Did Kenneth Williams poison his father?
From The Mail, October 2008
His monstrously homophobic father died in agony after mysteriously swallowing poison. Now a new book about the Carry On films' greatest star reveals police had only one suspect ...
As Charlie Williams lay critically ill in hospital, so intense was the pain he would scream: 'Take these knives out of my stomach!' His terrified wife, Louie, and stepdaughter, Pat, sat next to his bed for 24 hours, watching every moment of his slow, agonising struggle.
On the day after he had been admitted to St Mary Abbot's Hospital in Kensington, West London, Williams rallied briefly - but it was too late. The doctors told his family that he had suffered irreversible brain damage and his vital organs were failing one by one. By 3pm on October 15, 1962, it was all over: Charlie Williams was dead.
Not only was the manner of his drawn-out death excruciating, it was also deeply puzzling.
Williams had died of poisoning after swallowing carbon tetrachloride - a domestic cleaning fluid - which had been stored in a bottle of cough mixture. Why was the poison in the bottle? And who had put it there?
One person missing throughout most of the ordeal was Charlie's famous son, the comic actor Kenneth Williams, who, on the afternoon his father died, went out for lunch and then on to the cinema to see the James Bond film.
That evening, an hour after Louie telephoned to say that his father had died, Williams went on stage in the West End with Dame Maggie Smith and gave the performance of his life in The Private Ear And The Public Eye.
That Williams hated his homophobic, ill-bred father was hardly a secret even then - he frequently and openly based the vilest characters in his comedy sketches on Charlie and sent him up in public.
A new book collecting the private papers of Williams, which have only recently come to light, reveals the full extent of the hostility between the two men - and raises new suspicions over his father's death.
Wes Butters, who co-wrote the book with Russell Davies, says that the detectives who were called in to investigate Charlie's death suspected that Williams not only knew how the poison had got into the bottle, but that he had put it there deliberately to kill his own father.
Charlie's life had cast a long shadow over Kenneth Williams and hostility between the pair of them had been apparent early on.
When Kenneth Williams was born on February 22, 1926, in a dingy flat next to King's Cross Station, his father was employed as a railway van boy.
There was little money coming in and life was tough, most especially because Charlie played the role of the traditional patriarch and ruled the household with an iron fist.
'My father and I didn't get on,' Williams said in an interview in 1984. 'He was sport mad and wanted a son who enjoyed that. He also liked to go to the pub for a pint of bitter. When I was old enough to go with him, I asked for a sweet sherry. He was shocked and said: "You namby-pamby sod."'
Williams' difficult relationship with his father was the cause of much friction throughout his childhood as his half-sister, Pat, recalled. 'Charlie Williams was a real Victorian bully. He had a cane on the side of the mantelpiece and as he came in for his meals he'd take it down and hook it on the side of the table. Me and Ken would have to sit there in silence, not moving, and eat everything on our plates.'
Even as a small child, Williams had developed a contempt for his father that would turn into loathing in later life. 'Dad would sometimes say to Ken: "I wanna know how you're gettin' on at school." Ken would reply "I fail to see why you're interested in me. I'm not in the least interested in you", and then walk out of the room,' said Pat.
'Another time, Dad bought Ken a pair of boxing gloves. "What am I supposed to do with these?" "Put 'em on yer bleedin' fists and fight yer own battles. Don't rely on yer sister." Ken said "No, thank you", and dropped them in Father's lap and walked out. The old man went mad.'
Life was less cramped when the family moved on, to live over a barber shop Charlie had bought in Marchmont Street, near St Pancras Station. But it was the scene of growing confrontations between Williams and his father.
'Ken would lock himself in his bedroom,' said Pat, 'and the old man would be bangin' on the door, and Ken would suddenly turn on Gilbert and Sullivan, which he was raving about in those days. The old man would be bangin' and he'd just turn the music up louder and louder.'
'I never thought I belonged to the working-class'
The family's shabby background and his own lack of formal education and class were a source of great bitterness throughout Kenneth Williams's later life.
'I didn't like the King's Cross world: it was grimy and dirty,' he wrote once. 'I always envisioned myself in much more romantic and grand surroundings. I never really thought that I belonged to the working-class area at all.'
For this perceived poor start in life, he laid all the blame on Charlie, whom Williams regarded as ignorant, common and lacking in ambition.
When Williams was 14, Charlie took him out of school and insisted he learn a trade. The only one that seemed to suit him was lithography, but his printing apprenticeship was cut short when World War II broke out and Ken was evacuated to Oxfordshire.
After the war, as part of his National Service, Williams spent a short spell with the Combined Services Entertainment organisation in India, staging the kind of concert parties made famous by the TV series It Ain't Half Hot Mum, and decided he wanted to be an actor on his return to London.
He began roles in repertory theatre, where his potential as a comic performer landed him a part in Hancock's Half Hour on BBC radio. But while professionally Williams was making an impression and mixing in new social circles, hostilities between him and Charlie had resurfaced.
Pat said: 'When Ken made a name for himself, he bought a carpet, then he bought mum a fridge and a washing machine. And the ultimate was a fur coat. And, of course, there she is preening herself with all these lovely prezzies and the old man's saying: "Waste o' bleedin' money." '
The following year, father and son became even more divided when Williams rejected Charlie's pleas to turn his back on acting and join him in the barber's trade.
By 1961, although Williams - by now a national TV and radio star - had bought his parents a flat, he was barely able to disguise his antipathy towards Charlie, as revealed in one diary entry. 'Charlie digging up all the stuff I planted in the corner of the garden. I could have screamed with anger. All the pent-up hatred of the years came to my throat.'
In the months leading up to Charlie's death, Williams's diary entries show how furious he was at his father's increasingly selfish and irrational behaviour - in no small measure because of its effect on his beloved mother, Louie.
Using his son's cash, Charlie planned to invent all manner of money-making devices and boasted to relatives that the family would soon be millionaires.
'All my life he gave me nothing,' Williams wrote, 'always either embarrassed or bored me - in the twilight of his life, I spent all my savings on providing a home and yet still this trouble. Will it ever end? Will it drag on 'til Louie has a breakdown? I feel at the end of my tether.'
A sinister turn
Events took a sinister turn in mid-October 1962, when Louie reported her Post Office bank book missing.
The following day, Charlie was rushed to the former St Mary Abbot's Hospital in Kensington. Louie explained that Charlie had drunk from a bottle labelled Gee's Linctus, an over-the-counter cough remedy but which contained cleaning fluid.
'How it got in there is v. mysterious,' Williams wrote in his diary that night. 'Louie called a doctor and the police. They asked all sorts of questions, including what was my profession!'
The following day, among her husband's belongings in hospital Louie found the missing bank book; Charlie had forged her signature to withdraw £8 - something he denied when Williams had angrily confronted him during what would be their last conversation.
Later that day, Charlie died. Williams was not there at the end and did not attend the inquest 'because I would give it undue publicity'. He asked his agent to accompany his distraught mother to the coroners' court in Hammersmith.
A verdict was recorded of accidental death due to corrosive poisoning by carbon tetrachloride poisoning.
Williams continued to perform throughout this period, with no signs of distress, and recorded no expression of remorse or regret in his diaries.
Apart from attending the funeral and writing a cheque to clear his father's overdraft, Williams moved on swiftly - unaware that at Scotland Yard the case was considered far from closed.
One possibility was that Charlie had committed suicide - perhaps overcome with shame at defrauding his own wife. But disturbing questions were asked about his son's role.
There are few details about the investigation itself, but rumours circulated among actors at the time that a police car was placed on constant watch outside Williams' flat amid speculation that he had contributed to his father's death, perhaps by putting Charlie 'in harm's way' by substituting carbon tetrachloride for some more palatable drink the old man expected.
The suspicion hanging over him had a serious impact on his career, according to Wes Butters: 'Williams was asked to go to America to work with Orson Welles, something which would have made him a big international star. He would later tell interviewers that he never fancied America, but it came out that he couldn't get a visa because there was a file on him at Scotland Yard relating to his father's death.'
As far as anyone is aware, however, nothing came of the investigation and the case was quietly dropped.
The matter seems never to have been discussed again - particularly not between mother and son. But perhaps that is because there was such a sharp contrast of opinion about the nature of Charlie's death.
Williams' friend, the author Gyles Brandreth, heard him speak of the incident only once: 'It was when we were doing his autobiography that he told me his father had committed suicide and I said to him that he must put that in the book. He said: "I can't put that in the book while Louie's alive because she doesn't believe it and won't believe it. But it is the case." '
If Louie didn't believe Charlie had killed himself, how did he die? And if Charlie really did kill himself, why choose such a hideous death? If it was a mistake (and Charlie's mental faculties were frail after a lifetime's drinking) how, when he had the mental wherewithal to commit fraud, did he drink cleaning fluid in error?
It is unlikely that, so many decades after the event, we will ever get any answers. If Louie, Pat or Kenneth ever knew what really happened that day, then they have taken the secret with them to their graves.