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

O, he was loved, but did he know it? And if he did, would it have made any difference? For the great comic actor Kenneth Williams was torn by the need to be loved and the fear of intimacy that love brings.  Should we be surprised? For he was shaped as much by his parents as he was by the times. A gay man in a country where homosexuality was illegal and punishable by gaol. His parents formed the two poles to his world: his father - morose and homophobic; his mother - theatrical and needy. Yet, Williams was to find a halfway-house while serving in the army:

I found that if I got up on the stage to entertain the troops I could make them shut up and look.

Through performance, Williams created a persona that protected him and allowed him to live vicariously. It was how he was. He made a career out of being Kenneth Williams.  Over thirty films, innumerable TV and radio shows, he perfected his comedic style of camp double entendre. The innuendo suited Williams, for it allowed him to imply without having to commit; and commitment was something Williams was unable to do.

In one recently released letter to his two close friends, Clive Dennis and Tom Waine, Williams gave a moving declaration about his frustration at ever finding true love:

“All problems have to be solved eventually by ONESELF, and that’s where all your lovely John Donne stuff turns out to be a load of crap because, in the last analysis, A MAN IS AN ISLAND.”

We were only to find out how lonely Williams was when his diaries were published posthumously. He kept a diary for over 40 years, and as writer Christopher Stevens uncovered in his recent biography on the actor, Born Brilliant, Williams coded his diary entries with a colored pen - “[He] wrote in red pen when discussing his health and in blue when he had dramatic news, for example.” More interestingly Stevens noted how Williams’ writing style would changed dramatically through the forty-three volumes, depending on his mood, whether frustrated, boyish, intellectual or depressed. Always at the heart of his life was a failure to celebrate his sexuality and find happiness with someone.

“Living with someone always means a denial of self in SOME way and I suppose I have always known it was something I couldn’t accomplish. So I’ve always stayed on the sidelines. Getting the pleasure vicariously. It’s not wholly satisfactory, but then of course no lives are, and you know what I think about indiscriminate sex and promiscuous trade. I think it’s the beginning of a long, long road to despair.”

The Kenneth Williams Diaries haven’t been out of print since their first publication in 1993, and have added an extra dimension to a talent who is best remembered for his work on the franchise of Carry On films, a series that defined British comedy through the 50s and 60s. By the 70s, the humor was tired, and the audiences demanded more explicit material, something Williams was unable to give. He returned to TV and became a fixture of chat show programs, most notably Michael Parkinson’s excellent late-night series. On the chat show, Williams was able to entertain and captivate, but without a script, without a character to play, he mined his own life, his own history, himself and TV soon ate him up. As he wrote in his diary:

“I wonder if anyone will ever know the emptiness of my life.”

Here are a selection of highlights from Kenneth Williams’ best moments on the BBC chat-show Parkinson.
Kenneth Williams on Parkinson 02/17/1973 Part One, with Maggie Smith and poet Sir John Betjeman. Here Williams describes critics as the eunuchs in the harem. “They’re there everything night. They see it done every night, but they can’t do it themselves.”

Kenneth Williams on Parkinson 02/17/1973 Part Two, where Williams and Smith read Betjeman’s poem “Leamington.”

Kenneth Williams discussing accents

Williams on Parkinson talking about the ballet dancer Robert Helpmann and the aged actress Dame Edith Evans.

Bonus clip - Williams sings “Crepe Suzette.”

Bonus Clip - From the radio series Round the Horne where Williams and Hugh Paddick play legendary gay couple Julian and Sandy.

Bonus Clip - Rambling Syd Rumpo, singing about “Toasting his splod by the faggots gleam.”

Bonus Clip - Kenneth Williams’ “Vag Trick.”


Posted by Paul Gallagher



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