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 Carry On films and appeared in numerous British television shows and radio comedies with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne.
Life and career
Kenneth Charles Williams was born on 22 February 1926 in Bingfield Street, King's Cross, London, the son of Louisa ("Lou" or "Louie") and Charles Williams, a barber. Williams had a half-sister, Alice Patricia, 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. 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.
Williams' 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 George Bernard Shaw's St Joan in 1954 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. His nasal, whiny, camp-cockney inflections (epitomised in his "Stop messing about ... !" catchphrase) became popular with listeners. Despite the success and recognition the show brought him, Williams thought theatre, film and television were superior forms of entertainment.
When Hancock moved the show away from what he considered gimmicks and silly voices, Williams had less to do on the programme. Tiring of his reduced status, he joined Kenneth Horne inBeyond 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 was notable for double entendres and Polari, the homosexual slang.
Williams 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 written by Peter Cook, then a student at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Cook's "One Leg Too Few" and "Interesting Facts" were part of the show and became routines in his own performances. Williams' last revue was One over the Eight, with Sheila Hancock. In 1972, Williams starred opposite Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend. He also appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a stage production of George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion in 1971.
Williams worked regularly in British film during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in the Carry On series (1958–1978) with its British double entendre humour. He appeared in the series more than any other actor. The films were commercially successful but Williams and the rest of the cast were poorly paid. In his diaries, Williams wrote that he earned more in a British Gas commercial than for any Carry On film. He often criticised Carry On films, his own performances and those of others, considering them beneath him. This was the case with many of the films, television programmes, stage plays and radio shows in which he appeared. He was quick to find fault with his own work. Despite this, he spoke fondly of the Carry On films 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."
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. From 1972, when he felt he wasn't 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 about a supposed Austrian psychiatrist called Heinrich Swartzberg, guessing that show creator Ian Messiter had just made the name up.
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 reader for the children's story-reading series Jackanory on BBC1. He appeared on Michael Parkinson's chat show on eight occasions, during which he told anecdotes from his career. Williams was a stand-in host on theWogan talk show in 1986.
Personal life and death
On 14 October 1962, Williams's father, Charlie, 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 and then to the cinema. Charlie died that afternoon and, an hour after being informed, Williams went on stage in the West End. The coroner's court recorded a verdict of accidental death due to corrosive poisoning by carbon tetrachloride.
Several years later Williams turned down work with Orson Welles in America because he did not like the country and had no desire to work there. 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.
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 romantic relationships of significance. 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, Maggie Smith and her playwright husband, Beverley Cross.
Williams lived in a succession of small rented flats in North London from the mid-1950s. After his father died, his mother, Louisa, lived close by him and, finally, 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, Joan Sims and Bernard Bresslaw.
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. 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?" - 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 a suicide or an accident. 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 not see any 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, which, 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. He was cremated at East Finchley Cemetery and his ashes were scattered in the memorial gardens.
His mother died in July 1991 and his half-sister, Pat, died in 1996.
Diaries and biographies
Posthumous publication of his 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?"
In April 2008, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the two-part The Pain of Laughter: The Last Days of Kenneth Williams. The programmes were researched and written by Wes Butters and narrated byRob Brydon. Butters purchased a collection of Williams's personal belongings from the actor's godson, Robert Chidell, to whom they had been bequeathed.
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.
Kenneth Williams Unseen by Wes Butters and Russell Davies, the first Williams biography in 15 years, was published in October 2008.
An authorised biography, Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams, by Christopher Stevens, 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. The biography said Williams used a variety of handwriting styles and colours in his journals, switching between different hands on the page.
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.
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.
The flat Williams had lived in on Osnaburgh Street 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.
The English singer-songwriter John Howard's song "Who's Listening? (For Kenneth Williams)" appeared on Howard's 2007 album Barefoot with Angels. In 2011, Howard wrote:
This wasn't written about Kenneth Williams per se, but, after I'd composed it and was playing it through, I realised the lyric sort of summed Kenneth up − I think I'd recently been reading his published Diaries and I had ended the song with the same words Williams had written in his diary before he died. The dichotomy of the man was fascinating, how he was everyone's camp comedic hero but yearned to be taken seriously as an actor; hated the Carry Ons but couldn't escape them; had a kind of self-loathing but also found himself beautiful. His friendship with the louche Joe Orton also seemed out of step with his image of every housewife's favourite funny man. The character in the lyric of "Who's Listening?" is similarly hard to weigh up, so I decided to dedicate the song to Kenneth. My partner was in a play with him in the '70s and said he was a lovely man, very generous with friends and generous with fellow actors on stage as well. But a very complex character.
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.
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 Regents Place development, site of the demolished Osnaburgh Street.