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BOOK REVIEW / Dropping the bottom line: 'The Kenneth Williams Letters' - ed Russell Davies: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

IN A letter dated 5 September 1951 Kenneth Williams writes to his friend John Hussey: 'Just finished painting the downstairs lav and I flatter myself it looks rather gay.' While this is clearly a tremendously important revelation to anyone currently working up a thesis on 'The Lavatory as Trope and Signifier in the Life and Work of Kenneth C Williams', I'm not sure what it tells the rest of us. Even before he died in 1988, the world was more than familiar with Williams's lavatorial obsession. Unlike his friend Joe Orton, Williams didn't view the khazi as the perfect venue for liaisons d'amour but as a private sanctum: he was notoriously reluctant to allow even his most trusted friends to soil this holy of holies.

In his introduction to this rather depressing collection, editor Russell Davies quotes a letter from Jeyes UK Limited, replying to a missive in which Our Ken praised the efficiency of Sanilav. Williams was as obsessed with his bum as he was with the mechanics of servicing its effluvia. Again, this obsession was not of an Ortonian kind. There are several letters to fellow sufferers from piles and other unpleasant disorders. At least twice he discourses at length on the subject of PVC seat covers and how sitting on them leaves yer bum 'literally dripping'. But if you're thinking that these obsessions are a fitting reflection in real life of the stock-in-trade of a much-loved vulgarian, there was another side to Kenneth Williams.

In replying to a certain M B L Gerakis who had complained about his vulgarity, Williams writes: 'I think it is you, with your reference to 'nether regions' that is being vulgar . . . Shakespeare did not disdain the use of the word 'BUM' and gives it to Puck in The Dream. It is also used well by Jonson and Webster, and in our own age by Mervyn Peake . . .' In this passage we hear perfectly the pedanticand slightly snotty whine of the frustrated intellectual manque, the counterpoint to the nasally keening sauce-pot of Round the Horne, who saw himself as a serious artist betrayed by fate (plus his face and his voice) into dropping his trousers in endless Carry Ons.

In 1969 he wrote to Simon Brett, then producing Just A Minute: 'Oh] please help me] Try to erase that gaffe of mine about DARWIN (being repsonsible for the theory of gravity] - instead of Newton) . . . I honestly don't want to appear THAT stupid.' Poor old Ken. But what could he do? Turning down a role in Carry On Emmanuelle, he wrote to Gerald Thomas, the producer of the series: '. . . the very essence of it is offensive. In the old days in the Carry Ons there was humanity as well as saucy fun. I have always been able to defend them on the grounds of honest vulgarity, and morality . . .' (In the end he did the film.)

There are other insights into his obsessive personality, like the pettish complaints to his correspondents about their tardiness in writing and the shortcomings of their letters. This at least shows the importance he placed on written communications. He eschewed the telephone ('I hate the machine'), only answering if it rang the number of times prescribed by a code known only to himself and three other people. But does all this make Kenneth Williams,

as Russell Davies claims in his introduction, 'one of the greatest letter writers of modern times'?

It depends on whether you define 'greatest' as quantitative or qualitative. He admits in one letter to having sent 67 others that morning. Despite an impressive list of celebrity recipients, most of the letters are, reasonably enough, to 'old chums', containing everyday gossip, admonitions for perceived slights and reflections on his bum troubles. There's also a regulation dose of camp banter and a little gay-scene stuff (like the discovery of an onanists' coterie in the gents in John Lewis), in addition to the name-dropping and luvviness you'd expect - meeting Judy Garland in the bar at Drury Lane, getting weepy about the death of Noel Coward. Many frequent correspondents get a name check in Davies's glossary, but there are notable omissions including Tom and Clive, a mysterious Julian and Sandy-type duo who crop up repeatedly. 'Tom, your letter conceals nothing. You and I both know what the rift is about. The snub to me was born of a desire for revenge . . .' Davies doesn't reveal who Tom and Clive are, nor the nature of their relationship with Williams, nor the cause of the rift. Yet on the next page he provides a descriptive footnote about Interdens toothpicks.

To be honest, this kind of selective pedantry typifies the book and the thinking behind it. Having previously edited The Williams Diaries, Russell Davies clearly thinks he's on a roll. Doubtless there is a market for this latest book among stage-door johnnies as obsessed with the minutiae of minor celebs' lives as Williams was with cleaning his lavatory. But how many of the rest of us really want to delve further into what the dust-jacket calls 'Kenneth Williams' unique and troubled personality'? What we do want (as we wanted, to his chagrin, from the man himself) is laughs. These are few, although this line, from 1979, has something to recommend it: 'All we see on the television news are endless shots of mobs rampaging in Iran and waving pictures of this bearded queen called Ayatolla someone or other.' Even a fatwah on Russell Davies would be unlikely to elevate this volume beyond the dull and vaguely dispiriting.