Williams was born in 1926 in London, the son of a hairdresser, and educated at Lyulph Stanley School. At 18 he joined the army, and went with the Royal Engineers survey section to Bombay, and then to Sri Lanka, but managed to transfer to Combined Services Entertainment. After the war, he tried to establish himself as a serious actor in the theatre, but gravitated to radio where his voice and style suited programmes such as Hancock’s Half Hour and the Kenneth Horne shows. Indeed, he remained a radio star for the rest of his life, appearing, for example, in Just a Minute for over 20 years.
Having established a comic persona with radio, Williams did win roles in television and films, most notably in the Carry On series of films. Despite all the bawdiness of his comedy, he publicly insisted that he was celibate, and his diaries later revealed unconsummated passions towards various men. Stanley Baxter was a lifelong friend; and Williams was known to take holidays with Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. He died, in 1988, from an overdose of barbiturates. It was never established whether his death was accidental or suicide, but some have argued that he would not have committed suicide without leaving a note for his dearly loved mother. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, from a selection of obituaries at the Kenneth Williams Appreciation Society website, or at Dangerous Minds.
Williams kept diaries all his life, from as young as 14 until his death. The earliest surviving diary is from 1942, but there are no diaries for 1943-1946 when he was touring with the army. His last diary entry was written on 14 April 1988, the day before his death: ’By 6.30 pain in the back was pulsating as it’s never done before . . . so this, plus the stomach trouble combines to torture me - oh - what's the bloody point?’
In 1993, HarperCollins published The Kenneth Williams Diaries as edited by Russell Davies - nowadays it’s called an ‘outrageous bestseller’. Substantial parts of the book can be freely read online at Googlebooks and Amazon. At the time of publication, the book was reviewed with frenzied adjectives, recently echoed by the Daily Mail in describing the diaries as ‘excoriating, furious, bitter, resentful, occasionally self-hating and almost always bitchy on an epic scale’. See also a review in The Independent - Carry on carping with Ken.
Having been kept locked away, Williams’s 43 diaries (along with 2,000 letters) have now been bought by the British Library for £220,000, although copyright remains with the Williams estate, owned by Paul Richardson, his friend and neighbour. According to the British Library press release: ‘It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers, and the archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe.’
In announcing the purchase, the British Library has committed itself to making the diaries available in its Reading Rooms from March next year. It has also made available - courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate - a number of extracts, from the diaries, not published before.
21 August 1950
‘Dreary day spent watching the lousiest production of ‘Seagull’ in rehearsal. It was monumentally boring. Can’t see it EVER being a success. CE [Clifford Evans] in London, R [Richard West, assistant director] rehearsing company. Very dreary for him. Performance in evening bad. Lousy house.’
12 June 1954
‘It seems almost incredible to me now, that I have come through 6 weeks of this kind of purgatory. I am genuinely perplexed as to how I have come through it. A team of people for whom I have practically no affection whatsoever. Plays so wretched that I blush to think I’ve helped to propagate them: and a kind of acting which is so dirty that I mentally vomit. This lesson has been learned. Proximity with such muck is dangerous. It is also futile artistically. One achieves nothing. One is in danger of losing everything. How right everyone was in London! What a fool I was to venture near such crap!’
10 January 1957
‘I’ve had my hair cut short again so it doesn’t blow about in the wind. Eden has resigned. That equally mediocre fossil-Macmillan has taken over! The Tory situation is quite pathetic since that old hypocritical ratbag Churchill left. He excelled so greatly in the oratorical sense - in the corruption of the poetic consciousness.’
4 May 1966
‘We went to see DR ZHIVAGO - the Robert Bolt screenplay - directed by David (dreary) Lean. Starring Omar Sharif. This may be the Great Russian Novel, but it’s a pain in the arse as a film. Then same old faults with Lean:m- pretentious shots that mean NOTHING, and a story that is almost without any really interesting & dramatic momnets. Everyone has LONG PROFOUND looks at each other - they frequently cry on meetings, or seeing people shot or something. But the fact is that no film should be boring, and this one is.
With the exception of ROD STEIGER’s performance. When he was on, it really came to life. I’m astonished on reflection, to find that his scenes are still clear in my mind, tho’ most of the others have vanished entirely. Him pacing up and down in the house during the attempted suicide - him in the restaurant when the workers go by singing - him being shot, and his stoical reaction at the Ball - his asking the girl to leave and falling down the stairs - all the sugar etc. It all stays clearly in the mind. Vivid. V. good actor.’
19 July 1967
‘Sitting in their lounge, in the quiet of the evening. I felt I would love to have a place of my own where there was such peace. I suppose one never really does get it in London. I should think I’ve heard more noise and drilling these last few years than ever before in my life. O! for those old days of quiet when new building was rare, and road mending was once in a blue moon!’
17 February 1969
‘Home by 4.30. Purchased black leather address book & blotting paper on the way. 4.45 JOHN SIMMONDS rang. He talked in v. hushed & mournful tones about KH and said Barry Took said this and that and I said ‘Its Barry Took who should go’ and he said he rather agreed. I said we should bring back the team & re-vamp the show and carry on. Phoned Hugh P. after and he agreed with me. (Rang Gordon [Jackson] and the boys told me he was opening tonight in HAMLET at the Roundhouse! I’d forgotten (if I ever knew) and didn’t send him a wire. This study is so cold - I’ve had to put my jacket on! ) I feel particularly annoyed about the radio series being cancelled, because its another source of revenue gone bust. Thank goodness I started the ‘Just A Minute’ series because that’s a source of income. Peter Eade telephoned to say that Bill Cotton had been on the phone saying that they’d take 6 of the Kenneth Williams (Pilot) series but they couldn’t afford more than £400 each, including the writer’s fee!! (We’re asking 500 an episode and 150 for the writing) so Peter said he’d have to discuss it with me. Then Cotton said they were going to repeat the Int. Cabaret series on BBC2 at the same TIME! This sounds like LUNACY to me.’
15 April 1969
‘At lunch I had the great shouting match with Joan Sims. Her patronage & assumption at times that she should tell me what to do, is intolerable. I shouted ‘You cow cunted mare’ and Hattie intervened and told me to stop it. Afterwards, Joan apologised and then of course, I apologised as well & suddenly I remembered that it has all happened before! The same sequence in ‘Camping’ – ugh! I loathe her standards & her mouldy respectability but not her personally. Oh! I don't know tho. I don’t like her either. Not anything about her really.’
21 April 1969
‘Did SMA at the Paris. Peter B drove me there. Joan S was v buoyant and performed quite brilliantly in the show - her characterizations and singing are quite superb. There’s no doubt, she’s an asset all right.’
22 June 1979
‘On the news they announced that JEREMY THORPE had been acquitted!! So that lying crook Scott has not succeeded in his vindictive quest!! They were cheering Jeremy outside the Old Bailey, and he rather spoiled it by making a sanctimonious speech about JUSTICE etc. Whereas he should have just expressed satisfaction and breezed away!’
29 June 1984
‘Up at 6.40. Got papers round corner at 6.45. Went out at 9.20 to get fags. Returned at 9.50 and Almanac asked where Louie was… Nosey nit… He’s left telephone directories lying in foyer for DAYS. HE pointed to them and told me ‘that’s what they waste your money on!’ and railed against wastage. Never heard such humbug.
Did the accounts for the month and walked with them to Smee handing the stuff over to Lynn. Walked home via Aldwych. Reflected that nothing really changes. I’m still walking about this city dragging my loneliness with me, putting on a front, whistling in the dark. It is getting darker all the time.
Went to Tesco’s and got fish and ham and tomatoes and had that at 5.30. Tried doing a bit more writing but my heart, it isn’t in it. Think I’ll have to leave it for a bit. Feel more like weeping.’
12 October 1985
‘TURNED OFF HEATING ‘cos the weather is so WARM.
Up at 7.15 and got papers on Warren Street. Quite a lot of letters to answer AND the endless invitations to speak at functions… I sent the usual printed refusal. … Now PAUL came at 11.45 and we walked with Louisa to VECCHIA where he gave us lunch. It was very good. PAUL said he was v busy with ‘Merry Widow’ production at the Wells. We got a cab back and I felt very tired so went to lie down, but the rest was all intermittent and uneasy.
M came at 7.30 and we went to ROYS where he gave me dinner. It was fine til the table next to us filled with dreadful people: one sneezing and spraying germs everywhere. Thankfully we’d finished the meal and M readily agreed to leave these loathsome neighbours. That DAVID (John Maynard’s friend) was very kind to us. M said of the clientele ‘bit off-putting seeing such a gathering of clones’ and I agreed. Society NEEDS women because it wants the leavening only THEY can provide. There is something very unhealthy about the homosexual world: no wonder they arouse such antagonism.’
And here are a few further extracts, from The Kenneth Williams Diaries as edited by Russell Davies.
2 June 1948
‘Feeling awful. Will probably die tonight at about eleven.’
11 June 1949
‘Went to the Bank and arranged to have my account transferred to Newquay. Deposited £7 - which means that £3.10.0 a week saved, since I started on full salary, which is not so good. Must do better than this.
Richard came to my room and read this! - funny he’s the only one I’ve ever allowed to read my private and so personal! diary. But s’pose that apart from S., he’s the only one I can really trust, who will never abuse my confidence.
Met some queers in the New, and got sent up by two young matelots - rotten! awful!’
22 May 1951
‘Letter from Robert Sheaf, asking me to take part in a Shakespearean tour of villages. Sounds delightful. He saw me in Bordeaux, obviously thinks I’m young and inexperienced and would be delighted to join him and a few intense young men, doing Romeo all over Oxfordshire. Very funny reely. This little chic stays single. Read ‘The City and the Pillar’ by [Gore] Vidal. Wonderful book. Commended by Stanley in his last letter.’
28 November 1952
‘Fred Treves came to tea and there was a furious argument - spiritual versus rational. Hell! Roman Catholicism from the foundation by Peter, Christ’s meeting with John the Baptist, Individual Revelations - Church Antipathy to, etc. etc., the end. I was angry about getting worked up as I always do when discussing organised religion. I hate the aggressiveness which automatically follows its assumption of power.’
5 January 1953
‘It is always so easy for me to read what I have just written and find it vastly entertaining and well done. It seems that everything I accomplish is of enormous interest to me and I am full of admiration for myself. Is this a good thing? Or does it much matter whether it is or not? Enough of this self-analysis. Too fashionable by half in this day and age.’
17 March 1955
‘The business of actually sustaining a performance night after night is peculiarly difficult for me: my temperament seems so against it. I am by nature erratic - given to enthusiasm which wane after a time; quick to grasp the bones of a subject, slow to develop them.’
15 March 1963
‘Stanley B. [Baxter] rang me. I was delighted & I shot up there to see him on the 30 bus. He drove out to Bucks. & we talked & talked. There are times (when he is prepared to be vulnerable)) when he is just superb. Disarming, honest, charming, and hilariously funny all at once. When he’s like this one could die for him. It was so good for me to see him.’
The Diary Junction