Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

27 February 2023

Recording of the week: Leonie Barnett on her brother, Joe Orton

This week’s post comes from Jack Hudson, Hay Festival Audio and Audio-Visual Archive Intern.

Joe Orton's commemorative plaque in Islington  London

Image by Spudgun67, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped and rendered in b&w from colour original.

The following recording (British Library reference: C1142/272), is an interview with Leonie Barnett about her brother, Joe Orton (1933-1967). It was recorded for the British Library in 2009 as part of the Theatre Archive Project.

Listen to Leonie Barnett

Download Leonie Barnett interview transcript

Comprising 333 items, the Theatre Archive Project’s recordings capture the after-thoughts of those involved in British theatre from 1945 to 1968, from performers and directors to theatregoers and critics. All recordings within the collection are listenable on the BL Sounds website. Transcripts for the interviews are available.

In the recording, Leonie reflects on her and Joe’s council estate upbringing in Leicester. The recording is notable because it provides an insight into Joe Orton’s early years in a way that, at the time of recording, had yet to be done. While John Lahr’s biography Prick Up Your Ears (1978) - adroitly adapted to the screen by Alan Bennett and Stephen Frears - looks at Joe Orton, the playwright, Leonie discusses her relationship with her older brother.

Leonie and Joe’s relationship was strong. He was someone she ‘hero-worshipped’. After receiving a scholarship from RADA in 1950, Joe left Leicester for London, where he settled - in West Hampstead, then Islington. On the days he would return to visit, she would wait by the door for his arrival.

While in London, Joe shifted his attention from acting to writing. In 1959, he wrote his ‘lost’ first play, Fred and Madge. It was found in his papers in 2001 and performed for the first time in 2014. Of all his work, the play is the closest portrait of his and Leonie’s childhood in Leicester, and it echoes Leonie’s sentiments and reflections made within the recording.

Joe once stated, ‘people are profoundly bad and irresistibly funny’, an idea he often explored in his social comedies. Leonie's reflections in the recording provide valuable insight into Joe's world-view and writing in light of his childhood.