Kenneth Williams

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Kenneth Williams
Kennethwilliams.jpg
Publicity photo of Williams in the 1960s
Birth name Kenneth Charles Williams
Born (1926-02-22)22 February 1926
Islington, London, England
Died 15 April 1988(1988-04-15) (aged 62)
Camden, London, England

Kenneth Charles Williams (22 February 1926 – 15 April 1988) was an English comic actor and comedian. He was one of the main ensemble in 26 of the 31 Carry On films, and appeared in numerous British television shows and radio comedies with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne.[1][2]

Life and career[edit]

Kenneth Charles Williams was born on 22 February 1926 in Bingfield Street, King's Cross, London,[3] the son of Louisa ("Lou" or "Louie") Morgan and Charles Williams, a barber and strict Methodist. Williams had a half-sister, Alice Patricia "Pat", born illegitimately before Louie had met Charlie Williams. He was educated at Lyulph Stanley School, later becoming apprenticed as a draughtsman to a mapmaker. He joined the Army in 1944 at 18. As part of the Royal Engineers survey section in Bombay, he first performed on stage in the Combined Services Entertainment alongside Stanley Baxter and Peter Nichols.[4] He was a voracious reader able to quote poems or literary extracts from memory. Excerpts from the diaries he kept as an adult show that he adored his supportive and theatrical mother but despised his homophobic, morose and selfish father.

Comic performer[edit]

Williams's professional career began in 1948 in repertory theatre. Failure to become a serious dramatic actor disappointed him, but his potential as a comic performer gave him his break when he was spotted playing the Dauphin in Bernard Shaw's St Joan in the West End, in 1954 [5] by radio producer Dennis Main Wilson. Main Wilson was casting Hancock's Half Hour, a radio series starring Tony Hancock. Playing mostly funny voice roles, Williams stayed in the series almost to the end, five years later.[6] His nasal, whiny, camp-cockney inflections (epitomised in his "Stop messing about ... !" catchphrase) became popular with listeners.[7] Despite the success and recognition the show brought him, Williams considered theatre, film and television to be superior forms of entertainment.

When Hancock steered the show away from what he considered gimmicks and silly voices, Williams found he had less to do. Tiring of this reduced status, he joined Kenneth Horne in Beyond Our Ken (1958–1964), and its sequel, Round the Horne (1965–1968). His roles in Round the Horne included Rambling Syd Rumpo, the eccentric folk singer; Dr Chou En Ginsberg, MA (failed), Oriental criminal mastermind; J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, telephone heavy breather and dirty old man; and Sandy of the camp couple Julian and Sandy (Julian was played by Hugh Paddick). Their double act contained double entendres and Polari, the homosexual argot.

Williams also appeared in West End revues including Share My Lettuce with Maggie Smith, written by Bamber Gascoigne, and Pieces of Eight with Fenella Fielding. The latter included material specially written for him by Peter Cook, then a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge.[8] Cook's "One Leg Too Few" and "Interesting Facts" were part of the show and became routines in his own performances. Williams's last revue was One Over The Eight at the Duke of York's Theatre, with Sheila Hancock.[9][10] In 1972, Williams starred opposite Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend at the West End's Globe Theatre.[11] He also appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a production of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion at the Cambridge Theatre, in 1971.

Carry On[edit]

Williams worked regularly in British film during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in the Carry On series (1958–1978) with its double entendre humour; and appearing in the series more than any other actor.[6] The films were commercially successful but Williams and the cast were apparently poorly paid. In his diaries, Williams wrote that he earned more in a British Gas advert than for any Carry On film. He often privately criticised and "dripped vitriol" upon the films, considering them beneath him.[12] This became the case with many of the films and shows in which he appeared. He was quick to find fault with his own work, and that of others. Despite this, he spoke fondly of the Carry Ons in interviews. Peter Rogers, producer of the series, recollected, "Kenneth was worth taking care of because, while he cost very little – £5,000 a film, he made a great deal of money for the franchise."[13]

Radio and television shows[edit]

Williams was a regular on the BBC radio panel game Just a Minute from its second season in 1968 until his death. From 1972, when he felt he was not being appreciated, he would scream, "I've come all the way from Great Portland Street" (it was a short distance to the studio from his home). He also talked for almost a minute[14] about a supposed Austrian psychiatrist called Heinrich Swartzberg, correctly guessing that the show's creator, Ian Messiter, had just made the name up.[15]

On television he was a frequent contributor to the 1973–1974 revival of What's My Line?, hosted the weekly entertainment show International Cabaret and was a regular reader on the children's storytelling series Jackanory on BBC1, hosting 69 episodes.[16] He appeared on Michael Parkinson's chat show on eight occasions, regaling audiences with anecdotes from his career. Williams was a stand-in host on the Wogan talk show in 1986; and also voiced the cartoon "Willo the Wisp".

Personal life and death[edit]

On 14 October 1962, Charlie Williams was taken to hospital after drinking carbon tetrachloride that had been stored in a cough-mixture bottle. Kenneth refused to visit him. The next day Charlie died while Kenneth was out to lunch and the cinema; an hour after being given the news, Kenneth went on stage in the West End. The coroner's court recorded a verdict of accidental death due to corrosive poisoning by carbon tetrachloride.[17]

Several years later Williams turned down work with Orson Welles in America because he disliked the country and had no desire to work there.[citation needed] Many years after his death, The Mail on Sunday, quoting Wes Butters, co-writer of the book Kenneth Williams Unseen: The Private Notes, Scripts And Photographs, claimed Williams had been denied a visa because Scotland Yard considered him a suspect in his father's death.[18]

Williams insisted that he was celibate and his diaries substantiate his claims—at least from his early 40s onwards. He lived alone all his adult life and had few close companions apart from his mother, and no significant romantic relationships. His diaries contain references to unconsummated or barely consummated homosexual dalliances, which he describes as "traditional matters" or "tradiola". (Since male homosexual activity was a criminal offence in the UK before 1967, outright admission would have been held against him if anyone had read the diaries.) He befriended gay playwright Joe Orton, who wrote the role of Inspector Truscott in Loot (1966) for him, and had holidays with Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in Morocco. Other friends included Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona Anderson, Sheila Hancock, and Maggie Smith and her playwright husband, Beverley Cross.[19]

Williams lived in a succession of small rented flats in central London from the mid-1950s. After his father died, his mother Louisa lived near him, then in the flat next to his. His last home was a flat on Osnaburgh Street, now demolished. Williams was fond of fellow Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims.[20]

Williams rarely revealed details of his private life, though he spoke openly to Owen Spencer-Thomas about his loneliness, despondency, and sense of underachievement in two half-hour documentary programmes entitled Carry On Kenneth on BBC Radio London.[21] In later years his health declined, along with that of his elderly mother, and his depression deepened.

He died on 15 April 1988 in his flat; his last words (recorded in his diary) were "Oh, what's the bloody point?"[22] - the cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates.[6] An inquest recorded an open verdict, as it was not possible to establish whether his death was a suicide or an accident.[23] His diaries reveal he had often had suicidal thoughts and as far back as his earliest diaries he noted there were times when he could see no point in existence. His authorised biography argues that Williams did not take his own life but died of an accidental overdose. The actor had doubled his dosage of antacid without discussing this with his doctor; this, combined with the aforementioned mixture of medication, is the widely accepted cause of death. He had a stock of painkilling tablets and it is argued that he would have taken more of them if he had been intending suicide.[24] He was cremated at East Finchley Cemetery and his ashes were scattered in the memorial gardens.[25]

Legacy[edit]

Diaries and biographies[edit]

Posthumous publication of his private diaries and letters, edited by Russell Davies, caused controversy—particularly Williams's caustic remarks about fellow professionals—and revealed bouts of despair, often primed by feelings of personal isolation and professional failure. Williams wrote his diaries from the age of 14 in 1940 until his death 48 years later, although the earliest to survive to publication was for 1942 when he reached 16. Williams kept pocket-sized diaries for 1942 and 1947 (he kept no diaries for 1943 to 1946 as he was touring the Far East in the army); a desk diary for 1948; pocket-sized diaries for 1949 and 1950; desk diaries for 1951 to 1965; standard edition desk diaries for 1966 to 1971, and finally A4-sized executive desk diaries for 1972 to 1988. He claimed that writing in his diaries eased the loneliness he often felt. The day before his death, the final entry in his diary read, "Oh - what's the bloody point?"[26][27]

In April 2008 Radio 4 broadcast the two-part The Pain of Laughter: The Last Days of Kenneth Williams.[28] The programmes were researched and written by Wes Butters and narrated by Rob Brydon. Butters purchased a collection of Williams's personal belongings from the actor's godson, Robert Chidell, to whom they had been bequeathed.[29]

The first of the programmes said that, towards the end of his life and struggling with depression and ill health, Williams abandoned Christian faith following discussions with the poet Philip Larkin. Williams had been a Methodist, though he spent much of his life struggling with Christianity's teachings on homosexuality.[28]

Kenneth Williams Unseen by Wes Butters and Russell Davies, the first Williams biography in 15 years, was published in October 2008.[30]

An authorised biography, Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams, by Christopher Stevens,[31] was published in October 2010. This drew for the first time on the full Williams archive of diaries and letters, which had been stored in a London bank for 15 years following publication of edited extracts.[32] The biography said Williams used a variety of handwriting styles and colours in his journals, switching between different hands on the page.[33]

Portrayals[edit]

Williams' blue plaque at 57 Marchmont Street

Williams has been portrayed in two made-for-television films. In 2000, Adam Godley played him in the story of Sid James and Barbara Windsor's love affair, Cor, Blimey! (Godley had originated the role in the 1998 National Theatre play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick on which Cor Blimey! was based). Subsequently in 2006, Michael Sheen played him in the BBC Four drama Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!.

David Benson's 1996 Edinburgh Fringe show, Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams, saw Benson playing Williams; after touring, the show ran in London's West End. Benson reprised his performance at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe and continues to tour.[34]

From 2003 to 2005, Robin Sebastian took on Williams in the West End stage show Round the Horne ... Revisited, recreating his performance in 2008 for a production called Round the Horne: Unseen and Uncut.

Recognition[edit]

The flat in Osnaburgh Street in which Williams had lived from 1972 until his death was bought by Rob Brydon and Julia Davis for the writing of their comedy series Human Remains. The building was demolished in May 2007.[35]

Williams is commemorated by a blue plaque at the address of his father's barber shop in Marchmont Street, London, where he lived from 1935 to 1956. The plaque was unveiled on 11 October 2009 by Bill Pertwee and Nicholas Parsons, with whom Williams performed.[36]

In September 2010, a plaque commissioned by the British Comedy Society was unveiled in the foyer of the New Diorama Theatre by the Mayor of Camden accompanied by David Benson, the actor known for his performances of his own work dedicated to Williams, Think No Evil of Us - My Life With Kenneth Williams. The theatre stands in the Regent's Place development, site of the demolished Osnaburgh Street.

On 22 February 2014 – on what would have been Williams' 88th birthday – an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled at Farley Court off Marylebone Road, where Williams lived between 1963 and 1970 in Flat 62. Speaking at the ceremony, his Carry On co-star Barbara Windsor said: "Kenny was a one off, a true original".[37][38]

Performances[edit]

Films[edit]

Albums[edit]

  • Kenneth Williams on Pleasure Bent 1967, Decca LK 4856. Music by Ted Dicks, lyrics by Myles Rudge. Arrangements and musical direction by Barry Booth, sound supervision by Roger Cameron.
  • The World of Kenneth Williams 1970, Decca SPA 64. Stereo edition of recordings from the 1950s and 1960s.

Williams also released several albums as Rambling Syd Rumpo.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Born: 22 February 1926, LondonDied: 15 April 1988, London. "Kenneth Williams | BFI". Explore.bfi.org.uk. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  2. ^ "BFI Screenonline: Williams, Kenneth (1926-1988) Biography". Screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  3. ^ GRO Register of Births: March 1926 1b 408 Islington - Kenneth C. Williams
  4. ^ "Kenneth Williams | Britmovie | Home of British Films". Britmovie. Retrieved 28 June 2014. 
  5. ^ Kenneth Williams: Born Brilliant - Christopher Stevens - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c [1][dead link]
  7. ^ "Comedy - The Kenneth Williams Show". BBC. Retrieved 28 June 2014. 
  8. ^ Tragically I Was An Only Twin: The Comedy of Peter Cook - Peter Cook, William Cook - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. 2013-08-31. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  9. ^ "iTunes - Music - One Over the Eight (Original London Cast) by Various Artists". Itunes.apple.com. 2011-12-07. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  10. ^ "Obituaries". Britishcomedy.org.uk. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  11. ^ "My Fat Friend (Oberon Modern Plays): Amazon.co.uk: Charles Laurence: Books". amazon.co.uk. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  12. ^ "Review: Born Brilliant: The life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens | Books | Entertainment | Daily Express". express.co.uk. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  13. ^ Kenneth Williams Unseen by Wes Butters and Russell Davies, HarperCollins 2008, p224
  14. ^ "JAM:KWilliams,DNimmo,CFreud,AMelly". Just-a-minute.info. 1971-02-09. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  15. ^ My Life and Other Games, Ian Messiter, 1990 ISBN 1-872180-61-2
  16. ^ "BFI Screenonline: Jackanory (1965-96)". Screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  17. ^ Geoffrey Wansell (30 November 2005). "Did Kenneth Kill Himself?". Daily Mail (London). p. 32. "... in October 1962, Charlie Williams died after drinking a bottle of carbon tetrachloride in mysterious circumstances—a death that has eerie echoes of Kenneth Williams's own. He drank from a bottle labelled Gees Linctus but which actually contained poison, and the coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, due to bronchial pneumonia and carbon tetrachloride poisoning, self-administered, by accident. Many, perhaps Kenneth included, believed it was suicide." 
  18. ^ "Did Kenneth Williams poison his father? | Mail Online". Mailonsunday.co.uk. 2008-10-31. Retrieved 28 June 2014. 
  19. ^ Davies, Russell (1993). The Kenneth Williams diaries. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-255023-7. 
  20. ^ Williams, Kenneth. Just Williams. 
  21. ^ Radio Times (London edition) 23–29 July 1977
  22. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: JUN 1988 14 1873 CAMDEN - Kenneth Charles Williams, DoB = 22 Feb 1926 aged 62
  23. ^ "Open verdict recorded on Williams". The Guardian (London). 17 June 1988. "Dr John Elliott, deputy coroner for inner north London said: The cause of death was a barbiturate overdose. Where Mr Williams would have got these from we would not be able to establish. There is no indication given as to why he should have taken this overdose and therefore I record an open verdict." 
  24. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. ISBN 1-84854-195-3. 
  25. ^ "Kenneth Williams". Find a Grave. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  26. ^ Quirk, Justin. "In praise of Kenneth Williams". TV&Radio Blog. The Guardian. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  27. ^ Thomson, Ian. "Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens: review". The Telegraph. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  28. ^ a b "The Pain of Laughter; The Last Days of Kenneth Williams". BBC. Retrieved 2 November 2009. 
  29. ^ "The truth behind that famous smile", Radio Times 5–11 April 2008
  30. ^ [2][dead link]
  31. ^ "Author's information page". Bornbrilliant.info. 2011-09-01. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  32. ^ "index". johnmurray.co.uk. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  33. ^ Vanessa Thorpe. "Kenneth Williams: secret loves behind the life of a tormented man | Culture | The Observer". Guardian. Retrieved 28 June 2014. 
  34. ^ "David Benson - JAMES SEABRIGHT". Seabright.info. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  35. ^ "Kenneth Williams lived here". Shady Old Lady's Guide to London. 3 March 2010. Retrieved 3 March 2010. 
  36. ^ "Plaque for Carry On star Williams". BBC News Online. 11 October 2009. Retrieved 11 October 2009. 
  37. ^ "Carry On star Kenneth Williams granted blue plaque". BBC News London. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  38. ^ "WILLIAMS, KENNETH (1926-1988)". English Heritage. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  39. ^ "Diary Of A Madman". Britishcomedy.org.uk. Retrieved 28 June 2014. 

References[edit]

  • Williams, Kenneth (1993), Russell Davies, ed. The Kenneth Williams Diaries. London: HarperCollins.

External links[edit]