BOOK REVIEW / Carry on carping with Ken: 'The Kenneth Williams Diaries' - Ed. Russell Davies: HarperCollins, 2O pounds

Anthony Quinn
Friday 23 July 1993 23:02

ONE DAY in November 1985 Kenneth Williams was invited to read excerpts from the soon-to-be-published diary of his friend Joe Orton. He came away utterly despondent: 'I was appalled at the picture it paints of me] I sound like a foulmouthed frustrated queer] I suppose it's authentic enough . . .' On reading through Williams' own diaries, one doubts that he could be any less appalled at the picture he paints of himself. From 1947 to his death in 1988 at the age of 62, he kept a faithful, not to say annihilatingly honest record of his day, and the man who emerges is not a pretty sight. Here was a terminal neurotic, tormenting himself about sex and celibacy, railing against background noise and body odour and boredom - everything, in short, which conspired to make his life the misery it was.

These diaries can be a gruelling experience because they come of a mind that knows itself too well. Hardly a week goes by when he isn't plunged into swamps of despair and selfloathing. Thoughts of suicide haunted him from as early as 1948, when fresh from National Service and trapped in menial jobs he lacked any sense of direction. Yet fame and fortune did nothing to assuage his blinding depressions. In April 1966, aged 40, he writes: 'There are no words to express the deep unhappiness that possesses me . . . I have no privacy in the streets, always there is the moron's nudge or cretin's wink to make me hasten away: always there is the emptiness of existence to which I return.' And this at a time when his profile was high, his career on a roll, and his social life crowded.

Counterpointing this strain of miserable gittishness (see Larkin, P) was a quite absurd disdain for his showbiz contemporaries: 'It is disgraceful to have to mix with people who are artistically so unequal to oneself. It's all so familiar-making and democratic and ghastly.' But it was an arrogance lacking in confidence, and soon enough he would be back to doomy introspection ('I am nauseated by my own company').

Not the smallest part of the problem was his unresolved abhorrence of smut and vulgarity. The prince of camp was, at heart, a puritan: no sooner was he off the set of the latest Carry On than he was pouring righteous scorn on the 'filth' and the 'witless vacuity of it all'. This seems rather harsh on something like Carry On Cleo, in which Williams gave a wonderfully pompous turn as Julius Caesar (nihil expectore in omnibus - 'no spitting on public transport]'), but then it may have seemed a comedown for an actor who originally set his sights on high drama. Always a keen disciple of Shaw and Noel Coward, in the Fifties he had been understudy to Richard Burton's Konstantin in The Seagull and won plaudits for his performance as the Dauphin in Saint Joan at the Arts Theatre.

It might have been the promise of financial security that eventually induced him to carry on camping. The regular, though far from generous, salary he earned allowed him a modest flat in Bloomsbury (where he notoriously refused guests access to his loo) and helped to support his mother Louie, the constant presence in these pages and probably the only person he truly loved.

Friends come and go - Maggie Smith, Gordon Jackson and Stanley Baxter remained dearest to him - but enmities were more or less fixed. He couldn't stand Tony Hancock and cared little more for Sid James; in general he shunned intimacy, preferring poetry or a night in front of the telly with his mother. 'Trouble is,' he confesses, 'I'm not social. I've a capacity for entertaining people, not for loving them.' Sexually he was a nonstarter, and relied on the solipsistic delights of 'the Barclays' (rhyming slang - Barclays Bank), except when holidaying in Tangiers, where homosexuality enjoyed greater indulgence.

This book runs to over 800 pages, and inevitably proves heavy going at times. The cyclical pattern of Williams' life and the never-ending moods of desperation are not the stuff to encourage prolonged perusal. Yet they are fascinating, in a way that all of his generation, from Hancock to Hawtrey to Howerd, were fascinating, not quite clowns playing Hamlet but somehow lugubrious, thwarted, solitary. How did these tragic characters end up in comedy? It's hard to square Williams the diarist with the man whose preening hauteur and epic double-takes became a staple of British humour in the Sixties. For all his prickliness he seems to have been well-liked and highly regarded, by people as unlikely as Patricia Highsmith and Ingrid Bergman (with whom he played in a West End production of Captain Brassbound's Conversion in 1971). Indeed, he is touched by the admiration and encouragement of others, and records such kindnesses in his diary; but this in no way curbs his inclination to be 'disgraceful' (his favourite word).

Russell Davies has edited the diaries with laudable tact and proper humility, and has included several slighting references to himself, even though he and Williams never met. The latter calls him 'a nasty piece of work' and later 'that fat slob', for some footling misdemeanour on TV. Charity was not a virtue he cultivated - 'I see that old idiot Adrian Boult had the double hernia operation, and that ghastly old man Lewis Casson is dead: let's hope his wife takes the hint too - dreadful pair of charlatans]' Towards the end of his life, as back pain and stomach cramps became insupportable, even his beloved mother began to irritate him ('increasingly bad tempered, rude, forgetful, stupid and in most senses, a great bore').

An overdose of barbiturates one night in April 1988 finally released him: an open verdict was recorded, but few doubt that he took his own life. Sad and pathetic as they often are, these diaries cast a bizarre spell. They appal, they delight, and now and then do both at once. Here he is on the set of Carry On Up The Khyber in May 1968: 'At one point while rehearsing with Joan, I farted very loudly and she got up crying out 'Pooh] It's disgusting. I can't sit here with this going on - the dirty sod'. I said aggressively, 'Rudolf Valentino used to blow off', and Gerald T said, 'Yes, but they were silent films' and everybody laughed.'

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