Kenneth Williams knew what his fans wanted

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The Independent Online

It's odd how well Kenneth Williams has lasted. What he did was mostly no more than voices and camp outrage, and it all came to an end years ago, yet the haunting sound of his voice still floats over the land. Last week, they finished a three-part exploration of his life on Radio 4, the idea of which would have flattered him a great deal, even if it might have explored his private side too much for his liking.

But that was his own fault. Williams kept a voluminous diary in which he recorded his acerbic thoughts on most things, including himself, so it must have been very tempting for the programmers to contrast the archived parts of his public persona (the squeaks, the sudden bass notes, the camp Cockney, the fake posh) with the diaries, in which he doesn't joke at all but comments from a distance on Kenneth Williams the clown, and doesn't much like what he sees...

The presenter, David Benson, cleverly juxtaposed archive material and diary entries that brought out contradictions Williams himself may not have spotted. He often wrote that he had been offered work he was going to turn down. A poetry programme on Radio 4, for instance, which would pay peanuts and be a waste of time. A chance to appear with Michael Parkinson, "that northern twit". Ugh! He wouldn't dream of it. And yet, his diary records, he actually did go and do these jobs, and, this being radio, we were then allowed to hear him doing it, never sounding as if he hated what he was doing.

In his diary, though, he voices his unhappiness with all the Carry On films. He tells us how his heart sank when he had to face that Parsons fellow on Just a Minute. Yet he did all these things, and did them well, even when he thought he was going over the top or making a fool of himself. So I think he would have appreciated the irony of another juxtaposition which took place just after the last of the three programmes...

Somewhere in that last instalment, we heard him recording how he sat down to watch the TV news with his mother. He found it absolutely sickening. "All the usual murder and mayhem..." he said. A few minutes later, back in 2003, we were having the Radio 4 news summary for midday. Can you guess what was on it? International news? Updates from Georgia? I don't think so. But there was a report from the Soham murder trial. There was a report on the London man who has just pleaded guilty to the murder of three women. A report on the arrest of a bus driver in Cornwall who is accused of the murder of a missing girl...

Nothing changes, Kenneth. Your dear public, the ones who stopped you in the street and said, "How's it going, Kenny?", the ones you loathed the sight of, they're still getting as much murder and mayhem as they can find. They still can't do without their corpses (preferably dismembered) and their tragically missing teenage girls (preferably ravished) and their long drawn-out trials in which every item of the evidence (preferably unprintable) is repeated daily.

The public does not know who any of these people are. They have never met any of the victims or been to the places where they died. It means no more to them than the plot in a book. And yet they are on first name terms with the victims (Damilola, Victoria, Holly) as if they were members of the family, and they demonise the suspects long before they are found guilty or insane. Long after, too. Mad Moors murderess Myra Hindley used to resurface on the front pages way after her sell-by date as a handy symbol of evil, even though most of us had either forgotten the details of her crimes or, in the case of younger people, had no idea what they were in the first place.

Yes, if you want to be remembered by the British, the best way is to become a much-loved comic figure, like Williams. And if you can't be that, the next best way is to be a murderer.

Unless, perhaps, you are Dr Shipman, who, despite having killed scores of people, never seems quite to have caught the fancy of the British people. But then, he was most unBritish in that he only killed people older than himself, not teenagers. And we still haven't worked out how we really feel about older people yet.

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