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What a Carry On/ Legends: Sid, Kenny, Charlie & Hattie (Pt. 2) ~ Kenneth Williams

July 23, 2015

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Kenneth Williams:

the unhappy clown

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The last entry in the diary of Kenneth Williams, written on April 14 1988, reads: “Oh, what’s the bloody point?”. One day later he was dead from an overdose of sleeping pills and painkillers. How did this happen? How could this have come to pass? Kenneth Williams had been revered as a brilliant comic performer on the screens big and small, on the radio and on the stage for more than 30 years. He had enjoyed a career many could – and many to come would – only dream of. He had become a beloved national institution – had he lived longer he surely would have been knighted. So how, on this fateful day in the late ’80s in this wasteful way, did his life come to such a sad, untimely end?

Kenneth – known as ‘Kenny’ to those who knew and loved him best – was and remains most famous for his colossal contributions to the Carry On movies, one of the longest ever running British cinematic series and certainly the most popular and most fêted of those that cosily sit in the comedy category of the UK film industry. And it’s for that reason this post about the man is the latest in George’s Journal’s extended run of posts dedicated to those flicks (its ‘Carry On Summer Season’). But, as if that wasn’t enough, there was more to Kenny than the Carry Ons – and that’s why this post also sees him inducted, and absolutely not before time, into this blog’s ‘Legends’ corner.

The truth is, Kenny was a prodigiously talented performer – as evidenced by his best Carry On work, naturally, but also by his extensive and varied work across the entire comedy spectrum. Testament to that is everything from, on radio, his incorrigible innuendo on Round The Horne/ Beyond Our Ken to his delicious ribaldry on Just A Minute and from, on TV, his exquisite aimed-at-kids vocal dexterity on Jackanory and Willo The Wisp to the hilarity of him holding court on the Parkinson chat show.

Over the course of his career he carved out for himself less a niche than a huge cleft of the British comedy firmament. The public adored his work; they didn’t seem to mind a jot, in times far less permissive than those of today, that he was patently gay. But he did. It bothered him greatly – as did many things about both himself and pretty much everybody around him. When it comes down to it, despite all his success and adoration, Kenny didn’t so much enjoy his career (as I wrote above), but endured it. As he did his life, it seems. He was a fantastically funny man, but was also a complicated, flawed, tragic individual; too much of the time, the epitome of the unhappy clown.

As with so many great figures in their field, it’s very difficult to suggest from where Kenny’s clownish talent derived; sadly, it’s far easier to confidently speculate on the source of his unhappiness. He came from humble beginnings, born in February 1926 to a working class mother (Louisa – or Lou) and father (Charlie), the latter of whom was a barber, and grew up in the Barnsbury area of Islington, London. Both parents owed their origins to Welsh ancestors, and you might say there’s something of the Welsh accents’ grandiosity and rhythm in Kenny’s own voice. Not that he got that from either parent though, whom were both Cockneys and, after all, his father couldn’t understand either his son’s desire to go into showbusiness nor why, even at an early age, he adopted a semi-plummy, even mock-upper middle class voice, determinedly rolling his ‘r’s and indulgently enunciating the best words offered by the English language (which fascinated and delighted him in equal measure).

And one can only assume what the elder Williams (a strict Methodist) made of Kenny’s homosexuality, when it became obvious. It’s fairly clear, along with the other differences between the two, what effect it had on the young man yearning for the fame, fortune, glamour and grandeur of thesping – Kenny’s relationship with his father remained strained until the man’s death (more on that later), but he was devoted to his mother until the very end, and likewise her to him (again, more on that later).

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Wicked wit: Williams was a serial diarist for more than 40 years (left); with his mother Lou (middle) and in ‘animated form’ as the unforgettable ’80s children’s TV character Willo The Wisp (right)

In the early days, however, it seems the father’s will won through. His desire to see Kenny ‘get himself a trade’ led to the young Williams becoming an apprentice draughtsman with a London mapmaker. And then, when he came of age (18 years-old), he was pulled into the action of World War Two – sort of. He was called up into the British Army, but ended up doing pretty much what he had beforehand, working on maps as a sapper in the Engineers Survey section.

Unexpectedly, though, as it too had for Sid James (and for other future British comic luminaries), military service proved a God-send for Kenny’s dramatic ambitions, for come the end of the war, he successfully transferred to the Combined Service Entertainment Unit; not only a much better fit because it was more in the direction he wanted to take his life, but also because the experiences it afforded him no doubt helped prepare him for a future performing career. We know for sure that it was during his CSE days he met and mixed with comic TV star-to-be Stanley Baxter (whom became a lifelong friend) and John Schlesinger, the future Oscar-winning director of classic dramas Darling (1965) and Midnight Cowboy (1969).

It was when Kenny was demobbed in 1948 that things really got going, though. He began, as many used to, in repertory, finally making it to the West End and giving a particularly strong performance as the Dauphin in a 1954 production of George Bernard Shaw’s tragedy Saint Joan. Actually, he would go on to tread the London boards throughout his career; on and off, at least. In 1955 he appeared in the great Orson Welles’ Moby Dick – Rehearsed and, during the ’50s and into the early ’60s, in revues alongside great friend and British acting grand dame Maggie Smith (Share My Lettuce), later Carry On co-star Fenella Fielding (Pieces Of Eight) and another Carry On alumnus Sheila Hancock (One Over The Eight). Having befriended the enfant terrible playwright Joe Orton, he had the role of Inspector Truscott written for him in the latter’s Loot and originated it in the classic play’s 1966 debut. He also played alongside Ingrid Bergman in Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1971) and Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend (1972); later he directed productions of Loot and Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1981).

But it was early on, indeed thanks to his turn in Saint Joan, that his dramatic thesping got sidetracked in favour of more lucrative (i.e. regular) comic work; much to his chagrin, it seems. BBC Light Entertainment bigwig Dennis Main Wilson caught Kenny’s performance as the Dauphin and, so impressed was he, offered him a spot in the line-up of a new radio comedy show, Hancock’s Half Hour (1954-61). For followers of this blog who’ve read my similar tribute to the life and career of Sid James, you’ll know Half Hour wasn’t just an era-defining slice of British entertainment, but also proved the making of that particular Carry On icon. What’s less well known is that, thanks to it giving Kenny a chance to hone his unequalled ability at inventing characters with silly camp voices and make his trademark the phrase ‘Stop messin’ about!’, it arguably made him too. In fact, following star Tony Hancock’s decision to change the show’s format, it led Kenny to join the ensemble of another radio show that made him a household name.

Beyond Our Ken (1958-64) – and its sequel Round The Horne (1965-68) – was a sketch-based comedy focused around popular comedian Kenneth Horne, but Williams was undoubtedly its breakout star. Creating and establishing characters like the folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, the telephone heavy-breather J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock and, by far most well recalled, one half of the camp couple Julian and Sandy (the other half being Hugh Paddick) allowed Kenny to indulge not just in voices but one of his greatest joys (at least on the surface), bawdy humour and rampant sexual innuendo. The Julian and Sandy sketches, in particular, were notorious for the latter, often incorporating into the double entendres (or, more specifically, acting as a cypher for them) the homosexual argot of the time, Polari.

Owing to the death of its principal performer, Round The Horne came to an abrupt end in 1968, which allowed Kenny to move on to another BBC Radio show, the comedy panel game Just A Minute, which had started a year before; it would eventually become iconic and Kenny proved such a successful and popular participant that he was a regular feature on it for 20 years. As mentioned above, he also gained regular work from BBC TV, narrating children’s stories on 69 episodes of the legendary Jackanory (1965-96), voicing all the characters of the unforgettable Willo The Wisp (1981), standing in as host of the Wogan chatshow for a fortnight in 1986 (during which he interviewed, among others, fellow Carry On-er Barbara Windsor) and, of course, appearing as a brilliantly colourful guest on Parkinson (1971-2004) on eight separate occasions, regaling the host and millions of viewers with wonderfully witty, sometimes lurid, often caustically candid observations and anecdotes (see video clip below).

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Choice extracts from Kenneth Williams’ diaries:

“I was appalled at the picture it paints of me! I sound like a foulmouthed frustrated queer! I suppose it’s authentic enough”

“Went to the film Sodom & Gomorrah but only the latter bothered to turn up I’m afraid! Still, it was quite fun. I got an invitation to the Savoy for the Evening Standard Drama Awards. I wouldn’t attend this kind of sh*t if they paid me”

“Sid James looked as bad as his acting”

“I am beginning to get famous now, which is about bloody time. However, I still hate everyone and everything, and am constantly racked with pain throughout my body, and a cancerous malevolence in my heart. I wish I had someone who would help me. Some people have offered to help me, but they were so diabolically repulsive that I threw a Toby Jug at them”

“Had Sid, Hattie, Joan, Barbara, Bernard & Charlie around for dinner. They were all perfectly awful except for Barbara whom I love more than anything else in the world, & even she is a stupid c*nt”

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Speaking of which, both his enthusiasts and the casually curious alike received a plethora of the above – if not more caustic candour, nay even outbursts of unexpected spite and bile, thanks to the publishing five years after Williams’ death in 1993 of the diaries he wrote for more than four decades of his adult life. In recent years, this goldmine of a revelation into the private Kenny (sometimes feeling like an intrusion into his innermost emotions) has been the crux of a reappraisal of the man; often not being able to make up its mind to be unsympathetic or nostaligic and understanding – take, for example, the memorable Michael Sheen-starring biopic-of-sorts for BBC4, Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006).

Either way, both the publication of the diaries and excerpts of private letters Williams wrote (in Christopher Stevens’ 2010 biography Born Brilliant) has shed far more light on the real Kenny; admittedly, it may have opened a hornet’s nest. The diaries reveal that he was almost definitely celibate and for many years lived in a poorly furnished flat next door to his elderly mother, with whom he spent most evenings, while another biography claimed that he may have been denied a visa to work with Orson Welles in the United States because police suspected he poisoned his father in October 1962, causing the latter’s death; the official verdict was accidental death, Charlie Williams having supposedly drunk carbon tetrachloride instead of his usual cough medicine by mistake.

However, the diaries and the letters have nonetheless helped us understand Kenny better, learning of his constant bouts of despair and flirtations with the idea of suicide, seemingly driven by a tragically misplaced sense of career failure and an all-too-real personal isolation. Indeed, who couldn’t be moved by this excerpt from a letter he wrote to, it now seems, two of his only true friends, the couple Tom Waine and Clive Dennis? “Living with someone always means a denial of self in SOME way and I suppose I have always known it was something I couldn’t accomplish. So I’ve always stayed on the sidelines. Getting the pleasure vicariously. It’s not wholly satisfactory, but then of course no lives are, and you know what I think about indiscriminate sex and promiscuous trade. I think it’s the beginning of a long, long road to despair”.

In which case then, fans of Kenny inevitably and understandably always come back to his contributions to the Carry Ons. Here, in seeking solace, if you will, you find the Williams the UK public has always loved – the often fussy, usually prudish, almost always hapless and definitely nostril-flaring, innuendo-spouting (and sometimes innuendo-denying) character par excellence; whether he’s going by the name Dr Kenneth Soaper or Dr Orlando Watt, or Julius Caesar or (my personal favourite) W. C. Boggs.

If Sid James was arguably the leader, the hero, of the Carry Ons, then just as arguably Kenny was their heart. Kicking-off in the very first Carry On Sergeant (1958) and concluding with the very last of the original series Carry On Emmanuelle (1978), he appeared in 26 of them, missing just three of the entire series. Nowadays, Kenny’s Carry On persona, real or not, is revered as a sort of camp demi-god, the go-to highly clichéd but much admired caricature of British homosexual humour. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s maybe nothing necessarily right with it either, but it is what it is; very funny and utterly adorable in – or out – of context of the movies themselves and the sterling work of the equally as iconic members of the ensemble with which he shared the screen. Sometimes, despite the fascination with, and seductive melancholia and truth of the real Kenneth Williams, it’s irresistible and necessary to wallow in the Carry On Kenny; to forget about the unhappy clown and experience the clown. Even if ultimately it’s just messin’ about – and the real Kenny may have denounced us for doing so and demanded we stop it.

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