Brook Williams

Actor son of Emlyn and friend of the Burtons
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The Independent Online

Brook Richard Williams, actor: born 22 January 1938; married Liz Holloway (marriage dissolved); died 29 April 2005.

Some of Brook Williams's many friends felt that he had allowed his acting career, initially so promising, virtually to fizzle out in a string of undistinguished small movie roles - mostly in the films of Richard Burton, part of whose entourage Williams became from the early 1960s. That was, however, to overlook his self-deprecating attitude to his acting talent and his belief that life and friendship mattered more than career; he was also, self-confessedly, without the core of steel to be found in any really ambitious actor.

Williams was undoubtedly showered with gifts from the cradle. He was the son of the actor- dramatist-director Emlyn Williams, a wayward talent of boundless charm - the producer Binkie Beaumont referred to him always as "that wicked Welsh pit-pony" - with a slightly sinister side, most evidenced in his consuming interest in murder and murderers. The author of such successes - in which he also starred - as The Corn is Green and Night Must Fall, Emlyn Williams was bisexual, although his marriage to Molly Carus-Wilson, née O'Shann, was happily adjusted and both Brook and his brother Alan, later a respected novelist, grew up in a household surrounded by books, music and their parents' circle, the cream of London's theatrical talent (Noël Coward was Brook's godfather).

Williams was educated at Stowe; his stage ambitions had to wait until completion of his National Service (in the RAF), after which nepotism undoubtedly helped his auspicious start as a contract player for H.M. Tennent Ltd, the management company steered by Beaumont which still, even in the post-Look Back in Anger era, was a formidably powerful West End operation. Not unlike the Rank "charm school" in British films, the Tennent contract-player system aimed to groom personable young talent, often placing them in key repertory theatres, usually conveniently close to London, to gain early experience, or using them in small parts or as understudies on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Williams's apprenticeship was largely at the Worthing Rep, playing a wide variety of roles in everything from Shaw and Coward to West End light comedies and routine country-house thrillers. It was evident early that he had something of his father's beguiling charm, in addition to an attractively rich-timbred voice and relaxed stage presence.

However, he was signally unlucky in his early West End experiences - enough to make anyone pause for reflection over career choices. His début in London was in a most peculiar comedy, Paul Tabori's Brouhaha (Aldwych, 1958), which may well have begun as a free-wheelingly irreverent political satire but which, by the time its capricious star Peter Sellers (uncontrollable even by no less august a director than Peter Hall) had finished with it, emerged as a messy ego-trip of a cabaret and a decidedly mirth-free zone for its hapless supporting cast.

Even more depressing was Williams's next experience when Beaumont - losing his touch in a changing theatre in trying to pit Aunt Edna against Jimmy Porter - cast Williams alongside a company of mostly younger talent (Donald Sinden, Barry Ingham included) in a musical version of Terence Rattigan's first comedy success, French Without Tears. Entitled - ill-advisedly as it transpired - Joie de Vivre (Queen's, 1960), this seemed on paper to have all the right ingredients, with the dramatist's own adaptation, score by White Horse Inn's Robert Stolz and lyrics by a witty writer, Paul Dehn.

But to shift the French-set action from the sunny innocence of 1936 to a more knowing 1960 was a disastrous move, only compounding the impression from the first scene that there was no rationale whatever for musicalising and "opening-out" such a tightly constructed light comedy (there was an especially dire sequence - about which in later years Williams could be very funny - involving the local good-time girl Chi-Chi, only mentioned in the play). The cast were plucky, gamely ploughing on when given "the bird" and booed at the close, and although Williams as the naïvely besotted ex-public-schoolboy Kenneth Lake had a convincingly appealing charm (and one of the best voices in the evening) the show lasted less than a week, one of Beaumont's worst ever flops.

Much more successful, intriguingly, was his performance in his father's old vehicle, playing the idealistic young Welsh schoolboy Morgan tutored for Oxford by the redoubtable Miss Moffat in the autobiographical The Corn is Green (Hampstead, 1964). It must have been far from easy to follow in such parental footsteps but Williams's performance had a raw, vulnerable edge fascinatingly yoked to a clearly flinty intelligence which made the interpretation his own.

Richard Burton had been a family friend from when he was cast, aged 17, in Emlyn Williams's comedy of Welsh village life The Druid's Rest. Burton and Brook Williams became closer during the endless waits and dramas involved in filming Cleopatra (1962), in which Williams had a small part; Burton found him a particularly sympathetic friend during the furore of his on-set affair with Elizabeth Taylor.

Thereafter Williams's career was mostly as a treasured PA-companion to Burton and, although he had parts in many of Burton's movies, they were never of much size or consequence. Nevertheless, he remained essentially a happy man. Known to Burton's inner circle by his family pet name of "Brooky", he was marvellous company, funny, modest, a fund of good stories and a first-rate mimic, not least of many of his father's chums so sharply observed in childhood (Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Coward were stand-outs in his extensive repertoire).

If he did harbour regrets that his career never achieved what many had predicted for him, he gave a brilliant performance in pretending otherwise.

Alan Strachan

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