Kenneth Charles Williams (22 February 1926 – 15 April 1988) was an English actor, best known for his comedy roles and in later life as a raconteur and diarist. He was one of the main ensemble in 26 of the 31 Carry On films, and appeared in many British television programmes and radio comedies, including series with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne.
Williams grew up in Central London in a working class family. He served in the Royal Engineers during World War II, where he first became interested in becoming an entertainer. After a short spell in repertory theatre as a serious actor, he turned to comedy and achieved national fame in Hancock's Half Hour, appearing throughout the radio series' run. He sustained continued success throughout the 1960s and '70s with his regular appearances in Carry On films, and subsequently kept himself in the public eye with chat shows and other television work.
Though Williams was fondly regarded in the entertainment industry, he suffered from depression and found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality, leading to his death in 1988 after an overdose. He kept a series of diaries throughout his life that achieved posthumous acclaim.
Life and career
Williams was born in Bingfield Street, King's Cross, London. He was the only child of Louisa ("Lou" or "Louie") Morgan (1901–1991) and Charles Williams (1899–1962), a van driver and/or barber — there are differing accounts — who insisted that his son learn a trade. His father was a strict Methodist.
Kenneth Williams stated in his diaries that he believed he had Welsh ancestors due to his parents' surnames. Williams had a half-sister, Alice Patricia "Pat", born illegitimately before Louie had met Charlie Williams, and three years before Kenneth was born. He was educated at The Lyulph Stanley Boys' Central Council School, a state-owned Central school on the corner of Camden Street and Plender Street, near Mornington Crescent in Camden Town in north west London, later becoming apprenticed as a draughtsman to a mapmaker. His apprenticeship was interrupted by the Blitz, and he was evacuated to Bicester, and the home of a bachelor veterinary surgeon. It provided his first experience of an educated, middle-class life, and he loved it. He returned to London with a new accent. In 1944, aged 18, he was called up to the Army. He became a sapper in the Royal Engineers Survey Section, doing much the same work that he did as a civilian. When the war ended he was in Singapore, and he opted to transfer to the Combined Services Entertainment Unit, which put on revue shows. While in that unit he met Stanley Baxter, Peter Nichols, and John Schlesinger.
Williams's 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 Bernard Shaw's St Joan in the West End, 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 considered theatre, film and television to be superior forms of entertainment. In 1955 he appeared in Orson Welles's London stage production Moby Dick—Rehearsed. The pair fell out after Williams became annoyed with Welles's habit of continually changing the script.
When Hancock steered his show away from what he considered gimmicks and silly voices, Williams found he had less to do. Tiring of this reduced status, he joined Kenneth Horne in Beyond Our Ken (1958–64), and its sequel, Round the Horne (1965–68). 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 characterised by double entendres and Polari, the homosexual argot.
Williams also 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 specially written for him 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's last revue, in 1960, was One Over The Eight at the Duke of York's Theatre, with Sheila Hancock. He appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a production of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion at the Cambridge Theatre, in 1971. In 1972, Williams starred opposite Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend at the West End's Globe Theatre.
Williams worked regularly in British film during the 1960s and '70s, mainly in the Carry On series (1958–78) with its double entendre humour; and appearing in the series more than any other actor. The films were commercially successful but Williams and the cast were apparently poorly paid. In his diaries, Williams wrote that he earned more in a St Ivel advert than for any Carry On film. He often privately criticised and "dripped vitriol" upon the films, considering them beneath him. This became the case with many of the films and shows in which he appeared. He was quick to find fault with his own work, and that of others. Despite this, he spoke fondly of the Carry Ons 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. He frequently got into arguments with Nicholas Parsons the host and other members of the show. He was also remembered for such phrases as "I've come all the way from Great Portland Street" and "They shouldn't have women on the show!" (directed at Sheila Hancock, Aimi MacDonald and others). He once talked for almost a minute about a supposed Austrian psychiatrist called Heinrich Swartzberg, correctly guessing that the show's creator, Ian Messiter, had just made the name up. He appeared with Ted Ray and Miriam Margolyes on the BBC Radio 2 comedy series The Betty Witherspoon Show in 1974.
On television, he co-hosted his own TV variety series on BBC2 with the Young Generation entitled Meanwhile On BBC2, which ran for 10 episodes from 17 April 1971. He was a frequent contributor to the 1973–74 revival of What's My Line?, hosted the weekly entertainment show International Cabaret and was a regular reader on the children's storytelling series Jackanory on BBC1, hosting 69 episodes. He appeared on Michael Parkinson's chat show on eight occasions, regaling audiences with anecdotes from his career. Williams was a stand-in host on the Wogan talk show in 1986. He voiced the cartoon series Willo the Wisp (1981).
Williams was a long-serving member of the council and executive committee of the actors' trade union Equity.
Personal life and death
On 14 October 1962, Kenneth's father, Charlie Williams, was taken to hospital after drinking carbon tetrachloride that had been stored in a cough-mixture bottle. Kenneth, who had never got on well with his father, refused to visit him. The following day, Charlie died and, an hour after being given the news, Kenneth went on stage in the West End. The coroner's court recorded a verdict of accidental death due to corrosive poisoning by carbon tetrachloride. Kenneth believed his father had committed suicide as the circumstances leading to the poisoning seemed unlikely to have happened by bad luck.
Williams insisted that he was celibate and his diaries substantiate his claims—at least from his early forties onwards. He lived alone all his adult life and had few close companions apart from his mother, and no significant romantic relationships. His diaries contain references to unconsummated or barely consummated homosexual dalliances, which he describes as "traditional matters" or "tradiola". 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 close friends included Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona Anderson, Sheila Hancock, and Maggie Smith and her playwright husband, Beverley Cross. Williams was also fond of fellow Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims.
Williams lived in a succession of small rented flats in central London from the mid-1950s. After his father died, his mother Louisa lived near him, then in the flat next to his. His last home was a flat on Osnaburgh Street, which has now been demolished.
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 that he had often had suicidal thoughts and some of his earliest diaries record periodic feelings that there was no point in living. 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; this, combined with the 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; his ashes were scattered in the memorial gardens. Williams left an estate worth just under £540,000 (equivalent to £1,328,797 in 2016).
Diaries and biographies
Posthumous publication of his private 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.
In April 2008 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 by Rob 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 Christianity 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.
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 notes that Williams used a variety of handwriting styles and colours in his journals, switching between different hands on the page.
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.
A flat in the Osnaburgh Street block in which Williams had lived 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.
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 Regent's Place development, site of the demolished Osnaburgh Street.
On 22 February 2014—on what would have been Williams' 88th birthday—an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled at Farley Court off Marylebone Road, where Williams lived between 1963 and 1970 in Flat 62. Speaking at the ceremony, his Carry On co-star Barbara Windsor said: "Kenny was a one off, a true original".
The Newquay Repertory Players (1948) in order of performance:
The Dolphin Players (1948) in order of performance:
- Acid Drops
- Back Drops
- Just Williams
- I Only Have To Close My Eyes
- The Kenneth Williams Diaries
- The Kenneth Williams Letters
- The Kenneth Williams Companion
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Dr John Elliott, deputy coroner for inner north London said: "The cause of death was a barbiturate overdose. Where Mr Williams would have got these from we would not be able to establish. There is no indication given as to why he should have taken this overdose and therefore I record an open verdict."
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