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”.’

The word ‘sissy’ is a significant one in this context. In January 1960 Williams was playing with Fenella Fielding in the revue Pieces of Eight (largely written by Peter Cook) at the Apollo Theatre, and his diary entry for the 27th reads: ‘The show in evening went well, till Madam decided to ad lib one line before the tag in “Spies”. Of course it threw me completely. This is the last straw. I’ve reported it to the S.D. and the office and from now on I just behave with politeness – for the rest – she’s had it.’ In his biography of Williams, Michael Freedland gives a fuller account of this incident. He explains the basis of the sketch – two spies complaining about the uselessness of their technical gadgetry – and quotes Fenella Fielding: ‘We both had death pills. I would die first leaving him to die on stage while I went off into the wings.’ But that night, Williams apparently refused to feed Fielding the cue which would enable her to die and make her exit. Finally, ‘instead of trying to outdo him, I stopped still – and said, “Last one dead is a sissy.” I died – and walked off in the dark.’ According to Freedland, it was this choice of word which drove Williams into a paroxysm of fury. He shook ‘like a piece of jelly’ and afterwards rounded on Fielding with the words, ‘You called me a homosexual in front of the audience ... Why?’

Homosexual acts between consenting men were, of course, illegal at the time, and what this contretemps vividly illustrates is Williams’s fear that his public might begin to suspect a genuine sexual preference lurking behind the acceptably ‘flamboyant’ exterior. And imprisonment, in any case, was only one of the risks involved in acting on his desires. Most of the time he contented himself with masturbation (generally known in these diaries as either ‘the barclays’ or ‘traditional activity’), but the rare occasions when he did allow himself the luxury of a sexual partner usually ended in tears. Several times in Tangier he came down with crabs (‘I actually saw two of the bloody things. Black. Ugh. Made me feel sick ... All these boys must be dirty ... the attraction flies out of the window and one just feels total revulsion.’), and one session of oral sex (‘a bit of the old philately’) left him with painful abrasions. ‘I thought I felt the teeth last night!’ he lamented. ‘Oh! these adventures always leave me disgusted and impaired!’ While he was rarely short of opportunities for casual pick-ups, fear of violence often seems to have held him back.

It’s for these reasons, I think, that Williams found the perfect expression for his personality in the Carry On films – despite their superficially heterosexual orientation – and became such a cherished emblem of sexual insecurity for gay and straight audiences alike. For above all this series represents (and celebrates) a peculiarly English sexuality, one in which an addictive, almost obsessional interest in sex is combined with horror and gaucherie at the prospect of actually performing it. In this respect they preserve a far more accurate record of the sexual atmosphere of the Sixties than films of ‘swinging London’ like Blow Up or Darling, which offer adolescent fantasies of sexual freedom when the reality for most punters must have been closer to Carry On Camping, with Bernard Bresslaw and Sid James making a pathetic pilgrimage to a nudist camp in order to gaze longingly at the ‘birds’ – pop-eyed, helpless and fundamentally out of the running. What Williams and the leering, pickle-nosed James had in common, then, was their status as sexual spectators, mesmerised but fearful.

Williams himself would not have appreciated the comparison. Ever since Tony Hancock had sacked him from Hancock’s Half Hour while (temporarily) retaining James’s services, he never missed a chance to run down the talents of his most frequent Carry On co-star. ‘Sid James doing the same old tired automaton recitation ... nothing at all to do with acting ... one asked oneself: “How on earth did he get away with it?” ’ (3 April 1976). ‘He doesn’t like it when he’s alongside someone who is getting the attention in an amusing way: as an entertainer himself he’s talentless & resents it in others – but as a man he is kind and generous, albeit a philistine.’ (19 April 1971). That ‘albeit a philistine’ provides the key to Williams’s animosity. James’s behaviour on the set, which tended to revolve innocuously enough around card games and frequent telephone calls to his bookie, symbolised just the kind of boozy masculinity with which Williams felt uncomfortable. A fine, articulate critic of other comic performers, he admired Les Dawson – finding that ‘there’s a sort of sad & rugged courage there & a lot of rueful fun’ – but otherwise had little time for comedy which made a virtue of acquisitive heterosexuality: there are, for instance, some breathtakingly hostile verdicts on Benny Hill (‘looks more and more like a desperate adipose decrepit’), whose television show is described as ‘a watershed in the otiose ... as if they’d given an overfed cretin unlimited opportunities in a TV studio ... it looked like amateurs staging a stag night with stealthy prurience and no honest healthy vulgarity.’

There was also a pronounced streak of vulgarity in Williams himself, and not all of it healthy. A favourite off-camera routine, for instance, seems to have held little charm for the female romantic lead in Carry On Up the Khyber: ‘At the studios today, to brighten things up, I hid my cock between my legs and impersonated a vagina for Angela Douglas. She sunk her head in her hands and moaned “Oh! God – how horrible” and didn’t find it amusing at all. This is where she lacks graciousness.’ He sometimes resorted to the same tactics on the radio show Just a Minute. Asked to speak for one minute on the subject of ‘paper tearing’, ‘I said “I knew nothing about this apart from doing it in the lavatory ...” & there was a big laugh. Oh! what one will stoop to, in order to make them giggle!’ The note of remorse sounded here is entirely typical of the diaries, as is the archness of its expression. Williams knew he was a vulgarian but considered himself an aesthete as well, and the ferocity with which these two types fought their battle for supremacy in him, over the years, caused if possible even more agony than the behaviour of his recalcitrant rectum – which he monitored with morbid punctiliousness. Hence the comedy (unintentional? it’s hard to say) of juxtapositions like this:

To the St John & Elizabeth [hospital]... Mr Mulvany visited me at 7.45. We had a long talk about the problem of materialism in a modern society. He said he would inject the piles tomorrow and look at the inside of the rectum etc.

The diaries, then, show Williams to be emblematic of not only Britain’s sexual hang-ups but its intellectual hang-ups too. The great divide between élitism and populism – our chronic inability to reconcile the competing claims of high and low culture – is localised and embodied in Williams, as he frets endlessly over the disparity between his artistic ambitions and the cheapness, the ‘tat’ (a favourite word) of the entertainments which actually earned him his living. His few brushes with seriousness came when Orson Welles cast him in a production of Moby Dick, when he played the Dauphin in St Joan, and when he appeared in Shaffer’s The Public Eye; he sustained close friendships with Robert Bolt and the German scholar Erich Heller, and was never happier than when alone in his flat listening to Brahms and Fauré or reading Eliot and Tennyson. A keen subscriber to the TLS and occasional contributor to the Listener and Spectator, he could be very free with his literary opinions – dismissing Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, in one memorable entry, as ‘a muddled lot of rubbish’ and ‘about as relevant to our problems as a fart in a wet blancmange’. Given these pretensions, one can imagine the mortification Williams must have felt when mouthing the peerless epigrams of Talbot Rothwell (‘Drink inflames the ardour – the more you drink, the ’arder it gets’).

And yet the fact remains that Williams volunteered for more of the Carry On films than any other actor – 25 in all. The conviviality of the company must have been one reason, although he had his enemies even among the regulars: but what is most puzzling (and it testifies, once again, to the intellectual schizophrenia both in Williams himself and in the culture which fostered him) is the spectacle of such hand-me-down material being inflicted on a troupe of clearly intelligent performers. A typical discussion on the set of Carry On Behind, for example, finds Williams, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw chewing over the subject of materialism (again), ‘with the latter saying “We have been betrayed by false prophets and the most false was Marx ... we have taken material growth for granted ... never stopping to question whether it was good or bad ... right or wrong ... we seem powerless against the weight of inertia caused by decadence”.’ Minutes later, presumably, they were back out on the mud-soaked location making jokes about ‘tackle’ and Elke Sommer’s bloomers, It’s no wonder, really, that Williams’s attitude towards the series fluctuates wildly throughout these pages, so that in 1979 he can watch a television screening of Carry On Henry and exclaim ‘amazing how well this was made! Everyone in it was competent and the sheer look of the thing was very professional,’ while nine years later he finds the same film ‘a collection of such rubbish you’re amazed it could ever have been stuck together. Only an audience of illiterates could ever have found this tripe amusing.’

The extreme violence of Williams’s mood swings becomes familiar after a while: suicidal despair took root early (not everyone has accepted the coroner’s open verdict on his death from an ‘accidental’ drug overdose), and quite apart from their value as a snapshot of Britain’s divided sexual and cultural identity, these diaries make absorbing reading on the level of spiritual autobiography. Russell Davies is to be congratulated on editing down more than four million words – 10,000 pages, by my reckoning – into this fat but manageable volume, for providing the unobtrusive annotations which steer the reader gently through forests of name-dropping, and for preserving such a clear outline of Williams’s inexorable progress from idealistic young actor to chat-show lounge-lizard. Even for those who remain unconvinced about its larger significance, the book is never less than sublimely readable, and not least when Williams – under the twin influences of Schopenhauer and those troublesome piles – is at his most bitterly and waspishly pessimistic. My favourite year is 1968, when a mood of dazed incredulity seems to have taken hold of him. Events reached their nadir on 17 February, provoking an entry which seems the best possible summation of the diaries as a whole:

To bed in the afternoon. Up at 4. Copious evacuation. It is all v. odd, the bum seems to be living a life of its own. I shall be glad when this weekend & Monday’s work is over. I shall be glad when next week is over. I shall be glad when everything is over. Gordon came at 7.30. He told me that Donald Wolfit had died. It’s all happening.