Interview with Martin Hesford

Interview for BBC4 27th February 2006


Martyn Hesford's previous TV credits include Nicholas Nickleby and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


BBC Four: What's the appeal of Kenneth Williams as the subject for a drama?

Martyn Hesford: As he's not here any more, there is a sense of bringing this British institution to a modern audience that perhaps doesn't know much about him except for the Carry On films: to bring his voice to people who are not necessarily going to sit down and read the Diaries. A lot of people say that you don't need to know about the private life of someone and it's just the work that's important - but the two things are very much intertwined because of his background. The public persona he created for himself was really a product of everything he wasn't allowed to be. He never thought people would love and accept him for being himself, so he was always playing the role of 'Kenneth Williams'. He despised himself because of that. Today he would be at the National but in his day there was the classical theatre and there was vaudeville. They didn't mix. There was a great snobbery about the Carry Ons at the time. It was only in the 1980s when they were rediscovered by BBC Two and Channel 4 and intellectualised to a certain degree. In the 1960s they were frowned upon: these were lewd, rude jokes, so someone who was aspiring to be better than that found it very difficult. To delve into that was very interesting. Also, I did find the man very funny, so having the time to go through the archives was a great privilege.

BBC Four: What were the principal decisions to adapting the Diaries?

Martyn Hesford: I'd read the Diaries when they were first published and had also read the biographies, so I did have an idea of his life, but I re-read the Diaries again once I knew I'd be doing this project. I was drawn to themes - like the idea of celebrity - that jumped out at me as contemporary. The first draft had to be written in a month, so there wasn't any time to keep going back and thinking what were the most important bits. It almost wrote itself, and I didn't change much from the first draft. We could have gone down a different route. It doesn't really touch on his career and, although Carry On Sergeant is in there, we mainly steered away from the Carry Ons because that's been said and done. Instead it deals more with what's in his head. I saw the thing as a mirror: first, it's his reflection; and then the mirror is smashed into all these different fragments that, by the end, make up a whole.

BBC Four: Why do you think people feel such affection towards Kenneth Williams?

Martyn Hesford: Because he made them laugh! Although he could be very arch and frightening, there was still a vulnerability that people warmed to. He was so sensitive and astute that he could meet people and within five minutes sum them up in his mind and find their good points or weaknesses. If he wanted to upset someone he knew what would hurt them the most. But if he wanted them to feel fabulous he could do that as well.

BBC Four: How did you decide which other characters to include?

Martyn Hesford: It was really about juxtaposing his personal life with his work. His life was his work, really, and I used characters as turning points in his life. Hancock was his first taste of fame. Joe Orton was about his sexuality and that hidden world. The Carry Ons are done very much as we know them but I concentrated on Joan Sims because I thought it was important, with all that going on - the self-loathing and the fun - that he asked her to marry him. That incident really pinpoints the loneliness of the man at that time.

BBC Four: Will audiences who may not be aware of Williams' self-loathing find it a little bleak?

Martyn Hesford: I don't think it is too bleak. Joe Orton says in the drama that there's a thin line between tragedy and comedy. If people think it's austere, then you have to remember that it was a particular period in the 1950s. He couldn't be what he perhaps should have been - free in his own sexuality - and that suppressed him. It came out in all sorts of ways: his cleanliness, his striving for perfection. In the end he was trapped in the image he projected of himself with this voice - bigger and posher than Noël Coward’s – so he wasn’t offered any work other than that. He created his own prison. A lot of the time in his life he was sombre – but there’s also a lot of fun in the film. I think the two go together to make up the whole. His speech about his bum and his health problems is bleak but it's also very funny.

BBC Four: What do you think of Michael Sheen's performance as Kenneth Williams?

Martyn Hesford: For me, it captures the soul of the Kenneth Williams that was in the script. What's wonderful is that it's not an impersonation; it's an actual performance with depth and soul. It's a very intelligent performance because he shows these various sides of Kenneth Williams via the voice and all these different mannerisms but in the end it does capture all of him. I think all the performances are good. Martin Trenaman captures Hancock so movingly and Cheryl Campbell as the mother is great. She goes from her 20s to a woman of 80-odd with senile dementia in a very few short scenes. When they dance Tea for Two together, it really is a mother and son dancing.