Interview, David Benson : My life according to Kenneth Williams

June Ducas
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:57

For eighteen months, actor David Benson has been subsumed by the persona of Kenneth Williams. The similarities between the two are uncanny, though not, as he tells June Ducas, to the extent of letting the comedy actor `inhabit' him.

The moment David Benson starts to flare his nostrils on stage, to bray and snigger - rolling his r's in a brilliant parody of the entertainer, he assumes the manic energy that Williams possessed with uncanny accuracy. It has been a cathartic experience for Benson. "It has been a way of finding out who I am," he says.

All his life, Benson has felt ignored. A number of years ago, he found how to attract the attention that he yearned for by mimicking the Carry On star. In the middle of conversation in the pub he would launch into his impersonation. "Oh, it will be a triumph, my dears! Oh yes they'll be flocking, they will. Flocking!" Later, he realised that Williams had done exactly the same to get noticed. Exhilarated by the success of his bar room skits, and after watching the South Bank Show on Williams in 1994, Benson wrote his one-man show Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams at the age of 32. It was something he had dreamed of doing since he was six years old. Having been on the dole for five years, in 1996 he directed and performed it at the Edinburgh Festival, winning a Scotsman Fringe First award.

He has been on tour ever since and opens at the Lyric, Hammersmith tomorrow. Nobody is more stunned by his singular success than Benson.

"Yerrsss, it is extra-ooordinary," he says slipping into his alter ego. "I had despaired of ever achieving anything. Now my fantasy has come true. By expressing myself creatively, I feel fulfiled, though I don't know how long it is going to last." He believes that if Kenneth Williams had tried to resolve his own despair instead of constantly complaining about his wretchedness in his diaries, he might not have taken an overdose in 1988. Although the coroner recorded an open verdict, after extensive research for his show, Benson is in no doubt that he committed suicide.

Think No Evil of Us is not a chapter and verse biography of Williams, it is more a character sketch - and sometimes a tender insight into the comedian's insecurities many of which the audience may link to Benson's personal vulnerabilities. Woven into the show are vignettes of his own childhood in Birmingham.

He insists that the links between Williams and himself are tenuous despite the striking similarities between them. Benson is gay, but he does not share what he sees as the star's sense of shame about his homosexuality. "Kenneth felt filthy inside," he says. "In an attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt, he kept his outer being spotless. Obsessed with cleanliness, there was not a speck of dust in his house."

Nevertheless like the character he portrays, Benson has an insatiable need for love. Or is it just approbation?

"I want people to love me for my abilities as a performer," he says. Certainly for Williams, this was not enough. He craved an adoring audience and then he would slink out of the theatre to pen self-denigrating words.

Like Williams, whose ambivalent attitude to friends often led him to reject them for pathological reasons, Benson is a loner.

The actors never met. In a twist of fate, at 13, Benson won a prize for his story "The Rag and Bone Man", a satirical tale influenced by Spike Milligan. It was read on Jackanory by Williams. He was mortified by this camp figure's rendition of his work since it exacerbated all the taunts that he was already receiving from the boys in his class - at a time when he was fighting his own homosexual leanings.

"At school I felt that if you could make people laugh you would somehow end your seclusion," he recalls. "Once I made a joke in class and suddenly I felt accepted."

Growing up with a violent and schizophrenic mother who eventually was put into a mental institution, at home he locked himself away writing to create his own make-believe universe. He took a degree in theatre studies, worked in a gay book shop and only started acting in his late twenties in the Grassmarket Project, a radical "very in yer face" theatre company improvising plays with young football hooligans, old lags and the homeless.

"One day I realised that when you are lying in your grave it's no good saying, I was too shy, too frightened, because by then you've blown your chances. That's it." So he hit upon the notion for his one-man show.

Despite their affinities, Benson bridles at the suggestion that he has been taken over by Kenneth. "Just because I can behave like him does not mean he inhabits me," he avers. "I can snap into Kenneth Williams at whim. There is a clear blue water between myself and him."

So has he ever contemplated suicide, I ask? "Yes, I suppose I have toyed with the thought," he confesses. "Being able to reveal myself in the manner I've always hoped to has helped me cross the Rubicon of fear."

`Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams' opens at the Lyric Studio, Hammersmith tonight. Box Office 0181-741 2311 To 10 January 1998.

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