Stop messin' about. Comedy's dying on its feet
Because there is a certain morbid fascination in seeing how a big reputation can be built upon a minor talent, it was always rather interesting to watch the interviews and performances of Kenneth Williams. Year after year, he would appear on chat shows, with his flaring nostrils, his ancient catchphrases, his posh Cockney accent and his interminable, endlessly repeated anecdotes about haemorrhoids and Dame Edith Evans.
After he died, in 1988, the full poignancy of those performances became clear. Biographies and his diaries were published and documentaries were aired, all of them revealing a life of unhappy conflict. He loathed the "Carry On" films yet built his career on them. He detested vulgarity but was invariably vulgar himself.
Ill at ease with his homosexuality, Williams was screechingly queeny when in front of the camera. He saw himself as an author and thinker but never wrote much more than a standard showbiz stocking-filler called Acid Drops, which suggested he was nearer to Charles Hawtrey than to Joe Orton. Tony Hancock's cruel assessment – "It's a gimmick, a funny voice, cartoon stuff" – was repeatedly confirmed throughout Williams's later life. It was a sad life, but then the annals of light entertainment are full of sad lives.
Yet, 12 years after his death, the obsession with Williams endures. A few months ago, Terry Johnson's adaptation of his play about "Carry On" appeared on TV. Last week, a solemn two-part documentary was on our screens, followed on Saturday night by a performance recorded many years ago for ITV's "An Audience With" series.
That was particularly odd. When a true and dangerous talent – Barry Humphries, say – has appeared on that show, it has been worth watching, but poor old Williams's routine was merely embarrassing. As he told whiskery old jokes unworthy of a primary school playground, and his celebrity audience fell about with mirth, it became clear what the problem was. He minced and put on his funny voice and sang an absurdly bad cod-French song, but, throughout, his eyes were as dark and cold as those of Laurence Olivier playing Archie Rice in Osborne's The Entertainer. Profoundly unamused by himself, he was going through the motions, imitating comedy, enacting an idea of it for us.
Is that why an unusually thin offcut of the celebrity culture was broadcast at peak hour on a weekend, why a minor showbiz figure is still revered as one of the great stately homos of England? Perhaps, as in so many other areas, the British have become nervously aware of their decline in the national sense of humour. They are like the nightmare party guest who unsuccessfully attempts to conceal humourlessness with jokes, silly voices and cold, cackling laughter.
Real comedy seems to make TV producers nervous. How else can one explain why an enduring piece of sustained comic writing such as Peter Tinniswood's series I Didn't Know You Cared (a lyrical and infinitely superior precursor of The Royle Family) has never come near to being repeated, while even the lowest form of grim imitation comedy – The Goodies, say – is cruelly dusted off and displayed like a national heirloom? Vast parts of the media are intent on providing, in the place of real humour, a grinning, dead-eyed version of it.
So perhaps we should all relax and stop worrying that little or nothing on TV makes us laugh. A whole slew of fun-merchants – Harry Hill, Reeves and Mortimer, Jo Brand – are providing a form of unfunny laughter therapy, reassuring Britain that comedy is still part of the national heritage. Unfortunately, the more the Kenneth Williams school of imitation humour is celebrated, the more depressed we are all likely to feel.