Radio : UP AGAINST IT Radio 4

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It's been pointed out before that of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are "It might have been". On the other hand, it's hard to think of many words happier than "Phew, that was a close thing".

Up Against It, broadcast last night on Radio 4, was presented as an "It might have been" affair - the story of the screenplay Joe Orton wrote for the Beatles in early 1967, and why it was never made. Judging by the extracts from Orton's script performed here, though, it was really more of a "Phew". Orton's script (admittedly, only a first draft) came across as a plodding, self-consciously anarchic and rebellious piece of writing, with a few goodish jokes ("As far as I know, she's the only woman in this room. I shall carry out a thorough check later on") and a lot of clumsy, predictable sniping at the Church, politicians, small-town mentality - the usual suspects. He did it all rather better in What the Butler Saw; and perhaps it's best to regard the film as a footnote to the play.

If the ironies of Orton's screenplay seemed over-emphatic, the ironies of Fiona McLean's radio programme were highly enjoyable. Within the first two minutes we had Paul McCartney quoted as saying, "our humour is based on anything that other people don't laugh at - death, for instance, or disease... it's the cruel stuff that makes us laugh." And this from the man who gave us the chorus of singing frogs in his film Give My Regards to Broad Street.

The question of just how nasty the Beatles were prepared to be cropped up a couple of times. John Lahr, Orton's biographer, maintained that the real reason for rejecting Orton's script was that it was too dark - the final scene, for instance, would have involved all four in bed with one woman, which Lahr thought wouldn't fit in with the Beatles' image. The presenter Toby Longworth agreed, saying, "it seems hard to believe that the Beatles would ever have fitted into Orton's dark, sexually ambiguous world" (an odd thing to say about people who would go on to marry Linda and Yoko). Dick Lester, who directed A Hard Day's Night and Help! didn't think darkness was a problem; but he did feel that the Fab Four weren't equipped to cope with Orton's verbal acrobatics.

One big irony hung heavily over the whole programme - Orton's impending murder by Kenneth Halliwell (characterised by most people here as a "pain", not the lovable screwball of the film Prick Up Your Ears). Their bodies were discovered on the day Orton was supposed to meet Lester and a producer to discuss the new, de-Beatled script (the plan was to have Mick Jagger, Ian McKellen and two women in the main parts). A neighbour described coming home and seeing all the TV cameras - she thought it must mean Orton had had some huge success: "I looked at Aldo and I said, oh so it's all happened... I said, he's had a hit. He said, he has, he's dead." That's the kind of irony that even Orton would have thought twice about.