1987. Gary Oldman plays Orton, and Alfred Molina plays Halliwell. I can’t think of a better actor at the time than Oldman to capture not only the physical likeness of Orton, but his mischievousness and charm and sexual confidence and humour, all of which are abundantly clear in Orton’s diaries.

I have always felt a connection to Joe, even though he was a gay man and I am a straight woman: I adore his black humour, his sexual innuendos and irreverence, his pomposity pricking and subversion. He is my writer. I was even happier to learn that he had lived for his first two years in Clarendon Park, the same area of Leicester in which I had lived.

Joe Orton.

In 1988 I briefly worked in a bookshop in Leicester, and helped out when the shop hosted an evening with John Lahr, to coincide with the new productions of two of Orton’s lesser-known plays, The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, at the Haymarket Theatre. He gave a very interesting talk about Joe, and Leonie, Joe’s sister, was there too to answer questions. I took all my Lahr Ortonalia along for the great man to sign: treasured possessions still.

Joe in 1965, photo by Lewis Morley. You can read Morley’s recollections of the photo session during which the photo was taken here.

The publication in 1993 of Kenneth Williams‘ diaries, edited by Russell Davies, gave another wonderful insight into Joe’s life. Lahr had talked to Williams for Prick Up Your Ears, and had been allowed to quote from Williams’ diaries, but the publication of the diaries gave us a much fuller picture of Joe, and his relationship with Halliwell and with Williams.

Joe in 1966. Photo by John Haynes.

If you haven’t discovered Joe Orton yet, I encourage you to dive in, head first. Entertaining Mr Sloane is my favourite play of his, and the film version starring Beryl Reid, Harry Andrews and Peter McEnery captures its anarchic irreverence perfectly.

Joe Orton, 1 January 1933 – 9 August 1967.

Joe Orton website, run by his estate

BBC Radio 4 Front Row half hour special edition on Joe, first broadcast 11 August 2017 and available for download. Features Leonie Orton, Sheila Hancock and John Lahr, among others.

Stoneywell, an Arts and Crafts house

Stoneywell is a wonderful Arts and Crafts house built by designer-architect Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) for his brother Sydney in Ulverscroft in the Leicestershire countryside between 1897 and 1899, and lived in by Sydney’s family until 2012. It has been bought by the National Trust and restored to the state it was in in the 1950s, and is now open to the public, opening for the first time ever this spring.

Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

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Stoneywell, drawn by Ernest Gimson in July 1898.

Stoneywell is in Charnwood Forest, north-west of Leicester, and I know the area well because I grew up in Leicester, and Charnwood Forest and Bradgate Park (‘Braggy Park’) were favourite weekend family walk spots. I’m also familiar with the work of Ernest Gimson, because there were a couple of his houses just around the corner from where I lived in Leicester, Inglewood on Ratcliffe Road and The White House on North Avenue.

Inglewood (1892), a house by Ernest Gimson on Ratcliffe Road. Photo by NotFromUtrecht.

Inglewood (1892), a house by Ernest Gimson on Ratcliffe Road, Leicester. Photo by NotFromUtrecht.

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The White House (1898), a house by Ernest Gimson on North Avenue, Leicester. Photo by NotFromUtrecht.

Gimson built several houses at Ulverscroft for his family. Stoneywell is special because it was furnished by Gimson and his furniture-making colleagues the Barnsleys, and as the family never left the house, much of the original furniture remains.

The kitchen at Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

The kitchen at Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

The living room at Stoneywell. photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

The living room at Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

The master bedroom at Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

The master bedroom at Stoneywell. Photo by Joe Giddens/PA.

Now here’s a little story. When I was about 14, on one of our weekend trips to Charnwood Forest we passed an antiques shopI can’t remember where it was: Woodhouse Eaves, maybe?and some of its wares were displayed out on the pavement. My eye was caught by a beautiful chair with a twisted cord seat, and I asked my Dad to stop so I could look at it. I found out how much it was from the shop owner (I think he might have taken pity on me and given me a good price), worked out how many months-worth of pocket money that would be, asked for a sub from my parents, and bought the chair. Luckily our car was big enough to take it home in the back.

I still have it: such a pretty little Arts and Crafts chair. Maybe this is a little fanciful of me, but I like to think it could have been a Gimson or a Barnsley chair, from one of the Gimson houses in the area. Whoever it was made by, I haven’t ever seen another like it. Update December 2016: an extremely knowledgeable Arts and Crafts collector tells me that my chair is by William Birch. At last I know who made it. Thank you, Vanessa!

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National Trust information on Stoneywell.

World record easter eggs

Quite near to where I grew up in Leicester in the 1970s was a wonderful patisserie, Konditorei Macopa, run by a German man, Siegfried Berndt. The shop on Clarendon Park Road was pretty wee, but it had the most amazing selection of continental pastries and chocolates and wonderful cakes, all of which Mr Berndt made on the premises. It seemed such an exotic shop to have in our area, and it was a real treat to have one of his apricot Danish pastries or croissants for breakfast at the weekend, along with coffee made from the unroasted coffee beans he used to sell, which my Mum then used to roast in our oven. I loved that smell! His shop was also the first time I had seen fresh yeast, which you could buy in a little paper envelope with a cellophane front. His window display was a wonder to behold, with beautiful slices of continental style cakes and pastries and handmade chocolates. The shop always smelled wonderful tooMr Berndt roasted coffee beans on the premises, so along with the bready and cakey and chocolatey aromas, it was almost sensory overload to go in there.

A big egg.

A big egg. Bariloche, Argentina, April 2015. Photo by BBC.

Anyhow, I was reminded of this wonderful shop today when I saw an article about the world record breaking chocolate easter egg just made in Argentina. This handmade behemoth stands 6.50 m tall and used 8,000 kg of chocolate. Back in 1982, Mr Berndt became the world record holder for the heaviest chocolate easter egg – on 7 April 1982 he completed one that weighed 3,430 kg (7,561 lbs, 13 1/2 oz), and stood 3.05 m (10 feet) high. He appeared on Blue Peter with his creation, and soon after that 1 lb bags of smashed-up bits of easter egg were on sale in his shop: apparently it took until July to sell them all (only half of the eggsworth – he gave the rest to charity). I have to admit I succumbedit’s not every day you can say you’ve eaten a piece of world record breaking easter egg. I think the record stood for a few years, but then was overtaken by greater productions. The new Argentinian record holder is over twice the height and weight of the Macopa one.

I wondered what happened to the shop, and a quick spot of googling showed that it closed some time in the late 1990s. However, in March last year an artisan bakery opened up in the premises: The Tiny Bakery. Well named, indeed!

February 2016 update: Thanks to a comment from a lady, June, who used to work at Macopa, I’ve corrected Mr Berndt’s nationality to German. He is wrongly described as Swiss in the news reports I’ve seen. Do have a read of June’s comment, below – it’s a fascinating glimpse into the life of the patisserie and the travails of the easter egg. Thanks, June!

A good read: John Lahr on Tennessee Williams

Well, I don’t know if it is because I haven’t received it yet, but coming my way is John Lahr‘s new biography of Tennessee Williams, one of my favourite playwrights. Called Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, it is published in the UK today. I am sure it will be more than just a good read, though—Lahr is a terrific writer, and the reviews I have seen so far have been glowing.

Tennessee Williams on location during the filming of his play, The Night of the Iguana.

Tennessee Williams on location during the filming of his play, The Night of the Iguana.

I am so pleased that this book has finally been published. I have the first instalment of the biographical series, if it can be called that: Lyle Leverich‘s Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, which was published in 1995 and followed Williams’ life up to 1945, ending as Williams worked on A Streetcar Named Desire. Leverich died in 1999 before he could complete his second part of the biography, and had asked that Lahr should take over the task. I was very sad to hear of Leverich’s death because he had done such a magnificent job on Tom, but I couldn’t have been happier to learn of Lahr’s involvement.

John Lahr. Photo by Jill Krementz.

John Lahr. Photo by Jill Krementz.

Lahr wrote my all-time favourite biography, the magisterial Prick Up Your Ears, the biography of Joe Orton, as well as editing Orton’s wonderfully scurrilous and funny diaries and writing the preface to Orton’s collected plays. Orton is, I think, my all-time favourite playwright (what is it with me and gay playwrights?). I love his black humour, his irreverent take on life, and his joyous way with words. He came from Leicester, where I grew up, so maybe I feel a special affinity with him because of this.

In 1988 Lahr came to talk about Orton at the bookshop in Leicester in which I was working. At the time the Haymarket Theatre was putting on two of Orton’s lesser-known plays (The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp), and there was a display of related photographs and artwork in the foyer of the theatre. I cheekily asked the manager if we could borrow a huge black and white photo of Orton for the evening, and he kindly agreed—I remember walking through the streets carrying this massive portrait of one of Leicester’s most (in)famous sons, and chuckling to myself that he was being fêted in the city of which he had never thought too fondly. Lahr’s talk was fascinating, and Orton’s sister Leonie was there too, and answered questions about Joe’s life. It was a very special night. I had taken along all my Lahr books for him to sign, and they are now among my most treasured possessions.

Joe Orton.

Joe Orton.

And nicely completing the circle, I learned not too long ago that Williams greatly admired Orton, and even dedicated a play to his memory.

As well as Williams’ collected plays and short stories, I have a very small collection of books on Williams, only a tiny proportion of the hundreds that have been written about him. Chap bought me the Leverich book when it was published, and others I have picked up at second-hand bookshops. I have Williams’ Memoirs (published in 1972), highly selective and self-censored, as became apparent when I read Leverich; Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham 1940-1965, edited by Donald Windham and published in 1977; and another, rather less satisfactory biography, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, by Donald Spoto and published in 1985. Lahr’s book is going to be well-thumbed before too long.

Lahr’s book has been the Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 this week, read by Damian Lewis. I admire how the abridger has managed to distil the 784 pages documenting the last 37 years of Williams’ hectic life into 75 minutes. No mean feat!