An incredibly brief introduction to Joe Orton and Edna Welthorpe

Yours faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) extracts from Joe Orton's letters.

For the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival, The Postal Museum hosts a special evening on 19 October 2018 celebrating the hilarious letters of complaint sent by Mrs. Edna Welthorpe – a pseudonym of controversial 60s playwright Joe Orton.

Yours Faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) – Joe Orton’s Prank Letters, event at THe Postal Museum

Edna Welthorpe Illustration

About Joe Orton

Joe Orton’s three stage plays – Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot (1965) and What the Butler Saw (1969) – established him as one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century. These anarchic black comedies not only lampoon social and sexual conservatism, contributing to the new counterculture that defined the Swinging Sixties, but also blend the comic and the macabre to create an original style, dubbed ‘Ortonesque’.

Orton Collection at the University of Leicester © Orton Estate

The plays won critical acclaim and Paul McCartney enjoyed Loot so much that Orton was commissioned to write a screenplay for The Beatles. However, his provocative satire on the Establishment also caused a public outcry – Orton’s work was regularly denounced as ‘sick’, ‘dirty’ and ‘disgusting’. He responded to the controversy ignited by Loot by writing his own letter of complaint about the play under the name ‘Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)’.

First created in 1958, Orton invented the persona ‘Edna Welthorpe’ to mock social norms and conventions. Middle-aged, middle-class and middlebrow, Edna is the opposite of Orton, whose working class origins and homosexuality made him an outsider and an iconoclast.  Edna, a prude and a snob, 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 good manners, public decency and declining moral standards sparked by the ‘permissive society’ are rendered amusingly absurd.

In recent years, the growth of global conservatism (Brexit, Donald Trump, the rise of the Far Right) seemed to call Edna back to life. So, to mark the 50th anniversary of Orton’s death in 2017, I teamed up with BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Chris Shepherd to commission new Edna letters from acclaimed actors and comedy writers who cite Orton as an influence, such as Emmy Award winner Alec Baldwin (30 Rock; Saturday Night Live), Jesse Armstrong (The Think of It, Peep Show) Arthur Mathews (Father Ted; Toast of London), Caroline Moran (Raised by Wolves) and David Quantick (Veep, The Fast Show). The list illustrates Orton’s enduring legacy and impact on contemporary culture.

Chris and I also launched a national Joe Orton creative writing competition for post16 students, who used Edna to mock, amongst others, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and Waitrose. The letters can be found on the project website along with Chris Shepherd’s brilliant animated short inspired by Orton’s original letters, starring Alison Steadman as Edna:

Original Edna Welthorpe Letters – extracts

‘…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. I was plunged into the dumps for weeks after seeing Entertaining Mr Sloane. I saw Loot with my young niece; we both fled from the theatre in horror and amazement well before the end (19 February, 1967).

To his friend an English actor and a comic legend Kenneth Williams (3 April, 1966):

Dear Mr Williams,

I must take up cudgels with you over your recent appearance on Juke Box Jury. I regretted many of your remarks which, in my opinion, were quite uncalled-for and tasteless in the extreme.

Especially offensive to me as a nursing mother was your attack on infants and their ways. My own baby, born recently, cried throughout the programme. Which, I feel, more than proves my point.

More serious was your veiled threat to wear plastic earrings…. These ‘kinky’ comments and ‘lurid’, ‘off-colour’ ‘gags’ must be ejected from our TV screen. Saturday night viewers must be protected from people like you.

Yours faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)

New Edna Welthorpe letters – extracts

John-Luke Roberts, a British stand-up comedian – to Paul McCartney:

Dear Mr McCartney,

I am disgusted by the title of your album “Kisses On the Bottom”. Perhaps you will call me sheltered, but I had assumed the title referred to the infantile yet harmless act of placing an ‘x’ signifying a ‘kiss’ at the foot of personal correspondence. As I listened to the album, my eyes perhaps rested on the title for slightly too long. For around the time of “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” I noticed a disgusting, not to mention unhygienic, double-meaning.

I am aghast that you would encourage your fanbase to place their mouths in such a place, and risk the spread of oral and rectal diseases so flippantly. May I remind you, you have a duty of care to your primarily teenage followers. If they should copy your revolting example, we will have another lost generation.

Yours faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


Henry Bee, English Martyrs Sixth Form College, Leicester – to Walkers Crisps:

Dear Sir,

I recently purchased a bag of air, otherwise known as Walkers Crisps. Without doubt, it is absurd to think you can spoil our traditional British heritage with foreign flavoured crisps! What on earth is ‘CHICKEN CURRY’ or ‘STEAK FAJITA’?

If it is at all possible, you should refine your range of potato crisps to a plain flavour. It is ludicrous to think there is freedom of choice nowadays – we certainly did not have that in the good ol’ days! May I take this opportunity to condemn the liberty you are offering. It is scandalous to imagine people are allowed to break with the traditional values of our Queen.

I shan’t try any more of your so-called crisps until you meet the exceptional levels of crunchiness shown by Kettle Chips. I cannot bear the thought of consuming the cheap quality of Walkers Crisps and dismissing such a prestigious snack.

Yours faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)


Hear the original and new letters read by Orton’s sister, Leonie, and have a go at writing your own Edna Welthorpe letter at this special event at The Postal Museum on 19 October 2018. To whom will you address yours?

This project was funded by Arts Council England and the University of Leicester, which owns the Joe Orton archive.

– Dr Emma Parker, University of Leicester