Experience: I was Kenneth Williams' Penpal
As told to Chris Broughton, The Gaurdian.
I was 13 years old when I wrote my first letter to Kenneth Williams. In the 1980s, old Carry On films were on constant rotation on TV, and I loved his work on children's programmes such as Jackanory and Willo The Wisp. I suppose I was an eccentric child, and I wanted to make a link.
That first letter was really nothing more than a request for a signed photograph. But in my note, which I sent via Kenneth's agent, I said I was a great fan of his work and mentioned a recent book of his I'd enjoyed. I certainly never expected to get a letter back, but along with the photograph I received thanks for my encouragement, written using a fountain pen in blue-black ink and signed, "Yours, Kenneth." Thrilled, I wrote back immediately. It was the beginning of a correspondence that would last almost three years.
Growing up in a small West Country town, I really had only half a dozen topics I could draw upon. I wrote about Kenneth's TV appearances, about school and what I was doing at the weekend. Yet he replied to them all, often by return of post. "Glad you liked the bit with Hugh Paddick on Wogan," he wrote on one occasion. "Quite a few of them were pissed and I think it showed." Another time, I mentioned a book review programme I'd seen him on. "I came away in high spirits," he replied. "I was rude to everyone in the studio, told the producer, 'You are totally incompetent', fled into a taxi and went home."
I could easily imagine Kenneth's nostrils flaring as he wrote. The more animated the content, the spikier the handwriting – and the wit. "It's been quite warm here and everyone's saying, 'Very good for October' as if they're usually shat on from a great height. I've got the dentist next week and I'm full of fear – death, where is thy sting? At the dentist's, baby!"
I didn't question his decision to keep writing – once the letters had become regular, it seemed perfectly natural. I didn't go out of my way to impress him, but I'd make trips to Penzance to buy expensive notepaper and he did comment on its quality. On one occasion I was delighted when he mentioned having "fallen about" at a joke I had made about my hair going grey during exam revision. After a while, he started using paper with his own address at the top, rather than that of his agent. That pleased me, too – it felt as if I'd earned Kenneth's trust.
He didn't talk down to me at all. The language he used was sometimes quite fruity. I was young and didn't really swear, but my mum and dad saw all the letters and, like me, they were delighted by them. They certainly never made any attempt to discourage me from writing to this flamboyant man in London.
Some letters ran to three pages, describing, in vivid detail, farcical situations he'd found himself in. He gave me advice, too. When I was getting a bit of stick at school, and knowing he had been bullied, I asked what he had done in similar situations. "Obviously, one does anything to avoid confrontation," he wrote. "My method was to chum up with a tough guy at school, and that provides protection. But the individual invariably has to find his own way round all the pitfalls."
At lunchtime on 15 April 1988, I was sitting at home drinking soup with my mum when the news of his death came over the radio. Mum says the colour literally drained from my face. I'd been waiting for a reply to my last letter and, stupidly, the first thing I blurted out was, "Oh, God, so that's why he hasn't replied." I remember going up to my bedroom and clutching his letters to my chest. In the days following his death, I remained quite devastated – Kenneth had been my famous friend, and I experienced a very real sense of bereavement.
I still read the letters from time to time, and I'll always treasure them. I've written a play based on our correspondence, called An Audience With Kenneth Williams – that's almost how it felt, and I recognise how privileged I was. It still surprises me that he continued to reply – 31 letters in all. It certainly surprised his sister, Pat – she called soon after his death and said she'd found my letters while sorting through his flat. "It's amazing," she said. "Most letters from people your age would have gone straight in the bin."
Then she flabbergasted me by saying, "Is there anything of his you'd like?" My mind went blank. Looking back, I wish I'd asked for his fountain pen.