Peter Cook was still a student at Cambridge University when he first wrote sketches for the legendary comic actor Kenneth Williams. His earliest contributions were included in the “intimate review” Pieces of Eight starring Williams and Fenella Fiedling that had a long and successful West End run. Cook wrote more than half the show and premiered some classic sketches including “Gnomes and Gardens” and “Not An Asp” an early outing for his famous E. L. Wisty character.
The success of the show led Cook to be commissioned to write a brand new revue for Williams this time called One Over the Eight. Among the sketches Cook submitted were some he had written as teenager, including “One Leg Too Few” the classic one-legged man (Mr. Spiggot) auditioning for the role of Tarzan and “Interesting Facts” a more rounded appearance of E. L Wisty. Cook would later reuse both sketches in other shows and films over the years.
Cook also wrote a sketch called “Hands Up Your Sticks” which Williams later released (together with “Not An Asp”) on an EP single. It’s a great Cook sketch that plays around with language and class attitudes and there is certainly the essence of the routine Woody Allen developed a decade later in the bank hold-up with a “gub” in Take the Money and Run. The voice of the bank clerk is played by popular Sixties entertainer Lance Percival (one of the principal voice actors in Yellow Submarine as “Young/Old” Fred) and the new animation is by Mark Hindle.
“How bona to vada your dolly old eek” may sound like gibberish, but it is in fact a warm greeting often used by gay men in England between the 1930s and early 1970s. It literally means: “How good to see your lovely/pleasant face,” and is a delightful example of the secret language Polari.
Polari comes from the Italian word “pralare” meaning “to talk” and is a mixture of Lingua Franca, Yiddish, Italian, Cockney, and slang and was a common language used by circus performers, actors, sailors, criminals, and prostitutes in the UK and Ireland from the late 16th century on. In the 1930s, Polari became the secret language for gay men to gossip in public, cruise for partners and identify one another. Polari fell out of use in the late sixties, after the UK government decriminalized homosexuality in 1967. It also fell out of favor with the more politically correct gay liberationists who saw Polari as an outdated and unhelpful stratagem.
Yet, Polari persists to be used today, and for anyone who wants to zhoosh up their vocab, then have varder at this beginner’s guide to Polari:
ajax - nearby alamo - hot for you/him aunt nell - listen, hear aunt nells - ears aunt nelly fakes - earrings aunt nell danglers - earrings barney - a fight basket - the bulge of male genitals through clothes batts - shoes bibi - bisexual bitch - effeminate or passive gay man bijou - small/little blag - pick up blue - code word for “homosexual” bod - body bona - good bona nochy - goodnight bonaroo - wonderful, excellent bungery - pub butch - masculine; masculine lesbian buvare - a drink cackle - talk/gossip camp - effeminate capello/capella - hat carsey - toilet, also spelt khazi carts/cartso - penis cats - trousers charper - to search charpering omi - policeman charver - to shag/a shag/ have sex chicken - young man clobber - clothes cod - naff, vile cottage - a public lavatory used for sexual encounters cottaging - seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories cove - friend crimper - hairdresser dally - sweet, kind dilly boy - a male prostitute dinari - money dish - buttocks/backside dolly - pretty, nice, pleasant dona - woman dorcas - term of endearment, “one who cares” drag - clothes, esp. women’s clothes doss - bed ecaf - face (backslang) eek - face (abbv. of ecaf) ends - hair esong - nose fantabulosa - fabulous/wonderful feele/freely/filly - child/young fruit - queen funt - pound gelt - money handbag - money hoofer - dancer HP (homy polone) - effeminate gay man jarry - food jubes - breasts kaffies - trousers khazi - toilet, also spelt carsey lacoddy - body lallies - legs lallie tappers - feet latty/lattie - room, house or apartment lills - hands lilly - police lyles - legs lucoddy - body luppers - fingers mangarie - food, also jarry martinis - hands measures - money meese - plain, ugly meshigener - nutty, crazy, mental metzas - money mince - walk (affectedly) naff - awful, dull, hetero nanti - not, no, none National Handbag - dole, welfare, government financial assistance ogle - look, admire ogles - eyes oglefakes - glasses omi - man omi-palone - effeminate man, or homosexual onk - nose orbs - eyes oven - mouth palare pipe - telephone palliass - back park, parker - give plate - feet; to fellate palone - woman palone-omi - lesbian pots - teeth remould - sex change riah/riha - hair riah zhoosher - hairdresser rough trade - a working class or blue collar sex partner or potential sex partner; a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner scarper - to run off schlumph - drink scotch - leg (Scotch egg=leg) screech - mouth, speak sharpy - policeman (from charpering omi) sharpy polone - policewoman shush - steal shush bag - hold-all shyker/shyckle - wig slap - makeup so - homosexual (e.g. “Is he ‘so’?”) stimps - legs stimpcovers - stockings, hosiery strides - trousers strillers - piano switch - wig thews - thighs tober - road todd (Sloanne) - alone tootsie trade - sex between two passive homosexuals trade - sex, sex-partner, potential sex-partner troll - to walk about (esp. looking for trade) vada/varder - to see / look vera (lynn) - gin vogue - cigarette vogueress - female smoker willets - breasts yews - eyes zhoosh - style hair, tart up, mince zhoosh our riah - style our hair zhooshy - showy
But Polari wasn’t always kept a secret, in the 1960s, comedy writers Marty Feldman and Barry Took subversively brought Polari into every British household with their hit BBC radio series Round the Horne. Through their characters “Julian” and “Sandy,” as played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick, Feldman and Took were able to use Polari to get many an innuendo and double entendre-laden sketch past the BBC’s censors.
Here’s your host Kenneth Horne visiting Julian and Sandy’s “Bona Books”:
Mr. Horne visits Julian and Sandy’s “Bona Suits’:
Morrissey’s Bona Drag (“Nice outfit” in Polari) album and the single “Piccadilly Palare” (about male prostitutes working London’s Piccadilly Circus) brought Polari into the 1990s.
For a generation of gay British actors and performers, camp comedy was a way to promote queer culture, through media of television and radio, into the nation’s living rooms.
Up until homosexuality was decriminalized by an act of Parliament in 1967, being gay or, admitting to homosexual acts, was a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration. The latter was used as sentence on the code-breaking genius and computer pioneer, Alan Turing—which gives an idea of the brutality and bigotry of Britain pre-1967.
For me, each of these men were revolutionary, and together with writers like Eric Sykes, Galton and Simpson, Marty Feldman and Barry Took, they were able to subtly change the public’s attitudes to sex and sexuality.
In her Notes on ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag describes camp as a means for promoting integration:
...Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
...The reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also seems to parallel the Jewish case. For every sensibility is self-serving to the group that promotes it. Jewish liberalism is a gesture of self-legitimization. So is Camp taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Needless to say, the propaganda operates in exactly the opposite direction. The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense. Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.
Camp may have been a weapon for education and change, but it wasn’t the sole preserve of gay men. Comedians such as Dick Emery, presenters like Bruce Forsyth, actresses like the Late Wendy Richard and Lesley Joseph, and most importantly writers (in particular Marty Feldman and Barry Took, who created the inimitable Julian and Sandy for Round the Horne) helped promote camp comics as innuendo-laden revolutionaries.
What A Performance is a wonderful romp through the lives and careers of some of Britain’s best known and best loved Kings of Camp: Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, Larry Grayson, John Inman, Julian Clary, Lilly Savage and Kenny Everett. The documentary contains contributions from Matthew Kelly, Lesley Joseph, Clive James, Harry Enfield, Chris Tarrant, Jonathon Ross, Barry Took, Wendy Richard and Cleo Rocos.
John Lahr discusses Prick Up Your Ears, his superb biography on playwright Joe Orton, with actor and friend, Kenneth Williams and theater critic, Michael Billington, on the book’s release in 1978.
The cherubic Orton was arguably the most exciting and original playwrights to break through in the 1960s—his first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was an influence on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, while his last What the Butler Saw led to political controversy and questions being raised in parliament—in reference to the size of Winston Churchill’s cock. Sadly, Orton’s life was cut short by murder—he was working on a film script for The Beatles (Up Against It) when he died (the Fabs made Magical Mystery Tour instead)—and one can only imagine what works of brilliance he would have concocted had he lived.
The quality of this interview is iffy, but it is a marvelous and important piece of cultural history for those with an interest in Orton (or even Williams). It’s also fascinating to hear some of the “politically correct” language used by presenter, Valerie Singleton, and interviewer Billington, where Orton is described as a “practicing homosexual”—as if he was in training for an examination. All jolly good fun.
From the back row, Jim Dale as Cyclops, Bernard Bresslaw as Colossus, Hattie Jacques as Storm, Peter Butterworth as Beast, Joan Sims as Dr. Jean Grey, Kenneth Williams as Magneto, Barbara Windsor as Rogue, Kenneth Connor as Professor Charles Xavier, Sid James as Wolverine, and Charles Hawtrey as Nightcrawler. Now this is how to do the X-Men!
Britton approached Fielding in 2002 to record extracts from J. G. Ballrd’s novel Crash. At first, Ms. Fielding demurred, but Britton’s persistence paid-off and a thrilling creative partnership began.
Fielding recorded Britton’s La Squab, as well T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and selection of work by Collette - which Ms. Fielding had originally performed on stage in 1970.
Ms. Fielding is perhaps best known for her role as Valeria, the delightful, kooky vamp to Kenneth Williams’ Dr. Orlando Watt in Carry on Screaming, which tends to greatly over-shadow her legendary career in theater and revue. She was hailed by Noel Coward and Kenneth Tynan as one of theater’s greatest actresses, her performance as Hedda Gabler was described by The Times as “one of the experiences of a lifetime”. She was a versatile comedy actress and had performed in a series of successful comedy revues, including Pieces of Eight (co-starring Kenneth Williams, written by Peter Cook and Harold Pinter), and her celebrated one-woman show at Cook’s Establishment Club. Ms. Fielding also provided the announcer’s voice for The Village, in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. And if this weren’t enough, she was adored by Frederico Fellini.
In 2006, Britton invited Fenella to a studio in Rochdale, where she recorded a selection of popular hits - including PiL’s “Rise”, New Order’s “Blue Monday”, Kylie Minogue’s “I Can’t get You Out Of My Head”, and even Robbie Williams’ “Angels” - re-interpreting them through her own unique and distinct style, which Kim Fowley described in 2009:
Her Succulent/Velvet-Blue-Saloon vocal tones made me believe I was having Naked Lunch in a Berlin bubble-bath, next to Marlene Dietrich… Somewhere in Berlin, circa 1928–1932.
Hence, we have a message in an aural bottle, from a 21st Century, Axis Sally/Tokyo Rose: Fenella Fielding.
Bring on the smelling salts! Then give me the Silver-Spoon and Golden Needle, so I can blend into the Wonder-Word Void, where Ms Fielding must surely reside.
Fenella’s delivery of the following titles places me squarely at the foot of her bed, on my knees, in a position of worship!
Find your copy of Fenella Fielding’s The Savoy Sessionshere.
Here then, for your delectation and delight is the beautiful Ms. Fenella Fielding and “Rise”.
Bonus video clip of Fenella in the Studio, plus taster clips, after the jump…
“All acting is a covering up of inferiority,” says Kenneth Williams in this interview from February 1980. Williams never believed in himself enough to be a great actor, his insecurities made him seek the easy route of comedy to win over the audience’s affection. Even in interviews he would rather undo any show of intellect with coarse innuendo than reveal his intimate, more serious side. People thought him flippant, but he wasn’t - he was like all of us, scared of rejection, scared of being emotionally hurt. Emotions were messy, uncontrollable, and not to be trusted. “That’s why I enjoyed acting,” continues Williams, for performing plays offered him a shield to hide behind. It’s a startling moment of truth, as he sits on the sofa, arms folded, and it almost upends the interview, which then tails off onto eccentricity, homeopathy and disease.
Sometimes you can judge a film by its poster, as can be seen by this fab poster by artist Paul Garner for an imaginary flick, Carry On Zombie. Indeed, I’m so taken with Mr Garner’s illustration, I’d pay good money to see Sid, Kenneth, Babs and co. as the living dead.
Based in Brighton, Garner has produced an incredible array of art work for magazines, papers, CDs and posters, all of which is available for view over at his site.
I do hope Mr Garner’s excellent poster will inspire someone to resurrect (ahem) the Carry On… franchise. Meantime, here’s a trailer for one they made earlier, Carry On Screaming.
Here is a rare and rather wonderful piece of Kenneth Williams’ archive: his brilliant interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s farcical short story Diary of a Madman .
In 1963, Kenneth Williams agreed to narrate an animated version of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for film-maker Richard Williams. The pair had previously worked together on the short cartoon Love Me Love Me. According to the splendid biography Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens:
Gogol’s story gave lunatic scope to [Kenneth] Williams’s voices. It told of a lonely clerk, who is driven out of his wits by unrequited love until he succumbs to delusions that, as the uncrowned king of Spain, he is spied upon by talking dogs.
In a recording session that stretched for more than six hours without a break, Williams read from the clerk’s diary in a halting voice, like a man on a window-ledge who cannot will himself to suicide. Other personalities pierced the reading - the sadism of the office supervisor, the contempt of the boss’s daughter, the shrill proclamations of King Ferdinand VIII. ‘I was pretty hard on him, and made him read passages again and again to get the right effect. It freaked him out,’ Richard Williams recalled. ‘At one point he walked out of the studio and I had to run after him. It was a block and a half before I caught up and persuaded him to come back.’ Full of repetition and bitter nonsense, the piece is almost nauseating as the clerk slops and flounders towards insanity. While no recordings exist of Williams in his most unsettling stage roles, Diary of a Madman is proof of his merciless gift for sustained, upsetting performance.
Sadly the animation was never completed, but this incredible recording was later re-edited by the BBC and broadcast on Radio 4 in 1991.
Dramatization by James Burke
Music by Peter Shade
Directed by Richard Williams
Produced by Ned Chaillet
Re-mixed for radio by John Whitehall
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.
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.”
More Kenneth Williams plus bonus radio and TV clips and ‘The Vag Trick’ after the jump…