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Stop messin’ about!: Happy Birthday Kenneth Williams
02.22.2011
04:12 pm

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Heroes

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Kenneth Williams
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Kenneth Williams was born today in Bingfield Street, London, just off the Caledonian Road, on the 22nd of February 1926. According to his mother, he was born at two-thirty in the afternoon. She later claimed she remembered this, because it was early closing day and her husband had the afternoon off.

Kenneth’s father, Charlie, owned a hairdresser’s and, Kenneth’s mother, Louisa, worked there part-time. Charlie was known for being bluntly outspoken and highly sarcastic to his customers. “Henna dye on your head?” he’d ask incredulously.  “Do you want to look like a tart?”  Or, “Stick to your own color. You can’t improve on nature. You ought to know that. You’re old enough, and ugly enough.”

If Kenneth owed his refined looks to his mother, then, it was from his father that he inherited his sharp and acerbic tongue.

With only an older sister, Pat, born in 1923, it rested with Kenneth to take over the family business. But Kenneth aspired to things other than a shampoo and set.  He had seized upon acting as a possible, future career. However, his father decried his son’s ambitions, acting, he said:  “The women are all trollops and the men are nancies.“

While his sister Pat showed prowess as a swimmer and as an athlete, the rather camp Kenneth stuck to books and art. 

“I settled for the books and gramophone and an awful lot of talking to myself.  My exhibitionism concealed a sense of inadequacy. The real self was a vulnerable quivering thing, which I did not want to reveal; showing-off, affectation and role-playing I used like a hedgehog uses his spines. The facade was not to be penetrated. My parents respected this privacy.  ‘He’s up in his room,’ they’d tell visitors. ‘He likes to be on his own,’ and I was undisturbed in my private world where artists were heroes and the imagination was king.”

One of his school reports ended with the word, “Quick to grasp the bones of a subject, slow to develop them.” The young, master Williams ‘”affected indifference” when his father read the report to him.  “It sounded like a reluctant vulture on someone else’s prey.” It was at school that Williams developed a talent for mimicking his teachers, something that landed him in trouble more than once. It was the first inkling of Williams’s desperate desire to be liked, and of the possible outcome such mimicry would incur.

The headmaster warned Williams that such “mocking” may win him popularity but that it would also succeed in undermining his own authority. “A facetious front may win you popularity but you won’t be taken seriously when you want to be sincere.  People won’t believe you and that will hurt you.” A surprisingly apt prediction.

Kenneth’s need for human companionship saw him attempt to steal away many of his sister’s schoolboy boyfriends. Infuriated by the number of youthful suitors that called for the blossoming Pat, Kenneth merrily told them that his sister was “meeting another bloke” and then, nobly, offered his own services as a date. Such brass-neck inevitably ended in tears.
 

 
In 1942, Williams joined the Sea-Cadets, and then enlisted in the army. Williams saw little of active service, and was rather abashed at the lack of privacy in the barrack-room. The effects of such comments as, “Frightened to show us your willy?” only managed to stifle Williams’s latent sexuality, something he later complained about, in the 1960s, to his agent Peter Eade:

“My first sexual arousals were with boys at school, all clumsy, furtive fumblings and really very innocent. Nothing happened in the army - barrack room life put paid to intimacy - and after demob my second choice of career meant doing a lot of work in order to catch up having started late in the profession. I was ambitious then. I thought I want to have a public life even if it’s at the expense of a private life.  I succeeded in that but in the process the sexuality has been stunted.  I’ve still got the same schoolboy yearnings I had at Bicester and since they don’t fit in with Kenneth Williams today they’re relegated to the dream world. They would mar my public image, and I want to earn the public’s plaudits not its opprobrium. Besides, love takes many forms. With the right night and the right performance, you can feel waves of affection from an auditorium. Desire isn’t damned, it gets channeled into creativity and that saves me from despair.”

While his sexuality slowed to an improbable halt, Kenneth started to flourish as a comic and an impersonator. He volunteered for the CSE (Combined Services Entertainments), a seemingly openly gay organization where everyone was “lovey this and darling that, and an audition could sound more like a proposition.” Based in South East Asia, Williams worked alongside the likes of future stars Stanley Baxter, playwright, Peter Nichols and director, John Schlesinger.

Once demobbed from the services, Williams abandoned his career as a clerk and took to the theater. From 1948-954, he performed in a variety of provincial repertory productions, including The First Mrs. Fraser, George Bernard Shaw’s Man of Destiny, Sartre’s Crime Passionel. He also understudied Richard Burton in The Seagull

Williams’s experience as a stage actor didn’t bring the rewards he expected. This was primarily because Williams never trusted his own acting talent sufficiently to take himself seriously. He tried too often to please, to get a cheap laugh.

This innate comic ability allowed Williams to make use of his incredible vocal agility – an outstanding gift, which was so dominant that it almost unbalanced him as a performer. Yet, it was this vocal dexterity that led a BBC producer, Dennis Main Wilson to ask Williams to join Tony Hancock’s legendary comedy radio series Hancock’s Half Hour.

By1954 Williams was a regular on the series, alongside future Carry On… stars, Hattie Jacques and Sid James. However, once the show successfully switched from radio to TV, its star, Hancock, believed he was being up-staged by Williams and had him sacked from the series. 

Hancock later claimed that Williams was not a comic actor but just someone who foolishly camped it up for the benefit of self-promotion. It was a painful and bitter blow for Williams, one that he never forgot or forgave.  Over the following years, the same thing happened to Hattie Jacques, and Sidney James, as the increasingly unstable and alcoholic Hancock could not share the spotlight with anyone.

At his lowest point, Williams found his biggest success, when he appeared in a low-budget comedy film, Carry On Sergeant (1958). What had been planned as a one-off comedy started Williams onto his greatest and most continued success.

Williams’s opinion of the Carry On… films fluctuated wildly depending on his mood.  The scripts were either “rubbish” or a “fabulous burlesque,” which all stemmed from Williams’ own insecurity.

Williams was incredibly well read, and while aware of his own limited acting range, he still had a desire, a need, to be appreciated as a high actor, similar in type to his great idol, Noel Coward.

While often blind to his own inadequacies, he was often scurrilous in his opinions of his fellow Carry On… stars. He greatly disliked Sid James, and denounced him in his diary :

“Sid James doing the same old tired recitation…nothing at all to do with acting…one asked oneself : ‘How on earth did he get away with it ?’ but of course he did.  All built on a ‘persona’ but nothing to do with talent…”

“Sid James really does look terribly battered and old. V. unattractive when he’s making love to the girls in it - all rather disgusting.”

 

 
Throughout his life, Williams threatened friends and colleagues that he would write about them in his diary. He did, but more often than not his opinions of himself were far more damaging. As writer and singer, George Melly noted in his review of Kenneth’s autobiography Just Williams (1985):

“Someone who disliked him intensely couldn’t have done a better hatchet job.”

  

Melly spotted Williams self-loathing - his almost Puritanical side that looked, not only on his weaknesses, but his sexuality as completely abhorrent. Williams lived, as he often noted, vicariously, and claimed his main form of sexual experience, as described in his diaries, was masturbation:

“Friday 29th January 1954

“Masturbation is a physical manifestation of self-love - or perhaps self-satisfaction is the better expression. Anyway, it is gratifying oneself, as far as I am concerned.  Sometimes I indulge in it once or twice a week, sometimes not at all. When I do indulge in it, it is because of erotic images, which become paramount in my mind, and blot out all other thoughts.  These images are all different, but the fundamental conception is constant. It is that of physical power, the large body, overcoming the weak:  the sex is unimportant - relatively - whether male or female - the element of primitive, animal cruelty is always present in the image.  The image is my particular devil; for in my general, conscious state, such things are ordinarily barbaric and repulsive to me.”

Williams did have some brief, ecstatic affairs with men of his own, but for most of his life he ran away from the offer of a loving intimacy, as he saw relationships as “a mess” and other people were “a mess” he “could live with out.”

Though he fantasized about it, Williams shied away from full penetrative sex, preferring to indulge in the, as he called it, “tradiola”, or mutual wank. He claimed that “masturbation (was) the only way” he could function sexually. Most of these encounters occurred when Williams was drunk, and had lost his inhibition. On several occasions, he documented his cruising experiences, and his desperate need for human contact. Unfortunately, on such occasions, Williams’s “outrageous behavior” led to terrible feelings of guilt and insecurity.

On occasion, Williams often hired “rent” for his sexual pleasure - once in London, and three times in Tunisia, after one incident, Williams suffered an infestations of crabs, which filled him with a horror of ever indulging in such “filthy nonsense” again. 
But of course, he did.

Williams occasionally indulged in fellatio or “philately” as he called it with the “rough trade” he picked up. However, he did not permit any “ejaculations”. Williams had dreadful, debilitating guilt” about all things sexual:

“I know now that the reason I cannot indulge in promiscuous sex is because I’ve come - no, because I’ve always equated it with sin. I think that the natural goodness and dignity of man is bound up with regard for these qualities, and that if you use someone else physically, with no other motive than sexual stimulus etc., then you degrade them, you take away from their natural goodness & their dignity (and of course your own.)  I think that this is forgivable in the auto-erotic function, because one is only concerning oneself with oneself, and though its mental consequences can be bad, nevertheless it is infinitely preferable to the former.”

In his diaries, he described his sex life as a “disastrous release,” and claimed that such behavior would “end in ruin.” Williams never out-grew his pubescent masturbatory fantasies, and faithfully logged in his diary when and where and for how long he had a wank, or, a “Barclay Bank” as he called it.

When counseled by the playwright Joe Orton, to ”just go for it”, Williams explained that he would never be able to go for it, as he had been “for too long a solitary individual.” 

Intimacy with anyone was often too sordid a thing to contemplate.  In fact, Williams felt uncomfortable with anyone using his lavatory, or for that matter visiting him at his London flat. The idea of any proximity to his beloved public left him cold and full of disgust.

Like many Puritanical individuals, Williams had repressed sadomasochistic relationship to sex. He dreamt of being dominated and overpowered by a body more forceful and dominant than his own. His dreams contained within the diaries often relate to Williams being orally or anally raped by a “masterful” individual - such dreams usually led to “nocturnal emissions”.  By his own account, such fantasies were never realized, though he did record an incident of spanking with a Tunisian gentleman called Jaffa :

“He did a bit with the belt but the noise was deafening in the quiet - it was 1.30 by then!  So had to desist. There was a considerable amount of amour and he played with his cock in a totally unselfconscious way, but I would permit no ejaculations.”

Williams closest relationship was with his mother, Lou, even though, he kept his homosexuality hidden from her. Often he would write his diary in “Polari” a gay slang to hide his activities. Williams lived with his parents for most of his life, and eventually lived in a flat next door to his mother on Osnaburgh Street. 

He wrote in his diary that she was:

“the only person I have loved…my best friend…I don’t know what I would do with out her…I hope I die before she does.”

 
As Lou got older, Williams realized that life without her would be “pointless”. It was with growing trepidation and fear that Williams agonized over his mother’s possible demise.

“I couldn’t go on living without her”

Their relationship was obsessive, almost a marriage, two increasingly aging individuals living only for each other and spending, especially in Williams’s later years, everyday with each other.

“August, Thursday 22nd 1963

“The terrible madness screaming up inside me. So many awful thoughts. This terrible sense of doom hanging over me. I wonder if anyone will ever know about the emptiness of my life. I wonder if anyone will ever stand in a room I have lived in, and touch the things that were once a part of my life, and wonder about me, and ask themselves what manner of man I was. How to ever tell them?  How to ever explain? 

“How to say I never found Love - how to say that it was all my own fault - that when presented with it, I was afraid & so I spurned it, or laughed at it, and was cruel, and killed it:  and knew that in the process I was killing myself. Who can say where it all goes wrong? Now I’m thinking all the while about death in some shape or another.  Every day is something to be got through. All the recipes of the past are no longer valid.  I’ve spent all my life in the mind. I have existed. I know everything vicariously.  I have entered into nothing. I’ve given some sympathy but never empathy.”

As far back as 1947, Williams described himself as a “suicidalist,” who did not “believe in existence at all.” Later diary entries described “suicide is about caring” and throughout his life, Williams kept a tally of the number of barbiturates he had saved:

“Counted my capsules of poison and I have got over 30 so there should be enough to kill me. Just have to work out the time and the place.”

.

He regularly wrote “goodbye” letters to his mother and friends. On several occasions, he considered the idea of putting an end to it all - only to be saved by a failure of nerve, or a realization that all the necessary dispositions had not been made, or by a dramatic improvement in circumstances.

“I’m falling…I’m falling..all my life has been a process of falling…I know what Stevie Smith meant !  They all think I’m waving but I’m drowning.  My acting career has been the waving.”

As Russell Davies notes in his introduction to The Kenneth Williams Diaries

“Many practical details conspire to insist that Williams himself decided the moment of his death. The most obvious his reference to his hoard of poisons (a barbiturate he was not in the habit of taking medicinally) set aside for the purpose.  This was the drug which, swilled down with alcohol, did indeed terminate his life.”

Though there was an open verdict on his death, Williams’ final diary entry for Thursday April 14th 1988, suggest new levels of resignation and exhaustion to which he had never been before :

“The pain (between hunger pangs & rats gnawing at your belly) got worse & worse… exhaustion immense ....oh! I’m so tired these days!  No energy at all. Pain came back with a vengeance!  Nothing seems to allay it now….pain in the back was pulsating as it’s never done before….so this,  plus the stomach trouble combines to torture me - oh - what’s the bloody point?”

 

 

 

 
Previously on DM

Tears of a clown: The Wit and Wisdom of Kenneth Williams


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher

 

 

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