‘BEYOND OUR KEN’
‘OOOH – NO, Stop Messin About’…
the outrageous diaries of ‘Carry On’ star Kenneth Williams
only reached the Bookshops after his death, often irascible,
candid and scurrilous, but seldom boring. It was only in
that way that he was able to dish the dirt on Tony Hancock,
Joe Orton, Stanley Baxter, Barbara Windsor,
and on his own tortured sexuality.
takes a sly retrospective peek…
‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987) is a salacious movie bio-pic which explodes the short, brutal and sexually incandescent career of playwright Joe Orton across the screen. It’s also a hugely acidic black comedy of the submerged Gay sixties subculture. Orton – played by Gary Oldman, is eventually murdered by his more staid live-in lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), yet this is a film simultaneously brilliantly funny, provocatively vulgar, and ravenously hungry for experience. A life that burns meteorically through encounters with Paul McCartney all the way through to anonymous blow-jobs in the Holloway Road gents, from scripting mischievous movies like ‘Loot’ (1970) and ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ (1970), to lustful group-sex with Arab boys in Tangiers. The film leaves nothing to the imagination…
…except the real-life presence of Kenneth Williams.
The movie-maker’s extreme discretion edits the ‘Carry On’ star clear out of the story. But he was there. He was the neurotic Inspector Truscott in a role especially written for him by Orton in the original stage production of ‘Loot’. But, uneasy with the character, he played it ‘like Himmler’. In John Lahr’s definitive biography on which ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ is based, a smugly preening Kenneth Williams is also photographed lounging between the thuggishly rough-trade Orton and Halliwell in Tangiers in 1965.
And, in Williams’ posthumously published diaries*, he leaks more details. ‘Went up to see Joe Orton and Kenneth. Both were so kind. We talked a lot about homosexuality… John (Joe) walked me all the way to Kings Cross…’ But unlike Orton who delights in sleaze and its capacity to shock, Kenneth Williams was never at ease with his sexuality. And Orton playfully finds such reticence an irresistible target. One of the last people to see the duo alive, Williams humourlessly confides to his diary his continuing indignation at Orton’s transparently teasing accusation that Williams ‘posted’ used condoms into pillar boxes.
Kenneth Charles Williams was born 22 February 1926, maintaining a close ‘open’ intimacy with ‘Louisa’, his mother, throughout his adult life. He began writing details of his thoughts and experiences at fifteen, in a Collins Emerald Diary, recording everything clear down to his collar and hat size (14 and 7 respectively). Edited into a hefty 827-page but still manageable book form by Russell Davies and published by Harper Collins (£20) the diaries are often unsavoury, irascible, candid and scurrilous, but seldom boring – acid drops, a kind of sour confection, is an apt description, with Williams dishing the dirt in uncensored musings on his contentious relationship with Tony Hancock, Joe Orton, Stanley Baxter, Barbara Windsor, and more. His early publicity photos show him striving for conventional Matinee Idol good looks. His role as ‘James Bailey’ in the first ‘Carry On Sergeant’ (1958) has him as the highbrow University-graduate, superciliously intellectual rather than effete. In the December 1959 ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ episode the East Cheam Scribes effectively mock modernist poetry with Kenneth dramatically declaiming ‘straw in the wind, straw in the wind, straw in the wind, fly, fly, fly’. Yet he was drawn to the warm approval of reassuring audience laughter, dropping his character traits even into supposedly serious repertory stage roles.
In life Kenneth Williams claimed to be celibate, and the diaries more or less confirm this. He seems never to have engaged in ‘penetrative intercourse’, while fearing and loathing the spectre of his desire to do so. His movie image may have been to ‘Carry On Camping’, but he confined his own sexual activity to the long wank sessions his diary-entries detail. He records the duration of some wrist-jobs in exact minutes and seconds, fuelling them on mildly masochistic fantasy. ‘Masturbatory success is the result of imaginative conceit’ he pronounces vainly.
‘Williams was surprising to meet’ confides Lahr. ‘A complicated, touching man who bore no apparent relation to the haughty buffoon of the ‘Carry On…’ films or the whining camp voice from ‘Round The Horne’ or ‘Beyond Our Ken’. His actual speech was clipped, animated and vivid – but in recounting his stories his voice slipped easily into the wide range of delicious postures that had made him one of England’s most popular comedians, sprouting plummy and pinched vowels as it swooped from posh to ‘dead common’. Williams made the act of speaking funny.’ More than that, he transmuted it all into comedy gold, in a style uniquely his own.
Those complications go way beyond the ‘tears of a clown’. Kenneth Williams veered between narcissism, and self-disgust. Prurience and prudery. His comedy always tinged with neurotic hysteria. His sexual itch attracted to, and repelled by the Gay life-styles (what his coded diaries refer to ‘traditional matters’ or ‘tradiola’) which his most outrageous routines lampoon. ‘Curious how far away I feel from all this sex twaddle’ he writes (26 February 1962). ‘People wanting to possess people. Ridiculous.’
He achieved stardom through radio, yet never considered it a ‘serious’ medium. He will be best remembered for the affected anguish of his performances in the ‘Carry On…’ films, theatrically shocked by the enveloping avalanche of Hattie Jacques’ amorous advances, or outraged by Sid James’ earthy innuendos. As trash movies they are now the subject of reappraisal as the quintessence of bawdy English smut. Yet he despised them too. His primping limp-wristed style is best captured in ‘Carry On Dick’ (1974), or ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’ (1971) in which he plays Mr W.C. Boggs, a lavatory manufacturer on a Works Outing to Brighton. On the pier he debates the validity of ‘Gipsy Rose Lee’-type clairvoyance with Sid James…
‘Fortune Tellers? They’re all fakes, looking in their crystal… er…’ ‘Balls?’ suggests Sid helpfully. ‘I quite agree’ flounces Williams with a haughty snort, and immaculate comic timing.
His diary entry (for 20 February 1964) records ‘the script of ‘Carry Of Spying’ (1964) is so bad that I’m really beginning to wonder. I’ve changed one or two things but the witless vacuity of it all remains…’
When radio star Kenneth Horne died in February 1969, a Kenneth Williams tribute ‘soundbite’ catches his bitchiness in full flood. ‘Horne’ he says, was the ‘rock’ around which all the comic insanity revolved. A double-edged scratch-your-eyes-out that infers more at second glance. Kenneth Horne was an established figure in BBC radio comedy with appearances dating back to ‘Much-Binding In The Marsh’ during the war years. His was the star name that provided Williams with his point-of-entry to a mass audience. ‘Beyond Our Ken’ ran from Tuesday 1 July 1958 to 16 February 1964, seven seasons (108 episodes), written by a fledgling Barry Took and Eric Merriman. It was immensely successful, remaining a big-selling item today through a series of BBC cassette and CD editions. Horne’s rich indulgent tones provide the framework for absurd sketches, ‘Panel Shows’ and songs spoofing styles and genres through the surrealism provided by the visual third eye of the listener’s imagination. It was followed by ‘Round The Horne’ (from 7 March 1965 to 9 June 1968, four seasons, 66 episodes) with Took now in partnership with Marty Feldman. Together they scripted fifty out the sixty-six episodes.
Kenneth Williams had appeared in the ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’ radio and TV-shows, but fell out with Tony Hancock and was subsequently dealt smaller and smaller bit-parts until he was effectively written out. Behind the rumour-mill of jealousies, insecure geniuses, conflicting egos, tantrums and intrigue lies the clear fact that ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’ was becoming increasingly an ensemble show operating from the group dynamic of Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques as well as Kenneth Williams and the sly Sid James. But despite the popularity of the format that was not the way Hancock saw his career developing. He preferred the high-wire strategy of risking failure alone, rather than succeeding as merely one of a group. Kenneth Williams, by contrast, was never a ‘comedian’ in the stand-up or solo sense, he was more a ‘comic actor’ who excelled in situations that thrive on interactions within such groups. Later in his career he could turn in what amounts to bravura solo performances on chat-shows, but his most memorable work always took place as part of the ‘Carry On...’ crew, or the Kenneth Horne teams. Indeed, when he moved centre-stage to front his own radio ‘Stop Messing About’ show, following Horne’s death, it survived for just two Sunday lunch-time series.
Instead, it was Horne’s radio shows that enabled him to develop his persona through the grotesque vocal exaggerations Lahr describes. He became ‘Ramblin’ Syd Rumpo’ the Protest Folk Singer with an ersatz-dialect style verging on the edge of blue in opuses like “The Ballad Of The Woggler’s Moulie” or “Green Grow Your Nadgers-O”. ‘Keep it clean’ urged producer Jacques Brown, ‘precious rather than poufy.’ Some chance! He was also the wheezing old pervert ‘J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock’ in sketches including one about telephone bugging. He shrills ‘Hold on, there’s someone on my extension!’ then ‘my private discourses are being interfered with!’ Each innuendo delivered through a full lubricious wealth of meanings. ‘It’s hard to tell whether you’re boasting or complaining’ comments Horne, adding ‘we’d never get away with this on television’ in a knowing aside.
But Williams’ richest subterfuge came in league with Hugh Paddick as the mincing ‘Julian and Sandy’, lifting the secret gay code of ‘polarè’ and inflicting it into the airtime of a million Sunday lunch-time nuclear families. Developed by the Gay subculture as an internal language to confuse and baffle outsiders, Kenneth Williams’ game drew it through the airwaves in delicious satires of ‘omi palone’. An omi is a man, palone a woman. So, taken together, the phrase denotes a gay man. To vada his lallies is to look at his legs, his face is eek, so a good-looking boy is bona eek, with nice riah (hair). The words might have French or Italian derivations, elements of polarè can be traced back to the eighteenth century, some claim to find evidence of it in Shakespeare. Williams and Paddick requisition it as their own private in-joke, both party to its double-meanings, and ridiculing the community from which it sprang.
As a kid I loved the characters. I imitated their vocabulary in the school playground without being remotely aware of its gay connotations, “OOO – inn’e bold!”, which must have sent out confusing messages to any uninitiated passersby! To me, Julian and Sandy weren’t sexual. They were just brilliantly funny. They still are. One week Mr ‘Orne visits them, this time in their Advertising Agency bijou studio-ette. ‘I used to specialise in cigarette adverts. I was never alone in the Strand’ vamps ‘Julian’ Williams. ‘Whatever the pleasure – I completed it. I used to sit on this horse in a polo-neck, all butch and dominating. Then I’d take a puff, and gallop off…’ And as if that’s not quite close enough to the edge, the punch-line to the sketch is that his advertising career has been brought to a halt by anti-smoking legislation, when ‘THEY BANNED FAGS FROM TV!’. The delivery lusciously exploits every possible nuance of double entendrè to the maximum, the two voices building and developing the camp saucy characters into beautifully realised absurdity.
Mary Whitehouse and Conservative MP Cyril Black weren’t so amused. But BBC Director General Hugh Green defended and supported the programme, because he liked ‘dirty shows’.
Kenneth Horne provided Williams with the opportunity to become a national star. Yet rather than acknowledge that debt he used the posthumous tribute soundbite to demonstrate just how his own talent tended to reduce Horne to the role of straight-man in what was nominally his own show. An act of hideous disloyalty – even if there is a trace of truth in what he says.
Audiences love some comedians with a warmth that transcends their often poor material. Eric Morecambe. Or Tommy Cooper. Even Frankie Howard. But Kenneth Williams is not loved, he’s laughed at, admired for his endless excess of comic talent. But not loved. He could be an unpleasant man. Unlikeable, even to himself. To ‘Observer’ journalist Peter Conrad, the Kenneth Williams revealed in his diary-pages regards his sexuality ‘as a jest of nature for which he could not forgive himself.’ Also, for most of his life – with homosexuality illegal, it was an orientation that made him technically a criminal. Unlike Joe Orton, he was never able to ‘come out’. A reticence that forced him to repress, distort and caricaturize himself through the merciless comedic flagellation of Julian and Sandy, and beyond.
Yet he was always quick to detect traces of his own effeminacy. ‘I heard me on the radio doing ‘Desert Island Discs’’ he writes (22 May 1961). ‘Not bad really. Voice came over a bit common and pouffy.’ And later, with a near-tragic irony, ‘I am now looking like the elderly preserved queen I used to meet pityingly at parties.’ Nothing seemed to give him real pleasure. He visits Dublin to guest on ‘The Gay Byrne Show’, staying at Bloom’s Hotel, unimpressed by what he finds there, ‘…only in Ireland could you have found such an incongruous and unfunny mixture.’ He could have been writing about himself.
The ‘Carrying On’ came to a halt on the 15 April 1988 with a barbiturate overdose. His last entry in his diary reads ‘oh – what’s the bloody point?’ It sometimes seems as though Kenneth Williams was a character inhabiting a Joe Orton black comedy, ripped apart through psychological and sexual warfare for our amusement.
But we WERE amused…
22 February 1926 – 15 April 1988
Kenneth Williams’ first TV appearance was as an angel in the BBC-TV adaptation of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Wonderful Visit’, broadcast 3 February 1952
He appeared in 26 ‘Carry On...’ movies, from ‘Carry On Sergeant’ as the haughty proud and intellectually superior ‘James Bailey’ of Able Platoon (in 1958), to ‘Carry On Emmannuelle’ as ‘Emile Prevert’ (in 1978)
Access the ‘Round The Horne’ & ‘Beyond Our Ken’ complete Episode Guides at: www.britishcomedy.org.uk/kwas/rth
‘Stop Messing About’ BBC Radio 2 with Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Joan Sims and Douglas Smith. Series 1 (6 April to 29 June 1969 – 13 episodes written by Johnny Mortimer, Brian Cooke and Myles Rudge) Series 2 (19 April to 12 July 1970 – 13 episodes by Myles Rudge, David Cumming and Derek Collyer)
* ‘Kenneth Williams Diaries’ edited by Russell Davies (Harper Collins, 1993 – ISBN 0-00-255023-7, paperback 0-00-638090-5)
‘Just Williams: An Autobiography’ by Kenneth Williams (Dent, 1985 – ISBN 0-460-4688-8)
‘Kenneth Williams: A Biography’ by Michael Freedland (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1990 – ISBN 0-297-79701-8)
‘The Complete Acid Drops’ by Kenneth Williams (Dent, 1980 expanded into Orion, 1999 – ISBN 0-75281-835X)