Any face you want, except the real one

Kenneth Williams could make anyone laugh, it seems, except himself. Gerard Gilbert is shocked by a rare sight of him happy in an exhaustive new film about his life

So Joe Orton would seem to have got it right. "When you're dead you'll regret not having fun with your genital organs," he told Kenneth Williams after Williams had expressed shame at his own homosexuality.

Not that Kenneth Williams had any regrets - or at least not ones that he admitted to his famous diaries. Instead he just killed himself. The 1988 inquest into his death generously concluded that Williams' last supper of booze and barbiturates was "accidental" - but none of the participants in tonight's Reputations film about the nostril-flaring, camp-snooty comedian has time for any of that.

But back to Orton. The most shocking revelation in tonight's film is not some seedy secret about Williams' sexual peccadilloes (he generally preferred a "barclays"; as in rhyming slang for Barclays Bank) - or of unsuspected avarice (he actually asked the BBC's Bill Cotton for a pay cut) - but some hitherto unseen photographs taken of Williams on holiday with Orton in Tangiers in the mid-to-late 1960s. And what is so shocking is that Williams looks happy.

Arms around Orton and Halliwell, pressed close to some handsome Moroccan lover, Williams looks carefree in a way that he doesn't in the other two hours of archive footage in Liz Hartford's exhaustive two-part film. He might have sat on the beach in suit and tie while everyone around him was in swimming trunks, but for once Williams is cracking smiles that are neither arch nor ironical.

Maybe the self-hatred was too ingrained for him ever to escape his unhappiness for more than a short holiday. Either way, of course, Orton was dead - murdered - by 1967, and Williams was confirmed for ever in his belief in the dangers of the flesh.

Nobody would ever be allowed to use the lavatory in his notoriously spartan London flat. The plastic would never come off the oven. He would never allow himself to be penetrated - sexually or metaphorically - again (John Lahr, in the Reputations film, immediately sees the link between his domestic habits and his fear of sex).

As tonight's film makes abundantly clear, Kenneth Williams' biggest tragedy as an actor with serious ambitions was his pathological, almost childish, inability to cut away from his comic persona - his "funny voices". He craved laughter and he knew how to get it.

His inability to stay in character - or to create a character that was not some shimmering facet of Kenneth Williams - is also given here as the reason that he was written out of Hancock's Half Hour. Williams always believed it was because Tony Hancock resented his success - and that has, until now, been the accepted truth. But Alan Simpson, of the co-writers Galton and Simpson, says tonight that it was a purely professional decision. They wanted characters grounded in some sort of everyday reality. This was beyond our Ken, of course. Williams could be anything he wanted - except real.

Apart from a bizarre episode of sexual exhibitionism on the Carry on Cleo set ("Oh, put it away, Kenny", the crew would say), the only other revelation in the Reputations film is a hitherto unpublished diary extract in which Williams expresses a desire to adopt children. He had already tried asking various startled young women to marry him.

The end was predictably sad. The ever-diminishing quality of the Carry On films (1978's Carry on Emmanuelle has to be seen to be believed), the endless chat-show appearances, and, of course, his bizarre relationship with his mother, Louie.

His mother would always sit in the second row of his audiences, and Williams' most salacious remarks were always directed straight at her. That he had to go "and rub olive oil in my mother's tits" was a fairly typical parting remark made in the company of her and others. Apparently she loved it.

Ultimately even the once unique camp revue was hijacked by the likes of Larry Grayson, John Inman - even Kenny Everett, whom, apparently, Williams disliked for his lack of subtlety.

A freak, "a malevolent elf" (Sheila Hancock), "a melancholic, depressive man" (Miriam Margolyes), "an unhappy, lonely, angry man", and so on; the character summaries come thick, fast and repetitive. But Williams will always be remembered by those that did not know him - or did not experience his boundary-breaking Fifties radio work - for the body of work that he respected least: the Carry On movies. For saying things like "infamy, infamy - they've all got it in for me", for squirming virginally underneath Hattie Jacques' amorous embrace, for the look of twisted shock when Barbara Windsor's bra pinged off in his face.

If only he hadn't been such an egotist, he might have seen that he had left a lasting mark on British culture. That he was a unique, very English, but world-class comic talent. That he was loved.

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