Thursday 12 July 2018

Edna Welthorpe Lives!

By Emma Parker

In 1967, Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton won the prestigious Evening Standard Play of the Year Award for his anarchic black comedy, Loot, prompting David Benedictus (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh sequel Return to the Hundred Acre Wood) to issue a public objection. How could a play widely condemned as ‘sick’ and ‘disgusting’ merit commendation? 

Amused that his satire on religious hypocrisy and police corruption should arouse such ire, Orton penned an ‘Edna Welthorpe’ letter in response:

        May I add my thoughts to those of David Benedictus on the subject of those ‘much-
        talked-of awards’?

        I agree that no one should seriously nominate as the play of the year a piece of 
        indecent tomfoolery like Loot. Drama should be uplifting. The plays of Joe Orton have 
        a most unpleasing effect on me (19 February, 1967).

‘Edna Welthorpe’ was the persona that Orton invented to write letters spoofing social and sexual conservatism. Middle-aged, middle-class and middlebrow, she is the opposite of Orton, a working-class gay man living in a period when homosexuality was still illegal. First created in 1958, Edna anticipates the emergence of Mary Whitehouse, the moral crusader who co-founded the ‘Clean-Up TV Campaign’ in 1964. In Orton’s Edna Welthorpe letters, concerns about public decency and declining moral standards sparked by the new ‘permissive society’ are rendered amusingly absurd.

In recent years, the growth of global conservatism (Brexit, Trump, the rise of the Far Right) seemed to call Edna back to life. 

When Curve, Leicester, staged Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, in 2017, I decided to reanimate Edna in a letter to director Nikolai Foster. I knew that Nikolai was familiar with Orton’s alias and would get the joke but didn’t anticipate that he’d share it by tweeting the letter. Edna’s outrage at a ‘depraved drama about sexual irregularity’ - especially intolerable when there’s already ‘enough of that in Holby City!’ - caused a stir on social media. Her reappearance was even reported in The Stage.

Once back, Edna soon found herself busy writing letters again.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Orton’s death in 2017, I teamed up with BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Chris Shepherd to launch a national Edna Welthorpe creative writing competition. Designed to teach students about satire and to encourage the next generation to keep Orton’s playfully subversive spirit alive, the competition debunked the myth that young people are politically disengaged: Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and Waitrose were all lampooned. 

Alongside the competition, Chris and I commissioned new Edna letters from acclaimed actors and TV comedy writers such as Emmy Award winner Alec Baldwin (Saturday Night Live30 Rock), Caroline Moran (Raised by Wolves), Arthur Mathews (Father TedToast of London), Jesse Armstrong (The Think of It, Peep Show) and David Quantick (Veep, The Fast Show). As the project grew, it was amazing to see how far Orton’s influence reaches and the depth of his impact on contemporary culture.  

With the aid of a Grant for the Arts from Arts Council England, Chris and I also made an animation inspired by the original Edna Welthorpe letters. The film, in which the wonderful actress Alison Steadman plays Edna, has been screened at Latitude festival; The Little Theatre, Leicester; Encounters Short Film Festival, Bristol; the London International Film Festival, Barbican; the British Animation Awards, London; the Short Film Festival, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; the LGBT Feedback Festival, Toronto - billed as ‘a showcase of the best LGBT shorts in the world’; on the BBC Arts webpage and on Criterion TV in the USA. It’s tantalising to ponder what Edna might say to Donald Trump.

The film and new Edna letters can be found on a website that includes a creative writing worksheet showing how anger at social injustice can be channelled into humour and offers satire as an alternative to hate speech:

The website won a Saboteur Award in 2018 (Wildcard category). What more appropriate award could there be for a project that honours Joe Orton, a prankster and provocateur who gleefully sought to demolish repressive social norms and hierarchies?

As Alec Baldwin, channelling Edna, commented on news of the Saboteur Award via Twitter: ‘Jolly good!’

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this. Just goes to show where one piece of creativity can lead.