A Life of Its Own

Jonathan Coe

  • The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies
    HarperCollins, 827 pp, £20.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 00 255023 7

‘Many people would say – there stands English comedy,’ David Frost is reported to have declaimed, as Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams stood side by side on his doorstep. Williams was unimpressed. ‘I thought to myself, “Then many people would be lacking in perception,” but shouted drunken goodbyes and reeled down the street into a taxi.’ What these two Titans of comedy might have said to one another is left entirely to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, the tantalising image of Howerd and Williams sitting down to lunch together in the Pinewood Studios canteen during the filming of Carry On Doctor dissolves brusquely enough into mundanity. ‘He is undoubtedly a very boring man,’ Williams recorded. ‘Loves talking, but there is no really cultivated mind. He continually says “eksetra” which is irritating.’

Surely, we think, there must have been more to it than that? Not that we would necessarily have expected a meeting of minds, given Williams’s hyper-aestheticism and Howerd’s unflappable freedom from intellectual pretension: but what one vainly searches for in Williams’s account is any recognition of the covert bond which unites them, at least in retrospect, as key figures in British post-war comedy. Both were gay; both were in the closet; and both, therefore, were fully tapped into that vein of sexual subterfuge and masquerade which has always been central to the British sense of humour.

Both idolised Sid Field, and learned some of the basic lessons of their craft from watching him at work. Williams caught him at the London Palladium in January 1948. ‘It was a rotten variety bill, with far too many acrobatic affairs,’ he wrote, but added: ‘Sid Field was marvellous, and received terrific and well-merited applause – what camping! I simply roared!’ Precise definitions of camp are notoriously difficult to come by, and Williams’s own, which he provided for a radio programme in the Sixties, is not especially helpful: ‘To some it means that which is fundamentally frivolous, to others the baroque as opposed to the puritanical (classical), and to others – a load of poofs.’ But crucial to the appeal of Field – and of Howerd and Williams after him – was a finely-judged sexual ambiguity which was able to penetrate and play on the ‘feminine’ qualities of a male audience while hovering just outside the danger zone of publicly-avowed homosexuality. Since few recordings of his early stage appearances have survived, it’s hard to say exactly when this ambiguity became entrenched in Williams’s public image. Certainly in the first Carry On films his characters tended to be merely snobbish and effete, but by the time of his infamous performance as Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo (1964) the camp mannerisms were firmly in place. Twenty years later, in a mock-Barthesian essay on the Carry On series written as an April Fool’s joke for Sight and Sound, Gilbert Adair described Williams’s persona in these films as one in which ‘the codified signs of the (flamboyant) homosexual – effeminate gestures, a mincing walk, a falsetto voice – stop short of any definitive implication of homosexuality as a practice or an ethic, thereby enabling him to assume the ... infinitely less threatening identity of a “sissy”.’

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