Book Review
Born Brilliant : The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens

By Roger Lewis from The Daily Express
 

I DON'T know if Kenneth Williams was born brilliant but he was certainly born obnoxious. Even as a child he withdrew from the school play “because someone was rude to me”. It was going to be ever thus.

If he was not the centre of attention “he could be just vile,” remembers Fenella Fielding. “He had a dreadful sourness about him,” says Amanda Barrie. “His moods,” says his patient biographer, Christopher Stevens, “were like plutonium and could decay in a split-second.”

When Peter Sellers was dark and difficult at least he had the excuse that he was certifiably mad so his behaviour was not his fault. With Williams it seems he was simply spiteful; a nasty piece of work who honed his malice to a high sheen. There was nothing he loved more, we are told, than “stirring up trouble, spreading rumours and passing on snide remarks”, creating dissension among theatre and film colleagues.

As an evil influence he was encouraged by his mother Louie. “She idolised him and he idolised her,” everyone concurs. As Williams wrote in his diary: “She is the one who is consistent and sustaining. There will never be anyone like her in my life.”

It is one of the theories about Williams’s apparent suicide that he was so scared of losing Louie to dementia, he preferred to die first. The bleak joke is that where Williams died in 1988 aged 62, his mother lasted until she was 89, full of beans in an old folks’ home.

Williams’s family (Welsh Baptists originally ) resided in small flats in London’s King’s Cross and in “dark houses, overrun with rats” in Bloomsbury.

Louie washed and pressed clothes in a pyjama factory and Charlie, her surly husband, was a barber who once threw a customer out for requesting a blow wave.

Charlie stoutly maintained “the stage is for nancies” and bullied the young Kenneth for giving himself “airs”. Charlie was to die horribly in 1962, after swallowing cleaning fluid.

When Williams was evacuated to Bicester during the war, he was the last child to be given a billet because the “nasty sneer” on his face put people off. But he was called up in 1944 and, against the odds, was happy in a barracks where he clowned and told stories. In the Far East he worked as a cartographer and appeared in concerts for the CSE (Combined Services Entertainments).

Stevens goes into immense detail about Williams’s early days, when he tried to get cast in provincial Rep, enduring seasons in Cornwall or Swansea where he understudied Richard Burton.

I have to disagree with Stevens when he says Williams was “outstanding in every sphere” as a comedian in films and the theatre, a chat show raconteur, a radio personality, “an apparently limitless talent”. This is not so. Williams’s range was narrow. He pulled faces, he shrieked, he looked like a carved horse on a carousel or (Ray Galton’s image) “an illustration from a fairytale book”, a grotesque goblin, nostrils flaring. I think Williams knew this, which is why he did not stretch himself.

He had a litany of complaints; the thought of appearing with Tony Hancock “put him in a foul temper”, he “dripped vitriol” upon the Carry On films and the revues he was in with Maggie Smith were a “mediocre mess of pottage”.

Nevertheless, he was quite content with the negligible quiz shows and providing voice-overs for Murray Mints, Dixel toilet paper, Pomagne cider, Supersoft nappies and other advertisements.

Williams retreated into a snarling tomfoolery and it is interesting that he refused to accept any recognition or prizes when such came along. There was something self-lacerating and masochistic in his nature. He thought Sandie Shaw “loathsome”, said Sir Ralph Richardson had “a face like a bumhole” and described Nicholas Parsons as “death...awful”.

Professionally, Williams was impossible. “Nobody can teach me anything,” he declared of directors, even first-class ones like Patrick Garland. Personally, he was worse. When he went to stay with Stanley Baxter in Scotland, he would stalk off and catch the train home. If he dined with Gordon Jackson and his wife, again he’d start fuming and march out of the house “without saying goodbye”.

On holiday he was liable to leave early or disappear. “I suddenly felt very bored with all this walking about and breathing fresh air,” he’d say. If he ventured on a beach he’d wear a jacket, collar and tie. He was literally buttoned-up.

Williams inhabited monkish flats where “everything was absolutely minimal”.he was phobic, it seems, about human contact: “a prurient prude who lived vicariously on the sexual accounts of others.”

Just about his only pleasure was his hypochondria. Stevens tells us that Williams went to see a doctor most days about his psychosomatic ailments: haemorrhoids, ulcers, swollen gums, rashes, an irritable bowel and a spastic colon. These were always his excuse “as though it was a restraining order” if he didn’t want to accept an invitation.

To write this book, Stevens had access to the 43 volumes of diaries, and concludes that Williams “demanded attention and created joy”. No, he didn’t. He created hysteria, a different thing.

The man hardly seems to have been human, more a jet of demonic vapour. He had no tenderness, laughed at people’s misfortunes, avoided anybody ill and “couldn’t stand any kind of disability”. He despised his half-sister Pat.

Stevens argues that Williams didn’t kill himself; that he died of an unfortunate accident brought about by sleeping tablets mixing with Zantac, which he took in large doses to suppress stomach acidity. I am not convinced. He mistrusted and alienated everybody, whether colleagues or friends. His only relationship was with his mother.

At the finish, Williams emulated the one man who was more bitter about him than he ever was about himself: his father Charlie, who was also 62 when he was found dead.

 


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