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

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."

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