Carry on laughing: Kenneth Williams was glad to be gay
Newly discovered letters show a very different man from the lonely and repressed figure of legend
Sunday 13 April 2008
For a man whose risqué banter, double entendres and camp comedy made him a national institution, Kenneth Williams was notoriously prickly about what was portrayed as a Spartan private life.
Ever since his death, 20 years ago on Tuesday, the star of numerous Carry On films – whose famous nasal delivery turned the most innocuous phrases such as "Stop messing about", into ribald comedy gold – has gained a reputation as a deeply unhappy and repressed gay man who rarely talked about sex or acted on his proclivities.
Previously unseen letters have emerged, however, which reveal that with his close gay friends, the comedian, who lived in a small flat in King's Cross, in London, was much more relaxed.
In one letter, dated December 1975, Williams wrote: "Here I am, nearly fifty, tottering around St Pancras Gardens looking for the odd bit of furtive pleasure and getting nothing. Not even a touch up."
In another letter, written a few days later, he wrote: "I still poke about the bushes at Euston and St Pancras but it's mostly drear and my chagrin is obvious."
Russell Davies, the editor of Williams's diaries and collected letters, who is preparing a new book of unseen material for publication later this year, said he has always dreamed the comedian's gift for the ribald one-liner would find its way into his conversation with people he trusted.
"Until now we have only really heard from Williams's straight friends, who he wouldn't have been comfortable talking like this to," Mr Davies said. "He had quite a lot of gay friends who haven't spoken out. My fantasy is that there was a lot of this kind of stuff between them and these letters are evidence that that was so."
The letters, which span 15 years, also discuss the comedian's ill health, radio shows, and his mother, Louie, who lived next door to her son. Williams's letters are also warm and generous, marking a contrast to the frequent portrayals of the comedian as a lonely and depressed figure, particularly in his later life – such as in the recent docudrama Fantabulosa, on BBC4, and The Pain of Laughter documentary currently on Radio 4.
The letters were written to Williams's close gay, but platonic, friend, Christopher Downes, a theatre dresser who became a confidant to many leading actors, including Michael Redgrave and Maggie Smith. Downes died five years ago.
Downes's partner, Illtyd Harrington, the former Labour deputy chairman of the Greater London Council, discovered the correspondence when he recently moved house.
He said that Downes met Williams through Maggie Smith and the three formed an intimate circle who would often dine together.
"Christopher took notes to Kenneth from Maggie Smith when they were working next door to each other in Shaftesbury Avenue in the early '70s, and they struck up a friendship," Mr Harrington said.
"They'd meet up and go for dinner and have highly intelligent conversations. I liked Kenneth, although he didn't like me. He thought I was part of the dangerous red conspiracy."
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
Renee Zellweger on plastic surgery: 'I'm living a more fulfilling life and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows'
Kim Jong-un 'purge': Six North Korea officials missing for weeks 'may have been executed'
Diwali: What is the festival of lights – and how is it celebrated around the world?
Nathan Cirillo: Final pictures emerge of soldier moments before he was shot dead by Ottowa gunman
Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...
£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...
£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...
£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...