in Frieze | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Russell Davies (Ed.), Harper Collins, 1993

in Frieze | 05 SEP 93

Late one Sunday night some years ago I turned on the television and caught the opening titles of a programme no one ever watched: the ten-minute religious spot called The Epilogue. What prevented my switching channels was that, surprisingly, the speaker was Kenneth Williams, who gravely embarked on a lecture about the beauties of Victorian Gothic churches. Then, more urgently, he addressed the question of the emptiness of these great buildings, arguing that Christianity too had been abandoned. I looked at my watch. He had almost no time left. Suddenly and quite flagrantly departing from its script, he addressed the camera as if it were a naughty schoolboy. ‘The problem is one of hypocrisy,’ he concluded. ‘Hypocrisy hangs over England like the stench of a giant fart.

So few people can have been watching this that it qualified as a perverse, private joke. But Williams was nothing if not perverse. Politically, he began as a Communist and ended a Tory. In terms of background, he came from a modest family but developed a diction and deportment that outdid, or perhaps parodied the gentry, his model, surprisingly, being Noel Coward. Sexually… Well, ‘sexually’ would fill a book. That book is his diaries which he kept from the age of 16, not too diligently at first but more seriously as his life went on, ultimately became a force that governed his actions. Or did not. On the principle of ‘tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ he detailed his tiniest thoughts, his most shameful misdemeanours. Yet the result either fuelled his sense of self-righteousness or threw him into a state of self-pity. Total honesty of this kind is rare. When combined wit complete lack of self-knowledge or an utter inability to change, it serves no purpose. On the one hand, Williams had too little control over his emotions, which resulted in his extraordinary behaviour on talk shows and radio parlour games. On the other, he always seemed as mortified by his own actions afterwards as an alcoholic after a binge. But like an alcoholic, such mortification never helped him to avoid the next drink,. Perhaps there was simply no one to scold him. If friends like Gordon Jackson pointed out how rude or selfish he was, he would put it into the diaries without comment.

One problem was self-regard. It is unusual to read the diary entry of a grown man who admits to gazing at himself in the mirror, thinking how lovely he is and then spending the evening masturbating. Or employing a private slang to denote sexual activity in his own diaries – the polari of Julian and Sandy in Round the Horne put to its proper uses – then describing bedroom antics with street boys in Tangiers as if it were leaving a note for the milkman. Or, indeed, sidling away from serious theatre, even from revue sketches written specifically for him by Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and others in order to collaborate with John Law on feeble monologues for International Cabaret, undoubtedly the low point of his career. ‘Peter Cook says you could be the funniest comic actor in the world if you tried a little harder and stretched yourself a little more,’ someone informs him at this point. Peter Cook knew what he was talking about. Yet Williams argued with himself constantly about his own forte. It was not acting, he decided, trough sheer inability to repeat himself was a consideration here. Nor was he a comedian; he never really told jokes. And sadly he had already been dismissed by Tony Hancock, whose vanity or pretension led him to believe he could manage with out Galton and Simpson, as well as Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr, and of course Williams himself, using the argument that his approach was not sufficiently lifelike.

Williams had com a long way since his army days, when he impersonated Churchill and Nellie Wallace. The problem was that when he was being himself, he still seemed to be impersonating someone. And locked inside were other personalities struggling to get out: an intellectual, a monk, even a voluptuary. From an early age, he contemplated suicide. Indeed, he mentions it so frequently that it becomes commonplace. The only drawback of publishing these diaries is that the alternative Kenneth Williamses might ruin our memory of the ‘real’ one. Whoever he was.

Stuart Morgan