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Kenneth Charles Williams (22 February 1926 – 15 April 1988) was a Britishmarker comic actor, star of 26 Carry On films, numerous television shows, and radio comedies with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne, as well as being a witty raconteur.

Life and career

Kenneth Charles Williams was born on 22 February 1926 in Bingfield Street, King's Cross, Londonmarker. The son of Louisa and Charles Williams (a barber), and with a sister called Alice Patricia, he was educated at Lyulph Stanley School. Although his education was nothing special, he was a voracious reader throughout his life and in his interviews he could often quote entire poems or literary extracts purely from memory. He adored his supportive, theatrical mother Louisa ("Lou" or "Louie"), but hated his homophobic, morose and selfish father, and these relationships were key to his personality, and at one time he claimed that all his acting and comedic talent came from his mother.

Williams became an apprentice draughtsman to a mapmaker and joined the army in 1944 at the age of 18. He was part of the Royal Engineers survey section in Bombaymarker when he first performed on stage, with Combined Services Entertainment along with Stanley Baxter and Peter Nichols.

Comic performer

His professional career began in 1948 with roles in repertory theatre, but few serious parts suited his camp delivery. His failure to become a serious dramatic actor disappointed him, but potential as a comic performer gave him his break. He was spotted playing the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw's St Joan in 1954 by the radio producer Dennis Main Wilson, who was casting Hancock's Half Hour, a radio series starring Tony Hancock. Williams went on to lend his distinctive vocal and comedic talents to the series until almost the end of its run, five years later. His nasal, whiny, camp-cockney inflections (epitomised in his "Stop messing about..." catchphrase) became hugely popular with the listening public and would endure in popular lore for many years. Despite the success and recognition the radio show brought him, Williams' own personal view was that theatre, film and television were 'superior' forms of entertainment to radio shows.

When Hancock decided to move the show away from what he considered to be 'gimmicks' and silly voices, Williams found himself having less to do on the programme. Tiring of his increasingly reduced appearances, Williams joined Kenneth Horne in Beyond Our Ken (1958–1964), and its sequel, Round the Horne (1965–1968). In the latter, his roles included Rambling Syd Rumpo, the eccentric folk singer; Dr Chou En Ginsberg, MA (failed), Oriental criminal mastermind; J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, professional telephone heavy breather and dirty old man; and Sandy of the camp couple, Julian and Sandy (Julian was played by Hugh Paddick), and the double-act was notable for their double entendres and homosexual slang known as Polari.

Williams and Hancock had started out as good friends and would regularly discuss philosophical matters in one another's company, their discussions sometimes lasting an entire night. However, after Hancock cut many of Williams' appearances on the show, they fell out and Williams distanced himself from Hancock from then on. His reaction to the news of Hancock's suicide in Sydneymarker, Australia, on 24 June 1968, as recorded in his diary, was one of indifference to the death of his former friend and criticism of Hancock's decline in both his career and personal life. This was a stark contrast to his fond thoughts and praise of Hancock in his diaries from previous years.

Williams appeared in West Endmarker revues including with Maggie Smith in Share My Lettuce, written by Bamber Gascoigne, and Pieces of Eight with Fenella Fielding, which included material written by Peter Cook, then still a student at Cambridge University, including One Leg Too Few and Interesting Facts, that would both become well known routines in Cook's own stage performances. Williams' last revue was One over the Eight, with Sheila Hancock. Williams later starred opposite Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend in 1972. He also appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a stage production of George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion in 1971. Particularly in the theatre, Williams was famous for breaking character, ad-libbing and talking to the audience.

Carry On

Williams worked in television and British films, notably the Carry On series (1958–1978) with its British double entendre-laced humour, which were highly successful but for which he, along with the rest of the cast, was poorly paid. In his diaries Williams claims he earned more in a British Gas commercial than the entire Carry On series — although that might only be true if one adds the fee he earned from the highly popular spin-off children's cartoon series Willo the Wisp (taken up by the BBC rather than the commercial TV network). In his diaries he was often highly critical of the Carry On films, both of his own performances and those of his fellow actors, and gave the impression that the films were beneath his talent. This was the case with many of the films, television programmes, stage plays and radio shows he appeared in, and he was quick to find fault with his own work. Despite this private criticism, he still appeared in more of the Carry On films than any of his fellow actors, and spoke fondly of them in his interviews. Peter Rogers, producer of the series, maintained a good relationship with Williams. He recollected, "...Kenneth was worth taking care of, because while he cost very little — £5,000 a film — he made a very great deal of money for the franchise."

Radio and television shows

Williams was a regular on the BBC radio panel game Just a Minute from its second season in 1968 until his death. On television during the 1970s he was a frequent contributor to BBC2's What's My Line?, hosted the weekly entertainment show International Cabaret and presented several editions of the children's story-reading series Jackanory. He also appeared on Michael Parkinson's interview programme on eight occasions, during which he told many anecdotes from his career. In addition, Williams was one of the stand-in hosts on the Wogan talk show in 1986.

Personal life and death

On October 14, 1962 Williams' father, Charles, was taken to hospital after drinking carbon tetrachloride that had been stored in a cough mixture bottle. Williams refused to visit him, and the following day went out for lunch then to the cinema. Charles died that afternoon and, an hour after being informed, Williams went on stage in the West End where he gave one of his better performances. The coroner's court recorded a verdict of accidental death due to corrosive poisoning by carbon tetrachloride with no explanation of how the poison came to be in the bottle.

Several years later Williams turned down an offer of work with Orson Welles in America which would have been an important career move. According to his own account he had declined as he did not like America and had no desire to ever work there. However, it later came out that he had been denied a visa because Scotland Yard considered him a suspect in his father's death.

Williams always insisted he was celibate, and his diaries suggest this was — at least from his early 40s onwards — in part because he found his homosexuality emotionally difficult to deal with and the attendant lifestyle distasteful. He lived alone all his adult life and appears never to have had a close companion other than his mother, or a romantic relationship of any great significance. His diaries contain many references to unconsummated or barely consummated dalliances, which he describes as "traditional matters" or "tradiola" (homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK before 1967, so any ouright admittance of it would be held against him). He did, however, befriend the gay playwright Joe Orton, who wrote the role of Inspector Truscott in Loot (1966) for him, and enjoyed holidays with Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell in Moroccomarker. Other close friends included Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona Anderson, Sheila Hancock, Maggie Smith and her playwright husband, Beverley Cross. By turns gregarious and reclusive, Williams was also fond of the company of his fellow Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Bernard Bresslaw.

Although making a good living, Williams lived in small flats in north Londonmarker from the mid-1950s until his death. After his father died his mother, Louisa, always lived close by him — even in the next-door flat by the end of his life. The best-known flat Williams lived in was in the block on Osnaburgh Street, which is now demolished.

Williams rarely revealed details of his private life, though he spoke openly to Owen Spencer-Thomas about his loneliness, despondency and underachievement in two half-hour documentary programmes entitled Carry On Kenneth on BBC Radio London. In later years his health declined, along with that of his elderly mother, and his depression deepened. He died on 15 April 1988 in Camden. The cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates. An inquest recorded an open verdict, as it was not possible to establish whether his death was suicide or accident. However, his diaries reveal he had often had suicidal thoughts throughout his life and that as far back as his earliest diaries he noted that there were times when he could not see any point in existence at all.

His mother died in July 1991.

Legacy

The posthumous publication of his diaries and letters, edited by Russell Davies, caused controversy — particularly Williams' caustic remarks about fellow professionals — and revealed the bouts of despondency, often primed by feelings of isolation and underachievement, that marked his life. Williams wrote in his diaries from the age of 14 in 1940 until his death some 48 years later, although his earliest diary to survive into publication was the one 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 flat Williams had lived in was bought by Rob Brydon and Julia Davis for the writing of their dark comedy series Human Remains. The building was demolished in May 2007 and according to the actor David Benson's Myspace blog, he and ex-Radio 1 DJ Wes Butters broke in to take photos before demolition.

In April 2007, Williams' line "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!" (from Carry On Cleo) was voted the greatest one-liner in movie history by a thousand comedy writers, actors, impresarios and members of the public for the launch of Sky Movies Comedy Channel. The line was borrowed by scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell from Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, who had used it on their radio show Take It From Here.

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

The first of the programmes claimed that, towards the end of his life and struggling with depression and ill health, Williams abandoned his Christian faith following discussions with the poet Philip Larkinmarker. Williams had been a Methodist and took a keen interest in religion, though he spent much of his life struggling with Christianity's teachings on homosexuality.

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

Portrayals

Williams has been portrayed in two separate 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 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 the character of Williams; after touring, the show ran in London's West End. Benson reprised his performance in a number of shows at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe and continues to tour with this portrayal.

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

Recognition

Williams is commemorated by a blue plaque situated at the address of his father's barber shop in Marchmont Street, London. The plaque was unveiled on 11 October 2009 by Bill Pertwee and Nicholas Parsons, with whom Williams had performed during his career.

Performances

Films





Television



Radio



Books

  • Acid Drops
  • Back Drops
  • Just Williams
  • I Only Have To Close My Eyes
  • The Kenneth Williams Diaries
  • The Kenneth Williams Letters


Albums

  • Kenneth Williams on Pleasure Bent 1967, Decca LK 4856. 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.


See also

Footnotes

References

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


External links




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