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Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
35mm, 110 min, colour
DirectorStephen Frears
Production CompanyZenith Productions
 Channel Four
ProducerAndrew Brown
ScreenplayAlan Bennett
CinematographyOliver Stapleton

Cast: Gary Oldman (Joe Orton); Alfred Molina (Kenneth Halliwell); Vanessa Redgrave (Peggy Ramsay); Wallace Shawn (John Lahr); Lindsay Duncan (Anthea Lahr); Julie Walters (Elsie Orton)

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The life of renowned Sixties playwright Joe Orton, especially his turbulent and ultimately murderous relationship with lover Kenneth Halliwell.

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Based on John Lahr's biography of playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears was director Stephen Frears' first film after the surprise hit My Beautiful Launderette (1985). While both films deal with a central gay relationship, Prick Up Your Ears takes a less political approach to its subject matter, and a more playful attitude to narrative and character.

Told largely in flashback, the story of Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's tempestuous relationship is recounted through various interviews and entries from Orton's notorious diaries. Rather than providing a thorough account of the writer, Alan Bennett's script jumps back and forth in time, presenting an episodic overview of the key elements in Orton's life. The structure is deliberately elusive, creating a riddle from the scattered information provided, primarily by Orton's agent, Peggy Ramsay.

The broader theme of homosexuality in 1960s Britain is dealt with in a similarly teasing manner. One scene sees Orton jokingly mention to Kenneth that he could be put in prison for "what they are doing", while the police make occasional appearances at notorious 'cottaging' sites. But such references serve to highlight the apparent excitement of clandestine gay encounters at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, commenting little on the subjects of queer oppression and closeted homosexuality. Orton appears to revel in his position of the outsider, and takes great joy in crude innuendo and the graphic retelling of sexual trysts.

This refusal to offer a formal dissection of 1960s gay politics - with the stuffy, sombre tone that might have entailed - alongside the film's elliptical construction, has led several critics to celebrate Prick Up Your Ears' pervasive 'queerness' in both style and content.

Despite the tragic outcome of the central relationship, the film largely downplays the potential for melodrama. Even in its closing acts, it opts for a note of humour rather than the melancholy that might be expected, and concludes on a pleasingly optimistic note.

The title was taken from Kenneth Halliwell's suggested name for Orton's never-produced film with The Beatles. Orton rejected the idea, insisting, "this is much too good a title to waste on a film".

Michael Blyth

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Video Clips
1. Shorthand diaries (3:42)
2. Municipal outrage (4:11)
3. A Beatle calls (3:45)
Original Poster
Production stills
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Victim (1961)
Audsley, Mick (1949-)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Duncan, Lindsay (1950-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Mackintosh, Steven (1967-)
Molina, Alfred (1953-)
Oldman, Gary (1958-)
Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)
Walters, Julie (1950-)
Channel 4 and Film