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.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
Arts and Entertainment
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales - OTE £30,000

    £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a rapidly expanding offi...

    Recruitment Genius: HVAC Project Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful candidate will b...

    Recruitment Genius: Key Accounts Administrator - Fixed Term

    £13500 - £14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Business Services-£70,000 OTE

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + OTE £70,000 + car + pension: h2 Recruit Ltd: A wel...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game