I’d love to think that I’m so intimately connected on the cultural front that I don’t need Facebook to tell me what’s happening, but it doesn’t half come in handy sometimes. Without a handy post from actor and writer David Benson, I’d have failed to spot a one-off event at the British Library to mark their acquisition of Kenneth Williams’ diaries and letters, and consequently would have missed one of the most enlightening and entertaining evenings I’ve enjoyed for a while. As a performer, Kenneth Williams is still iconic, even 28 years after his death in 1988 (or, as he would have preferred it, ‘I’m a cult – yes, the biggest cult you’ll see round here’). However, that iconic status has tended to reflect principally on his comedic persona – the high camp of the Carry On films and the soaring flights of verbal inventiveness as a panellist on ‘Just a Minute’. His accomplished straight acting career, and more satirical work in late 1950s revues, are celebrated mainly by those who have been admirers of his work for many years and, given that he never made any concerted attempt to hide his homosexuality, there’s been little mileage in any sensationalism on that front. Indeed, Kenneth Williams made such a good job of packaging Kenneth Williams in the many chat show performances that made up the bulk of his later work that it’s unsurprising that those have become the legacy ‘truth’.
In reality, the public persona of outrageous camp and flamboyant intellectualism was a fairly thin veneer on a deeply complex individual, whose inherent contradictions pointed to someone deeply unhappy with himself, and nowhere does that come out more strongly than in the 43 years’ worth of diaries that he left, chronicling virtually every year (with breaks only when he was serving overseas with the Army during the war) from his teens through to the days immediately before his untimely – and probably accidental – death from an overdose of prescribed medication. I’d always thought we knew those diaries pretty well – they and his 2000-odd letters were the subjects of a couple of hefty books edited by Russell Davies and published in the 1990s, and there have been other publications since based on material from the archive that he left to his godson. However, one of the snippets that came from British Library Curator, Kathryn Johnson, was that the book explored only around 10-15% of the diaries’ content – that’s around 4000 of what probably amounts to over 400,000 words of entries.
What makes Williams’ diaries so valuable – and why the Library was so keen to acquire them – is that they provide a detailed chronicle of such a wide span of topics. There’s the showbusiness stuff, of course, from Williams’ stage career, through his radio work when he gained public exposure as the foil in umpteen episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, to the Carry On films and many other film and TV appearances. There’s also a very personal insight into the post-War gay scene, spanning the legalisation of homosexuality (of which Williams makes no overt mention, much as it must have come as a relief to him having seen fellow actors vilified for their orientation), and the reflections of a changing London scene from someone who was born within spitting distance of King’s Cross (indeed, of the Library itself) and who never strayed far from the area. As Kathryn pointed out, there’s even a detailed record of how certain bus routes changed.
All of this was brought to life superbly by the panel, with Kathryn clearly having immersed herself in the content of the diaries, and selected extracts brought expertly to life when read by David Benson who manages to capture the full range of Kenneth Williams’ expressive vocal delivery without once descending into an ‘Oooh, Matron’ impression. It’s no wonder, as David’s incisive one-man show about Williams, ‘Think No Evil of Us’ was a hit both at the Fringe and in the West End, and continues to attract appreciative audiences. David’s own in-depth research also makes him supremely well-qualified to fill in the context to many of the diary entries and his analytical approach to his subject’s personality showed through in every line.
To bring the perspective of those who knew and worked with Williams personally, we were privileged to be joined by the long-serving chair of ‘Just a Minute’, Nicholas Parsons, and one of Williams’ close friends, Peter Cadley. For someone with his long broadcasting pedigree, it was refreshing that Parsons avoided any temptation to claim deep knowledge of Kenneth Williams away from the Just a Minute studio, and instead confined himself to some wonderful anecdotes that brought to life Williams’ performances both on air and behind the scenes at the recording sessions. It was fascinating to hear at first hand how Williams was capable of spotting a flagging episode and launch into one of his impromptu tirades that lasted just long enough to bring the atmosphere back up to the right pitch, but how in return Parsons would often need to coax him into life were he to lose a topic which had promised to allow him to demonstrate his polymath knowledge. Like most of those who worked with Williams, Parsons had appeared in the diaries in both positive and negative light, and there was much discussion of the way in which Williams would work out his own frustrations in the pages in a cathartic, but sometimes unkind, fashion. For his part, Pater Cadley gave us a unique insight into the private Kenneth Williams and his relationship with his widowed mother, with whom he had a mutually dependent relationship – with probably a good deal more awareness on each side of the character of the other than either realised.
Much of the diaries will still have to remain closed, either as the subjects of some of the more outrageous or intemperate entries are still living, or that the references to those now deceased would still cause great hurt to surviving friends and family. Consequently, Kathryn Johnson’s team is engaged in the enviable, but painstaking, task of combing through them in preparation for scanning, following which they will need to be redacted before being made available for study. It is, though, hugely comforting that they will now be held safely amongst the great literature of our nation, something of which, as a self-educated man, Kenneth Williams would have been immensely proud.
All those present were fascinated by the content of the evening – an hour and a half that flew past – and grateful for the honesty and openness of the panellists. We left with the laughter that Kenneth Williams created for us as his legacy, particularly the closing recording of his cod French lament ‘Ma Crepe Suzette’ (check it out on You Tube), but equally touched by the insight into an individual who’s unique and massive talent was matched by an equally daunting insecurity, both professional and personal, that left him almost addicted to performing, both on stage and off, but almost hating himself for needing to be in the limelight. Perhaps the lasting memory is of some of the photographs that appeared on screen from his personal album, on holiday in Tunisia with close friends – it was impossible not to warm to the shy, boyish grin and tousled hair that hinted at the real man behind the public persona. For his admirers, Kenneth Williams will continue to amuse and fascinate us in equal measure for many years to come.