"OTHER IDIOTS HAVE BEEN GETTING AWAY WITH IT FOR YEARS"
Ian Jones on the TV career of Kenneth Williams
The fate of those who attempt the jump from one field of showbusiness to another often ends up following an all-too familiar pattern: ludicrously high expectations, unequivocally mediocre returns, then either a painfully slow consolidation or a retreat to from whence they came. To break into television is the hardest feat of them all. Without a programme tailor-made for your talents, or the patronage of an already-established TV personality, the chances of success are probably just as great as they were 50 years ago.
Which makes the television career of Kenneth Williams all the more remarkable. Throughout his life he never came to be associated with one flagship programme that best defined and popularised his act, and didn't ever benefit from a custom-built showcase that most displayed his abilities as actor-turned-comic-turned-raconteur. Unlike in cinema, where he had the Carry On films, or radio, where he became synonymous with long-running shows like Hancock's Half Hour, Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne, Williams never found that one all-defining television vehicle.
He didn't even settle for a specific genre, flitting endlessly between panel game, variety special, children's series and chat show. He was a straight actor by profession, but never once took a role in a TV drama. He found national fame as a comedy performer, but never played lead in a sitcom or comic series on the small screen. Yet he ended up achieving a ubiquity and association with television that virtually sustained the second half of his career, and which more or less shaped the impression most of us have of Williams today: a dapper conversationalist, forever sporting a funereal suit, alternately bawling and sneering his way through anecdotes while his host, fellow guests and audience looked on in awe. How did he end up such a fixture on television, seemingly in the face of his own wishes, a track record of unashamedly unprofessional behaviour, and, as he wailed in his diaries, an abhorrence for an industry full of "millions of ants, swarming all over the body of the theatre and stifling the rare legitimate actor"?
"This is always my reaction to TV. It's simply not my medium."
It wasn't until he was 31 years old, precisely half way through his life, that Kenneth Williams made his proper debut on television. He'd taken far longer than others of his generation to make the well-trod journey from entertaining troops abroad during the World War II to performing in front of audiences at home. This was principally because he considered himself first and foremost a serious actor. Repertory theatre, rather than music hall or the variety palace, was where Williams felt he should reside and where, initially, he found work. As such, despite the glittering dividends being reaped by his peers (Milligan, Secombe, Hancock, Monkhouse and Howerd), Williams spent most of the 1950s stubbornly trudging round the provincial capitals of England in a sequence of lacklustre costume dramas and drawing room farces.
This image, when contrasted with the persona he popularised later in his career, seems little short of ludicrous. To even think of Williams taking parts in plays by George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells or even Shakespeare leaves the mind boggling. Yet the man took it all very seriously, and remained just as much repelled as intrigued by the small screen. A couple of occasions he found himself having to show up at the BBC studios in Lime Grove to perform live versions of classic plays. "Hated it all bitterly," he wrote in January 1953. "What I really hated was having such a small part." Jealously towards those who were making their name out of TV, combined with feelings of disgust for allowing himself to be dazzled and, as he saw it, exploited by the medium, were to afflict Williams throughout his life. They also probably went some way in forever denying him a chance to graduate to a starring role or a hit series.
Indeed, many would prove to be the time where the behaviour of Williams alone torpedoed the success or longevity of his latest venture. So it was that when his big break arrived in 1954 in the shape of a supporting role in the radio version of Hancock's Half Hour, it was only a matter of months before he started moaning about the way he felt he was being treated. Even though his association with Tony Hancock had handed Williams his first proper national exposure, and led to his official TV debut when Hancock's Half Hour transferred to BBC television, his disgruntlement was unabashed.
He'd felt snubbed when he wasn't asked to be in the first TV series. But even though he was afforded the status of a regular for the second series in 1957, he already feared the worst. "I have been poorly treated throughout these six episodes," he wrote in June, "and had a chat with Tony. I don't think he wants me in the set-up in future. He thinks that 'set' characters make a rut in story routine. Obviously I won't be asked for the October series, so that's that."
Sure enough he wasn't, and indeed didn't work with Hancock again. The experience appeared to leave him violently ill-disposed not just towards the man who gave him his shot at fame (Williams now professed to "hating" Hancock) but TV itself. He didn't try his hand at associating his name with another proper TV series for seven years. It was a typically melodramatic stance, but one only made possible by the fact he went on earning a handsome living from regular radio work, the first Carry On films, and a number of successful stage revues.
One of these, Pieces of Eight, was written by a pre-Beyond the Fringe Peter Cook, and for a time it looked - somewhat implausibly - like Williams was set to enjoy the kind of satirical superstar status later bestowed on Cook and his cohorts. But the changing nature of comic theatre seemed to leave him floundering and, inevitably, depressed. He looked increasingly out of place amidst the more caustic-styled revues of the early 1960s. So, unsure of whether his future lay in radio, film, TV or the stage, Williams circled wearily between all four, seemingly refusing to commit himself to anything - or rather, anything that was to do with television. In-between his now bi-annual trips to Pinewood for the latest Carry On ..., he spent one day in the unlikely setting of MGM studios taping a contribution for the CBS sitcom Dick and the Duchess; tried Juke Box Jury ("I think I was awful. I really shouldn't take part in these ad lib things"); turned down a part in The Avengers; and even came away from the BBC arts series Monitor, the sort of rarefied environment you might have thought he'd have relished, howling, "It was appalling. I looked awful. Sounded awful. This is always my reaction to TV. It's simply not my medium."
"The audience must have been all Greek and Russian"
It wasn't until 1966 that Kenneth Williams stumbled upon regular TV work that would restore his profile in the nation's living rooms. This was International Cabaret, a shamelessly haphazard BBC effort taped at The Talk of the Town nightclub and featuring a line-up of global acts from the whimsical to the woeful. With hindsight it's not surprising this kind of project caught Williams's attention. He was never the sort to attempt, like Frankie Howerd, a career-reinventing turn on something like That Was the Week that Was or at The Establishment Club; an old-fashioned variety show, however, was probably far more to his taste. "I think it's high time I had a shot at this kind of thing," he enthused, before cannily acknowledging "other idiots have been getting away with it for years."
Working with John Law, co-writer of One Over the Eight - another of Williams's revues - he fashioned a number of obsessive, comically spiteful monologues to link each programme together. It's here that the Williams of the self-referential, if not reverential, kind who would become so familiar on British TV began to take shape. Faced with introducing mostly non-English speaking acts of the most indifferent calibre, then frequently having to fill airtime when something went wrong, he frequently lapsed into I'm-above-all-this diatribes, egotistical tales about his appearance, or what-a-load-of-old-rubbish invectives. And audiences in The Talk of the Town, not to say viewers watching at home, loved it all.
For such a devoutly formulaic and repetitive show, it's a wonder International Cabaret ran for three years. Considering its host's ever-mounting disillusionment, its survival is even more amazing. From the outset Williams seemed nonplussed ("When I eventually made my entrance it was appalling - the reaction was virtually non-existent"), becoming mean-spirited whenever he detected people applauding the acts and not him ("The audience must have been all Greek and Russian I think"), and always contemptuous of anything unprofessional: "The girls bearing the props smashed all the plates which the See Hee Brothers from Formosa were supposed to juggle with! They refused to go on, then relented after persuasion and did one trick and walked off."
The show's permanence in the schedules, however, won it a loyal following, and when it was axed dozens of letters were sent to the BBC in anger. People even accosted Williams in the street to protest. It's likely this sort of response was informed by an appreciation, even fondness, for Williams that had blossomed during the late '60s in part down to the enduring Carry On ... films and his radio work, but also thanks to other bits of TV work he'd now begun to pick up. In 1967 he'd done a turn on The Rolf Harris Show and contributed to BBC1's annual festive showcase Christmas Night with the Stars. He'd also made his panel game debut on Call My Bluff, taped his first work specifically for children for Jackanory, and above all made an initial foray into the world of the chat show. He'd tried this a couple of times earlier in the decade with mixed results, an appearance on BBC2's Open House with Gay Byrne producing "loads of laughs" but a spot with Dave Allen hampered by "a lousy little studio". This was minor league stuff, though, compared with the bookings he was getting by the end of the 1960s, in particular return appearances on both BBC1's Dee Time and LWT's Frost on Saturday.
Williams was there at the birth of the TV chat show, and during the subsequent decades virtually became the godfather of the genre, fashioning himself as a walking anecdote and first choice for a host in need of a "safe" guest. He dominated the format so much that eventually presenters would ask in advance for specific stories and reminiscences that had previously proved a hit. These early efforts were far less assured, unsurprisingly, not helped by Williams's suspicion and - yes - loathing of Simon Dee ("He is a fool of an interviewer"), and a prickly relationship with Frost that on one occasion led him to actively get drunk before going on camera. Still, they further enhanced his profile and, combined with the response to International Cabaret, led to the impression forming in both the mind of Williams and the BBC that now was the time to try and launch his own comedy show.
It was doomed from the start. Overseeing the project was Bill Cotton, then Assistant Head of Light Entertainment, who'd already irked Williams by purporting to sabotage a previous idea for a series called The Kenneth Williams Spectacular. The feeling was more than mutual. Cotton, wishing to have no more to do with Williams, appointed Roger Ordish (future producer of, among others, Jim'll Fix It and A Bit of Fry and Laurie to handle this new effort, titled The Kenneth Williams Show. An awkward mix of sketch and stand-up, the actual programmes were neither one thing nor the other, and despite sterling support from Joan Sims, The Kenneth Williams Show aired on BBC1 in spring 1970 to almost universal disapproval. Cotton labelled it "disastrous". A janitor who Williams often saw at the newspaper kiosk near his flat informed him it was "a load of shit". Perhaps most humbling of all, a man working behind the bacon counter of his nearby supermarket greeted Williams with the news he'd done a "rotten show".
It was a watershed moment in Williams' career. The failure was so total that he more or less decided never to do that kind of television again. He would now purposefully turn down any approaches for sitcoms, comic series, indeed anything that involved script-based characterisation, for the rest of his life. From that point on he seemed to resolve to only appear on TV as himself. Ironically, it led to his greatest work.
"It's a very good line up for the TV Times"
In December 1971, a year and a half after The Kenneth Williams Show, its truculent star received a routine call from his agent's office. "Laurena Dewar rang. Would I go on Thames Television and chat to Michael Parkinson? I said certainly not. North country nit." A little over 12 months later, however, and Williams was making the first of what would turn out to be a string of descents down the celebrated brown staircase and onto the titular Yorkshire journalist's raised platform of chrome chairs and grey carpet to indulge in protracted badinage and capricious gossiping.
Williams's initial dislike of Parkinson was almost certainly down to regionalism mixed with an innate aversion to anybody making a living out of ostensibly prying into other people's lives. That he changed his mind and agreed to appear with the man is probably due to the fact Parkinson was now on the BBC, on the up, and on nodding terms with the great and the good. Moreover Parkinson genuinely liked him, typified by the way his first TV encounter with Williams was a very sophisticated affair taking in politics, art and poetry, and culminating in a dreadfully lugubrious recital by Williams and Maggie Smith of a poem by John Betjeman.
This wasn't an auspicious beginning for what was to become Williams's chief TV turn: lolling on a chat show sofa reeling off apocryphal showbiz stories in exaggerated yet undeniably hilarious silly voices. Nor was the follow-up any better: a return match on Parkinson swapping political cant with Communist politician Jimmy Reid (Paul Fox, then Controller of BBC1, rang Parkinson's producer after it aired to thunder, "Never again! Keep the format as it is - don't attempt that sort of abrasive argument ever again").
As the decade wore on, however, and the requests stacked up, Williams perfected an approach to these occasions that would immortalise him as the perfect chat show guest. Arming himself with tall tales, a battery of impersonations, and numerous outpourings of harmless antagonism, he turned up opposite Mavis Nicholson, Derek Nimmo, Bob Langley (on both Pebble Mill at One - where on one occasion he was memorably pressed into cooking an omelette - and Saturday Night at the Mill) and Russell Harty, who was so taken by his encounter with Williams he tried to get a transcript of the interview published. But it was on Parkinson he made the most impact, notching up a total of eight appearances and even flying halfway round the world for two Australia-only editions.
Not that he ever grew to find such occasions relaxing. As late as 1980 he was rueing how his "entrance was marred by my tripping up on the bottom step, the opening dialogue was stilted and unfunny, and four or five minutes of turgid rubbish constituted the chat." Still, he was an obvious choice for the TV-am-bound Parkinson's last show on the BBC on Wednesday 31 March 1982: by all accounts a shambolic and utterly self-indulgent affair including Jimmy Tarbuck talking about "getting pissed", Billy Connolly doing a spoof of a cookery show, Spike Milligan making a surprise entrance, "practically incoherent", Sammy Cahn singing a musical tribute and finally Williams doing some of his greatest anecdotal hits.
If this typically unrestrained scene was the end of an era for Parkinson, it was nothing of the sort for Williams, who by the start of the 1980s had ended up - by chance rather than conspiracy, and totally against his own better judgement - a fully-fledged TV star. A succession of appearances on all sorts of shows, some of them of staggering improbability, had helped television become his most regular medium. This wasn't solely by choice. What with the radio work drying up (apart from Just a Minute) and the Carry On ... films over, it was TV that paid the bills. Yet whenever he now appeared on the small screen he seemed to project a confidence and assurance that belied all that self-pity of his famous diaries, and certainly all the bile he continued to harbour towards the industry itself.
For one thing, he had become a stalwart of panel games, being handpicked to appear in the revived What's My Line and becoming a familiar guest on Give us a Clue. He'd continued to dabble in variety, briefly with a re-launched International Cabaret but also one-offs like ATV's Night of 100 Stars in 1977 ("I thought our stuff would be cut out of the televised show, but Patrick Allen said 'Not with all those names old boy! It's a very good line up for the TV Times; they won't waste that'.") He'd also become a semi-regular fixture on children's TV, thanks mostly to no less than 12 separate appearances on Jackanory, including two in 1978 - one reciting "The Dribblesome Teapots" by Norman Hunter, the other helping read out winners of the Jackanory Writing Competition with Martin Jarvis and Vivian Pickles. Even though Williams grumbled about not having "the warm friendly face of a children's presenter", these return visits to children's television introduced a whole new generation to the man, one not familiar with both his radio or film careers, and who would in turn always associate him first and foremost with TV.
This was deepened still further by Williams's involvement with Willo the Wisp, a cartoon character he'd first voiced back in 1974 for a North Sea gas training film and which starred in its own teatime series in 1981. Animator Nick Spargo modelled the acerbic animated apparition on Williams's own face, making each episode feel even more like Williams himself was relating the sublime escapades of Mavis, Arthur and co in Doyley Woods. The show's popularity was beyond question; even workmen in the street started hailing a startled Williams with the cry, "Here's old Willo the Wisp!"
Children's TV was also responsible for the most unlikely Williams TV role of all: an appearance on The All-Star Record Breakers in December 1977. Presumably off the back of his endless Jackanory stints, he was conscripted to join the ranks of Blue Peter, Play Away, Newsround Extra and Swap Shop faces to support Roy Castle in his traditional end-of-year singing spectacular. For the likes of Williams and fellow veteran Johnny Morris, however, their very presence at such a jamboree raised more than few pre-performance hackles. "At one point in the dressing room," he noted, "I thought 'what am I doing here? I am virtually acting as a crowd artist in some scenes!' Johnny told me he felt much the same thing: 'One agrees to do these things for friends but one begins to wonder what the professional limits are!'"
All the same, he supplied the occasion with, if not its most iconic, then certainly its funniest moment. Dressed as ever in an inappropriately downbeat suit, he was handed the far-fetched task of introducing the world's largest alpine horn. Stationed at one end of the gigantic instrument, Williams had first to hail his co-host, who was positioned at the other ("Down here Roy!"), before engaging in some banter about how much breath was needed to play the musical leviathan. When Castle suggested a "lot of puff" was required, Williams stepped up for the pay-off, to noticeable titters from the studio orchestra: "Ooh yes, a lot of puff ... But I've always had a lot of puff ... I'm the biggest puff in the business!" Inevitably Williams later wrote of how he hated the whole thing, yet as usual there was a silver lining: "Roy said 'Thanks for being in it and for all the laughs' and he makes everything worth while."
"Frank Bough said 'Thank you! You're a Prince'."
The 1980s marked the zenith of Kenneth Williams as TV entertainer. His appearances were as numerous as they were varied. He turned up on Tomorrow's World in a tracksuit doing exercises on futuristic apparatus, demonstrating a watch that got its energy from body heat, then partaking in a dinner party of synthetic foods. He was one of the first residents of Dictionary Corner on Countdown and also one of the first to appear on breakfast television, living in the centre of London meaning it only took 10 minutes to travel to either TV-am ("all very pleasant") or Breakfast Time ("Selina Scott looked stunningly lovely and Frank Bough said 'Thank you! You're a Prince.' They're a smashing team on that show.")
There were limits. He turned down a part in The Kenny Everett Television Show, apparently because the script was, in an unconsciously ironic phrase, "in very bad taste." A turn as stooge on The Paul Daniels Magic Show, however, was downright disastrous. After being kept hanging around for hours, Williams began his familiar routine of mouthing off to anybody in earshot. This continued for some time before Daniels snapped back, "All you have done is moan ever since you came here." "That's right," Williams retorted. "If you'd engaged extras instead of actors you wouldn't have any trouble at all." He told his diary later: "I would never work with this man again."
Yet this kind of truculence never ceased to pose any potential threat to him being invited back on television. As he acquired the status of grand old man of comedy, his behaviour was indulged as eccentricity not malice. His legacy began to be valued just as highly as his act. The BBC's Comic Roots series devoted one episode to following Williams around the London haunts of his early career. LWT's An Audience with Kenneth Williams, meanwhile, resulted in a glowing testament to his ability to hold a crowd spellbound with almost 90 minutes of gossip, besides allowing its host to gamely endorse various contemporary TV faces ("Ooh hello, it's Matthew isn't it? Game for a Laugh!") For a man who never owned a TV set in his life, this was fraternisation par excellence.
Children's TV work continued unabated, most pertinently with the voice of pint-sized robot Sid in Galloping Galaxies. So did the panel games: Looks Familiar, Some You Win, All-Star Secrets, Through the Keyhole - no quiz engagement seemed too trivial to turn down. His account of a typically raucous edition of Child's Play emphasises how the very business of simply turning up had now become a performance: "On stage with the audience I started more shouting and bawling and when I asked Aspel, 'When does this show start?' he said 'When you shut your mouth!' which got a huge laugh and left me with egg all over the face." During one of his many appearances on Whose Baby?, however, Nanette Newman tellingly confided, "We've been on these game shows, you and I, for years and years, haven't we?" "Yes," Williams replied, "and one day you'll come and say, 'Where is Kenneth' and they'll say 'He is dead' and you'll have to do it with someone else.'" Williams tartly records Newman as "quickly replying, 'You don't look 60 to me'."
The ubiquity was fuelled still further by Carry On Laughing (Thames) and What A Carry On! (BBC), near-identical TV compilations of clips from Carry On ... films which were screened regularly from the early 1980s onwards, and which even led Williams to suspend his hostility towards the franchise and record new material for a special Thames TV Christmas compilation, exchanging ribald repartee with Barbara Windsor ("I was just thinking - all these years and I've never had it" "You've ... you've never had it? Never had what?" "A white Christmas, silly!" "Ooh yes, ooh, you had me worried there for a minute") before donning a tutu to conjure up a snowfall.
"I have to appear at the beginning and chat at a whelk stall"
"This must be the last bloody chat show surely?" Williams moaned in March 1984, documenting an appearance on TSW with Nina Myskow in front of "two rows of hard chairs to accommodate about 40 elderly Plymouth residents who looked vaguely discomforted." Yet his last great burst of TV activity was just about to come, in the guise of an unexpectedly semi-regular association with Terry Wogan. Between the time Wogan launched as a thrice-weekly chat show in February 1985, and his death in April 1988, Williams graced Terry's sofa on an incredible seven occasions - and took his turn in the host's chair for another three. Fittingly, these amounted to some of the man's most seminal TV appearances, Wogan's mastery of the gentle interrogation establishing an affinity with Williams which persuaded him to return to the BBC's legendary Television Theatre at Shepherd's Bush time and again.
All the old anecdotes were dusted down - "I did the Orson on vowels, Guinness on flies and Siobhan and the bishop and Edith Evans and basting" - along with plenty of new disclosures about the Carry On ... films and his recent experiences on the book signing circuit. The show's producers may very well have turned to Williams more out of expediency than anything else, but the fact that he was still first on the list when it came to the last-minute guest meant at least his twilight years weren't spent in dwindling obscurity. It also gave, as it turned out, the country one last chance to see the man in action, and for the Williams legacy to be preserved on tape.
Highlights included him joining Terry, David Jason and Julie Walters for a live New Year's Eve TV party in 1985 ("a bemused audience dressed in paper hats"), opening another show in a droll sketch with Wogan ("I have to appear at the beginning and chat at a whelk stall"), a comedy special re-creating Round the Horne, and the trio of shows in April 1986 where he stood in for Wogan himself. By all accounts these were nerve-wracking occasions, albeit ones that made for memorable viewing. The first show, featuring Derek Nimmo, Elaine Paige, Janet Brown and Norman Parkinson, passed off without incident, but the second (a classic line-up: Barbara Windsor, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin) ended with Williams saying goodbye too early, and then having to ask Palin to fill with some limericks. He closed the third by goading the audience into a chant of "Bring back, bring back ..." before congratulating them. "Everyone seemed pleased," he noted in triumph.
Williams made his last ever TV appearance on an episode of Wogan. That world he'd once characterised as teeming with "millions of ants, swarming all over the body of the theatre" had become his natural stage, one which he was by instinct hugely snobbish about, but from which he could never stay away for long. Writing of a trip to the BBC Television Theatre way back in 1971, he described stepping through the door and being "suddenly plunged back into that other atmosphere of illusion, lights, razzmatazz and rubbish. It was marvellous." Almost as if it were a forbidden pleasure, or juvenile indulgence, Kenneth Williams ended up finding the opportunity to perform for television almost irresistible. And given the choice, as a viewer, between the re-telling of an indiscreet bit of gossip about his showbiz past, or a ponderous recitation from a Shakespeare tragedy, it's thankful the man could never resist for too long.