Book review: Kenneth Williams Unseen

by Wes Butters and Russell Davies

What can be said about Kenneth Williams that hasn’t been said before… and in his own words? Thanks to the revealing diaries he fastidiously kept, we have long known of the conflict between the extravagantly outrageous public clown and the lonely, monastic private life; of his disdain towards the low-rent work he took that he felt undermined his highbrow ambitions; and of the hypochondria and genuine health issues that ultimately led to his death at his own hands – possibly by accident, possibly by design.

Russell Davis, who edited Williams’ diaries into the best-selling book, returns to the subject in Kenneth Williams Unseen, with the assistance of DJ Wes Butters, who recently made a Radio 4 documentary about the Carry On star. The result is this mix of interview snippets, rare photographs and documents reproduced from Williams’s own collection.

Davis says that, despite his previous volume, there are some important voices that had not previously been heard, such as the friends unexpectedly named in his will. Also, most references to Kenneth’s gruff-voiced sister Pat had been expurged from his published diaries as she was still alive at the time. This provides new insight into Williams’ youth, even if all the significant information about his adult life has already been revealed

But it’s not to the detriment of Unseen; for Williams was such an endlessly fascinating character – and so obviously adored by his fans – that the new volume still makes interesting reading.

It starts, counter-intuitively, with his death by overdose; the riddle that has never satisfactorily been solved, and it’s not about to be in this book.. The agonising pain a large gastric ulcer caused him, and the final words of his diary: ‘Oh, what’s the bloody point?’ suggest suicide… but then he always was the melodramatic sort, and few friends thought he would ever really take his own life – and certainly not when the mother he doted on was still alive. Indeed, Lou lived next door to her famous son, and they had an appointment together the very next day.

Williams’s central London flat was notoriously spartan, and while he did welcome guests, he would sometimes treat them strangely, insisting they not use his toilet, but instead use the public conveniences down the road. Yet in public, he always wanted to be in the spotlight, even if that meant saying the most shocking things.

Freud would no doubt trace Williams’s strange adult behaviour to his childhood, when he would often have run-ins with his domineering dad. Young Kenneth would have the front to stand up to his taunts, which no doubt evolved into his showmanship.

He was called up by the Royal Engineers at the tail end of World War Two, and after a brief spell of conventional service entertained the troops with Combined Services Entertainment. But on returning to Civvy Street, found breaking into the genuine world of showbusiness a much harder task – as evidenced by the increasingly desperate begging letters to the BBC included among the scripts, diary entries and newspaper cuttings reproduced here.

Williams first made an impact in the straight role of the Dauphin in Saint Joan, but it was in the revues of the Fifties where his star really shone, especially as the format allowed him the latitude to spin off on his own mischievous tangents. There’s no little irony that one of his catchphrases would be: ‘Stop messin about!’

Eventually, the doors to the BBC did open for him; thanks to work with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne and the rest – from Carry On to Just A Minute, to ultimately schlepping around the talk show circuit – is well-documented history.

When Beyond Our Ken was at its peak, the avuncular Horne gave an interview in which he credited the show’s success to its cast. ‘They could make a telephone directory sound funny,’ he sad. Writer Eric Merriman, miffed at what he saw as a slight, decided to make a point, and at the next cast read-through produced, not that week’s scripts, but the Yellow Pages. After a suitably stunned silence, Williams picked out one of the books and started reading: ‘The Pneumatic Drill And Tyre Company…’ and – of course – made it hysterically funny.

It was this chasm between the Williams always seeking to be the adored centre of attention, while never really wanting to let anyone into his life, that has long fascinated biographers and cod psychologists. That picture is, indeed, reinforced here.

But although the ‘tears of a clown’ angle is duly covered, there is a more celebratory tone to Kenneth Williams Unseen, with plenty of reminders of the outrageous, camp wit for which he will forever be known.

He might have wished himself to be one of the great classical actors of his generation – though he probably lacked the discipline or subtlety for that – but ultimately, he will be immortalised for a much more precious gift: to make people laugh on the strength of his distinctive personality and faultless comic sensibilities.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • Kenneth Williams Unseen is published by HarperCollins Entertainment, priced £20. Click here to buy from Amazon for £11.05

Published: 29 Oct 2008

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