Remembering Kenneth Williams
I was a friend of Kenneth Williams - not a best friend, but what he called ‘a good chum’ and, over several years, quite a close one: we collaborated on the books he wrote, spent hundreds of hours in one another’s company, shared countless meals, train journeys, trips to the cinema - so when, thirty years ago now, on the night of 14 April 1988, he took his own life, I felt a sense of real loss and sadness. But I wasn’t surprised.
Kenneth had told me that his father had committed suicide. ‘When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. If you can. Charlie couldn’t.’
Charlie Williams was a hairdresser, with a shop in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury. According to Kenneth, the service Charlie offered his customers was unique. He did their hair his way or not at all. ‘I’m not dyeing your hair. D’you want to look like a tart? Stick to your own colour. You can’t improve on nature. You ought to know that. You’re old enough and ugly enough.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, Charlie’s business didn’t prosper. In time he ran out of customers and money, and when the Inland Revenue came down on him for years’ of back taxes, he went bust. The shop went, the house went, and Charlie drifted into desultory retirement. He lasted a year or two and then, one night in October 1962, ‘took a concoction of cleaning fluid - carbon tetrachloride - and that was that.’ The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure.
When Kenneth died from an overdose of barbiturates (‘my hoard of poison’) washed down with alcohol, the coroner brought in an open verdict. But the truth is that Kenneth Williams, at 62, was at the end of his tether. The final words in the journal he kept so conscientiously for more than forty years summed it up: ‘ - oh - what’s the bloody point?’
He was in pain (‘oh, this bloody ulcer and spastic colon’), he had given up smoking (a lifelong recreation), and he was waiting to go into hospital (‘how I HATE those places’) for an operation he dreaded. He was frightened. And he was fed up. He knew he had painted himself into a corner. Professionally and personally, he had nowhere left to go.
That he died a burden and a disappointment to himself is both sad and wrong, because here we are, thirty years after his death, and for many he seems as potent a presence as ever. The books, the tapes, the Carry Ons, we buy, we listen, we watch them still. That extraordinary voice continues to resonate, one of the most distinctive English sounds of our time. If you can do it (and it’s a tough one to imitate: Frankie Howerd is so much easier), there’s money to be earned in the voice-over market as a Kenneth Williams sound-alike. Ever since he died, actors (most of whom never knew him) have been appearing in stage shows and TV dramas impersonating him. ‘I’m a cult,’ he used to scream, ‘a cult, d’you hear?’ eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring. Well, yes, he sort of is.
John Gielgud - one of the pantheon of Kenneth’s heroes, along with Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Orson Welles and Kenneth Horne - defined the attributes necessary to a star performer as ‘energy, an athletic voice, a well-graced manner, some unusually fascinating originality of temperament; vitality, certainly, and an ability to convey an impression of beauty or ugliness as the part demands, as well as authority and a sense of style.’ Kenneth had all the qualifications then, yet as the years went by the offers of work on stage and screen grew fewer and less interesting. By the end they had virtually dried up. The problem, of course, was that gradually the versatile character actor and consummate revue artiste of the 1950s and 1960s became a coarsened caricature of himself. He was frightened of failure (who isn’t?) and often would say ‘oh, I can’t be bothered, I can’t be fagged’ when really he meant ‘I don’t want to, it might not work’. Increasingly, he fell back on the mannerisms and gags and routines he knew he could rely on, running round in ever-decreasing circles. He got less work because there was less he could do. He knew it. He knew, too, that he wasn’t an easy ride. Some found him quite impossible.
We never fell out, but then I never crossed him. And he did me many favours, introducing me to Just a Minute and Countdown, giving me good advice, making a great success of the three books we worked on together and giving me a generous share of the proceeds. He even allowed me to visit his flat (spare and spartan) and use his loo - a privilege not granted to many. He could be sweet and sour, but when we met up he was only sweet. He liked my wife: he was good with my children. (He enjoyed entertaining children: he was proud of his appearances on Jackanory.) Yes, he was outrageous, waspish, wickedly funny, and often wicked simply to be funny. He would say terrible things about people, dreadful, hurtful, calumnious things, without necessarily meaning them, or, if meaning them, meaning them for the moment, or, if really meaning them, not meaning them to hurt. He would go as far as he needed - and frequently far beyond - to create an effect, to provoke a reaction, if necessary of shock, preferably of hysteria. One evening after dinner, when he already had the table in a roar, he got to his feet, spun round, dropped his trousers and his pants and cried, ‘Look! Look! The bum - it’s hanging down in pleats!’
He was funny and kind (when my father died he wrote me a wonderful letter of consolation, careful and caring) and, contrary to reputation, in my experience not in the least bit mean. He was careful with his money, but until the 1980s, his earnings had never been spectacular. The Carry Ons were regular, but they didn’t pay a fortune. ‘I never got more than £ 5,000 for any of them. None of us did.’ In 1983, when London Weekend Television offered him £ 10,000 for An Audience with Kenneth Williams, he was amazed, and thrilled. ‘Ten thou for one evening of my old tat!’ he gasped. I said, ‘Remember Whistler’s line when asked how he dared demand two hundred guineas for a painting that hadn’t taken more than a day to complete?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ purred Kenneth, ‘ “I don’t ask it for a day’s work, I ask it for the experience of a lifetime!” Yes. Yes, that’s it exactly.’ With Kenneth, references to Whistler or Ruskin always went down well. He liked to talk about art and music and philosophy. He was self-taught and widely and well-read, he had reams of poetry by heart, and enjoyed showing off his erudition. When he was writing his autobiography, he read it to me in draft, out loud, paragraph by paragraph, for approval, and the only time we nearly came to blows was when I forced him to to leave out great chunks - pages and pages, thousands of words - about Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer. ‘Oh, all right, have it your own way. If you think they want the same old rubbish, they can have it. I don’t care.’
He did care, of course. When people he respected suggested he wasn’t fulfilling his potential or upbraided him for excessive vulgarity, he snapped back defensively. ‘Have you read Twelfth Night? “These be her very Cs, her Us, and her Ts, and thus does she make her great Ps.” And that’s the greatest poet the world has ever known. Don’t talk to me about vulgarity!’
Kenneth knew he went too far too often. Once we had him to supper with the head of an Oxford college, a woman he professed himself eager to meet. He liked the idea of conversation with academics. First he charmed her, then, as the drink and the devil got to him, he appalled her with a stream of the crudest obscenities. He recognised that this outlandish behaviour drove friends away, but somehow he couldn’t stop himself. One of his oldest chums was the film director John Schlesinger, who had been with Kenneth, and Stanley Baxter and Peter Nichols, in Combined Services Entertainments in the Far East in the 1940s, putting on those concert parties so brilliantly evoked in Nichols’s Privates on Parade. John hadn’t seen Kenneth for some years, so we invited them for a meal. John was apprehensive, fearing an evening of self-indulgent self-centred queeniness. In the event, Kenneth was on his best behaviour, twinkling, nostalgic, affectionate, fun. John suggested a rematch at his house and, when it came, Kenneth was at his worst. He started loud and funny, but as the night wore on grew ever louder, more raucous and less amusing. The problem, I sensed, was that, at John’s, Alan Bennett was part of the party and was so delightful, so gently droll, that Kenneth couldn’t cope with the competition and couldn’t bear himself for seeing it as competition. The evening was a flop and John and Kenneth, once such friends, never saw each other again.
His very brilliance as a raconteur added to his self-loathing. ‘Most good talkers, when they have run down, are miserable,’ said Cyril Connolly, ‘they know that they have betrayed themselves, that they have taken material which should have a life of its own to dispense it in noises upon the air.’
Kenneth, full of contradictions, was angry with himself for letting his career be reduced to the chat-show circuit, yet recognised - and relished - his own skill in the genre. After recording one of his appearances on Parkinson early in the evening he would come on to our house to view the transmission, providing a running commentary on his own performance. ‘That’s good, that’s very good. Don’t I look a dish? Lovely tag to that story.’
Kenneth, of course, was a natural performer, but as a person I think he was probably happiest without at audience, one to one with one of the two or three amiable, tolerant, intelligent chums (usually not from the world of entertainment) who gave him time and uncomplaining, uncomplicated companionship. (I am thinking particularly of his friend Michael Whittaker who would take him on drives from London to Lichfield, where Michael had once been a chorister, and where Kenneth could hold forth on the subject of another of his great heroes: Dr Johnson.) Kenneth liked to be what he called ‘ordinary’, to spend time with ‘normal families’. He loved to be with the Scottish actor Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona and their children. With the Jacksons, probably more than anywhere, he felt secure.
Contrary to several opinions, I don’t believe he was tortured by his sexuality. He was born in 1926, forty-one years before the legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults. He belonged to a more discreet generation, as he said, ‘before the love that dare not speak its name started shouting the odds from the rooftops.’ Was he homosexual? ‘Mentally yes, spiritually yes, physically no,’ was his sober answer. In his cups, he would tell the tale of his exciting encounter with a young Sikh in Ceylon, in a coconut grove in Kurunegala. ‘It was only fumbling, just the Barclays Bank.’ Customarily, when ladies were present, he eschewed the rhyming slang and put on his Noel Coward voice to roll the word ‘masturbatory’ round his tongue.
He was ready to lend tacit support to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality - he told me he had been to a couple of their meetings - but he wasn’t interested in ‘gay rights’, just ‘the allieviation of suffering’. ‘The sex urge is just an animal instinct,’ he used to say, ‘the bit left over in us from the apes. It is the human heart we should be concerned with, and its intense vulnerability.’
Kenneth was brilliant, gifted, and vulnerable. I felt guilty about his death because I knew that I was one (of several) of his friends who had given up on him. He was very demanding and we didn’t have the time or the patience for our old chum.
Not long before he died I got a postcard from him, featuring what looked like a still from a Carry On, a picture of Kenneth peering into a periscope. On the card he had written: ‘Are you still there?’ I wasn’t. And now I miss him.