TELEVISION REVIEW / A man who couldn't carry on regardless

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The Independent Culture
TWO 'OOH MATRONS' and one 'infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy': thus was Kenneth Williams, national treasure, remembered by Sunday's The South Bank Show (ITV). As is the way with South Bank Shows, Melissa Raimes's obituary of the nostril Colossus, was thorough, wry and diverting. Unusually, though, however hard the bunch of talking heads who were Williams's colleagues tried (Barbara Windsor did her bosomy best), it wasn't affectionate.

There wasn't much beyond his camp, his 'ooh vader the homey polomy', that was either attractive or entertaining about our Ken. This was no parade of 'lovely Kenny' yarns, no long anecdotes about his warmth and generosity: Williams was a cantankerous and increasingly isolated old misanthrope, accurately summed up by his old holidaying partner Joe Orton, who wrote of Williams in his diaries: 'His only outlet is being funny to an audience, when he isn't he is a very sad man indeed.'

Williams's most lancing critic, though, was himself. It is hard to believe from his work, and latterly from his astonishing anecdotal turns on chat shows, quite what a miserable git he became. But the evidence was all there, in the diaries read wheezily by Robert Stephens, and in the letters edited by Russell Davies.

Though he railed against his colleagues, his family and the state of the nation, most of his ire was directed at his work: he is the only person in history known to have written to the BBC demanding a pay cut because his performance (as the compere for the dire International Cabaret in the Seventies) was not worthy of the reward. This was not done as a gag. An autodidact, he found his calling trivial and demeaning (the Carry On films were memorably dismissed in the programme as '31 films constructed from one joke' - and that was by Peter Rogers, their creator).

His final diary entry, just before, alone in his mean little flat, he overdosed on alcohol and barbiturates, read 'What's the bloody point?' Which isn't funny at all. 'Only an audience of illiterates could find this tripe amusing,' Williams once wrote of Carry On Where's My Trousers, or some other tripe he was involved in.

Would there have been enough vitriol in his ink-well, you wonder, if he had been moved to describe the flagship Sunday evening comedy shows - Hale and Pace (ITV) and Birds of a Feather (ITV) - which both returned for new series in rude health.

Delivered with a brusque bonhomie, Hale and Pace's sketches rarely falter from the proven path of dragging laughs from the bottom of a barrel marked 'belch, swear and fart'; theirs is bawdy of a style and quality that improves immeasurably if you have spent the evening in the pub before watching.

Only once did the show rise above the basic. In a jolly sketch where he played a blazered, self-important auctioneer selling off old gags (which provided a good opportunity to use some old gags) Norman Pace looked a ringer for Jeffrey Archer: intentional or not, it was a genuinely satirical moment.

Proving yob comedy is not just for the geezers, Birds of a Feather (BBC 1) was full of material gleaned from the front of seaside postcards and a plot so transparent you could have read the paper through it. 'You won't believe what has just been poked through my letter box,' said Dorien ('the neighbourhood snob').

Kenneth Williams, drawing himself up to his full preen - reserved only for the most singular double entendre - would have enjoyed himself with that one. And immediately on delivering it, would have sunk into a self-loathing stew of depression.