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Kenneth Williams: Revisiting the life and times of a comedy great

Kenneth Williams in the sketch Not an Asp from revue Pieces of Eight (1959)
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The Carry On star died 30 years ago, but remains one of the UK’s best-loved comic performers. As a new book explores every aspect of the national treasure’s career, Michael Quinn offers an insight into the mercurial figure’s many highs and lows

Thirty years after his death at the age of 62 in 1988, Kenneth Williams remains one of the most popular and fascinating British stars of the post-war era. And one of the least understood. A mercurial, contrary figure who could be simultaneously infuriating and intoxicating, Williams – a self-proclaimed “cult” – was the clown prince of the era-defining Carry On films. He was the deliciously provocative Sandy to Hugh Paddick’s Julian in BBC Radio’s Round the Horne, a waspishly erudite panellist on Just a Minute, and a fondly remembered storyteller on children’s television classic Jackanory.

Princess Angelica in The Rose and the Ring (1935)

But the camp, larger-than-life public persona he presented was always at odds with his quieter, private self, a censorious autodidact who could be as harsh on himself as he often was on others.

Published to mark the anniversary of his death, a lavishly researched new book – The Kenneth Williams Companion by Adam Endacott – reveals the subject to have been a workaholic, albeit one who was constantly frustrated by the quality of the material he found himself involved with. Over more than 650 pages, it explores every aspect of the star’s career, even detailing public appearances and television advert voice-overs for, seemingly, everything from teabags to toilet cleaners (“’Ere, remember me? I’m the loo with Brobat Bloo”).

Appropriately enough, the book opens with an extensive chapter on Williams’ stage work, citing more than 150 productions. His theatre career began in 1935 at junior school, where the nine-year-old’s performance in an adaptation of William Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring earned him his first review. “With his mincing step and comical demeanour, as Princess Angelica [Williams] was a firm favourite with the audience to whom his snobbishness and pert vivacity made great appeal,” the St Pancras Gazette presciently commented.

Williams as the Dauphin with Siobhan McKenna in a scene from Saint Joan (1954)

Much later, Williams would claim: “All I ever wanted to do was to act and to act well. Whether it was in Wigan or London’s West End.”

Early roles included Feste in Twelfth Night in Swansea and several in the Henry VI trilogy with Birmingham Rep, seen at the Old Vic in 1953, although theatre was to become, as The Stage obituary of Williams noted, “virtually spasmodic interludes” in a career dominated by film and television.

His diaries (or at least the roughly one-fifth of them released by current owners, the British Library) suggest that his ambition was often thwarted by the collision between his own fastidious standards and the brute necessity of taking work.

After a six-month spell unemployed, he accepted an engagement in weekly rep in Bridgwater, Somerset, in 1954 – much, evidently, to his regret. “It seems almost incredible to me now, that I have come through six weeks of this kind of purgatory. A team of people for whom I have practically no affection whatsoever. Plays so wretched that I blush to think I’ve helped to propagate them: and a kind of acting which is so dirty that I mentally vomit.”

From The Stage, 1955

He went on with undisguised loathing: “This lesson has been learned. Proximity with such muck is dangerous… How right everyone was in London. What a fool I was to venture near such crap.”

There were missed opportunities early on. Understudying Richard Burton’s Konstantin in The Cherry Orchard in 1950, Williams avoided having to go on by administering a medicinal pint of draught special to the stricken Welshman, much to his relief, having failed to learn the lines. “You always seemed so fit, I never thought it would arise,” he told an open-mouthed Burton.

His fortunes were to change when he appeared as the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Arts Theatre in 1954. It sparked a run of theatre appearances, including Orson Welles’ innovative Moby Dick, in which Williams played several parts, in 1955.

“Welles’ approach to keeping performances fresh by encouraging improvisation suited Williams’ spontaneity. He quickly got fed up doing the same thing night after night,” Endacott says.

Williams with Maggie Smith

Sandy Wilson’s musical The Buccaneer also suited Williams’ combustible creativity, enabling him to flare into moments of grotesque, magnesium-bright comedy.

He subsequently shared a stage with Alec Guinness in the Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso at London’s Winter Garden, before finding his niche in Bamber Gascoigne’s revue Share My Lettuce at the Comedy Theatre in 1957. It prompted Terence Rattigan to hail Williams as “the funniest man in England” and saw him strike a lifelong friendship with co-star Maggie Smith. He appeared with Smith again in 1962 in Peter Shaffer’s The Private Ear and The Public Eye at the Globe Theatre as a private detective in a performance he considered his best work on stage. Speaking after his death, Smith said: “Kenneth taught me how to recognise the one word in a sentence which would turn it from a commonplace statement into something wildly funny.”

Similar success followed in Peter Cook’s Pieces of Eight, with its legendary Not an Asp sketch, at the Apollo Theatre in 1959 and One Over the Eight at the Duke of York’s two years later. But Williams was to spectacularly stumble as Inspector Truscott – a part written with him in mind – in Joe Orton’s Loot in 1965, a production dogged by difficulties that closed before it reached the West End.

From The Stage, 1959

Fifteen years later, he redeemed his association with the play in his directorial debut at the Arts Theatre, returning to Orton the following year to direct Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Lyric, Hammersmith, a production described by the Spectator as “brilliant” and “hugely satisfying”. It was to be his last theatre venture.

It’s tantalising to imagine how Williams might have developed as a director. Rare rehearsal footage of him directing Loot shows a ‘hands-on’ approach, concerned with the smallest detail of the text and working close-up with actors. The television documentary In at the Deep End saw him relishing coaching presenter Paul Heiney how to be a female impersonator.

By then, Williams was a fixture on television and radio chat and game shows and had begun a publishing career – distractions that proved alluring for the easily distracted Williams, says Endacott.

“It became easier for him just to turn up, do it and go home. There were no lines to learn, no props to juggle with, no make-up to apply – all the things that Kenneth felt got in the way of him being Kenneth Williams.”

The Kenneth Williams Companion by Adam Endacott is published by Fantom Publishing

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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