I first heard of the controversial English playwright Joe Orton when I watched Stephen Frears’ excellent 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, a witty take on Orton’s life with a screenplay by Alan Bennett and an early starring role for Gary Oldman. The film remains perhaps better-known than any screen adaptations of Orton’s actual work, mainly because there have been surprisingly few such adaptations. Whether this is because Orton’s work seems more suited to the stage or whether it’s because what were once seen as shocking black comedies quickly dated in a society rapidly becoming more permissive, there is certainly a sense of promising scenarios scuppered by awkward execution in both of the 1970 Orton adaptations being released on DVD, Blu-ray and EST by Studiocanal. Though they are not completely without note, it’s easy to see why both Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot have resided in obscurity for so long, dismissed by Orton’s fans as unworthy of the original works on which they are based.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Director: Douglas Hickox
Screenplay: Clive Everton
Based on the play by: Joe Orton
Producers: Douglas Kentish
Starring: Beryl Reid, Harry Andrews, Peter McEnery, Alan Webb
Year: 1970
Country: UK
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 94 mins

Perhaps Orton’s most famous work, Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a queasy black comedy about an increasingly more grotesque love triangle involving a brother and sister and the young, boorish stranger that captivates both of them. There are elements of all sorts of better films evident in Clive Everton’s self-conscious script and Douglas Hickox’s ripe direction, from Joseph Losey’s The Servant and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude but, unlike these influences, Entertaining Mr. Sloane feels pleased with itself even when it’s not being very good. From the off, you can hear the promise in the eloquent dialogue but everything seems desperately overstated. Beryl Reid gives her character, the unbalanced, lascivious Kath, the full Whatever Happened to Baby Jane treatment, relishing every minute but for those who don’t care for this Grand Guignol style, it’s a performance that quickly becomes grating. By contrast Peter McEnery, in the central role of Sloane, underacts his role to the extent that it’s hard to glean exactly what his motivation is for any of his drastic deeds. These two leading performances clash badly and as the first scene played out I was disastrously aware of watching two actors spouting lines and failed to get a handle on either character beyond what I was bluntly told.

The other two performances in what is essentially a four-hander appealed to me more. Alan Webb’s turn as elderly patriarch Kemp is bold but fun, like a sketch show caricature transplanted into an albeit bizarre real world scenario. But it is veteran actor Harry Andrews who quietly steals the show as the brother Ed. His performance is so strong it almost makes it worth watching the film and it’s notable to see a gay character in a production from 1970 not being portrayed as a mincing cartoon. But ultimately Entertaining Mr. Sloane can’t get out from under the weight of its lumpen script and tonally-strange direction. The film lurches from ghoulish licentiousness to tentative understatement before going for broke with a wilfully ludicrous, over-egged finale complete with an intrusive title song from Georgie Fame. Far from putting me off seeing the original play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane makes me all the more curious as it constantly teeters on the brink of being a fascinating black comic gem. The overall impression though is that this sense of tantalising greatness comes from Orton’s source text and requires a more confident director and adapter to achieve the extremely difficult tone to which it aspires.

Loot

Director: Silvio Narizzano
Screenplay: Ray Galton, Alan Simpson
Based on the play by: Joe Orton
Producers: Arthur Lewis
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Lee Remick, Hywel Bennett, Milo O’Shea
Year: 1970
Country: UK
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 101 mins

Loot was one of the last plays Orton wrote and one he was never completely happy with. It was rushed into production and though it managed to provoke the outrage Orton intended, it didn’t match this with positive reviews or box office. While the play continued to run, Orton created several rewrites and the one with which he was most happy serves as the basis for the film version of Loot. Sitcom legends Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were tasked with writing the screen version and in opening out the one-set play, they and director Silvio Narizzano turn a frantic farce into an incomprehensibly vulgar assault on the eyes and ears.

Good farce is extremely hard to pull off and even more so over a feature length runtime. Loot’s premise of a couple of bank robbers stashing their ill-gotten gains in the coffin of a recently deceased parent has possibilities but it probably held considerably more shock value in the 1960s before the comedy corpse became something of a wearing staple in the likes of Fawlty Towers or Weekend at Bernie’s. While the tone of Loot aims to bring a salacious wit to the slapstick grotesquery, it actually smothers the material with a desperate grab for outrageousness that makes it feel like a mangled stage script crossbred with one of those dreadful Confessions of a… films that stunk up British cinema throughout the 70s.

Loot has a cracking cast including Hywel Bennet, Lee Remick, Richard Attenborough and Milo O’Shea but only O’Shea manages to make any of his material work. Attenborough and Remmick, as a corrupt police inspector and a gold-digging nurse (and yes, she is in a skimpy uniform for most of the film) play their parts excessively broadly, obviously as a stylistic choice rather than a personal misjudgement, but they feel like the sort of performances that could work on stage but not on celluloid. Despite the energy they put into the performances, no-one really seems to be having any fun. Often a film where the actors seem to be having too much fun can be no fun for the audience but it’s worse when they seem mildly embarrassed by what they’re doing. The final nails in the coffin (sorry) are the late-60s aesthetic with gaudy colours that feel like a punch in the face and, worst of all, a pouting 60s pop soundtrack with songs that actually tell you what’s going on in the story at any one time. There are genuinely moments when the screen shows a series of characters one after the other and the lyrics of the accompanying song tells us exactly what role they’re playing in the plot at that time. Ultimately, while I could see the possibility of a good play that had just been badly handled in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot seems like it might be a very bad play made even worse by a clumsy transition to the screen.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot are released on DVD, Blu-ray and EST on 28 August 2017. Special features are as follows:

Entertaining Mr. Sloane
Leonie Orton: Remembering Joe Part 1
John Lahr on Joe Orton Part 1
Interview with Peter McEnery
Locations featurette with Richard Dacre
Trailer

Loot
Leonie Orton: Remembering Joe Part 2
John Lahr on Joe Orton Part 2
Behind the scenes stills gallery
Joe Orton on Eamonn Andrews show

Joe Orton double: Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot
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