Sunday, 29 January 2012

Book Review: The Kenneth Williams Diaries

"The preoccupation with diary writing is caused by various things: the desire to keep a record which can be useful later, and committing to paper what can't be communicated to a mentor... oh! all kinds of reasons, but fundamentally it is about loneliness."
Kenneth Williams, Diaries, Tuesday 8 March 1988
Having grown up without a telly, I knew Kenneth Williams primarily through Just a Minute. In later years, I became acquainted with the Carry On films, Round the Horne and H-H-Hancock's Half Hour.

There was, of course, much more to Williams' oeuvre than these examples, although it is fair to say that these are the things he is best known for. His career took in a period in the far east in forces entertainment, repertory and West End theatre and, latterly, work as a raconteur, author and regular chat show guest (and occasional host.) There was also a lot of voice over work over the years.

His diaries, published in 1993, were edited from over forty years of volumes that he kept from 1942 until his death in 1988 by Russell Davies. Mr Davies himself is mentioned in the diary on several occasions - never, it has to be said, in particularly glowing terms. The task was somewhat Herculean in nature but is achieved with skill and distinction. I got the impression that the diaries have been fairly edited to provide a rounded view of Williams, warts and all. The picture that emerges is one of a complex character, a man who was never truly at ease - with his sexuality, his work choices, his finances or with other people.

His temperament - professionally, publicly and privately - was prickly and this is reflected in the diaries. At times, though, he was acutely conscious that his behaviour was out of order and records making an apology or resolves so to do.

His personal life revolved around his mother - whose accommodation he took care of financially from quite early on in his career - and a handful of friends. His various friendships were frequently fraught and few people escape criticism at some juncture. Indeed, the only person who does seem to come through the diaries unscathed is Dame Maggie Smith who is first mentioned when they were both in the revue show "Share My Lettuce" in 1957.

Politically, Williams - having initially been a socialist - was a Tory (albeit with a brief dalliance to voting Liberal in 1966) and seems to have become quite illiberal in later life - unfavourable references to "Negroes" and "wogs" occur although like everything, anything said at any given point is liable to future contradiction. It's a disappointing development in the light of this entry - one of my favourites - from 1971:
"You can't keep sneering at Liberalism without also sneering at what is best and dearest in English society." 
Tuesday 14th December 1971
Sexually, the younger Williams seems to have simultaneously desired and reviled from intimate relations - he records his personal fantasies as being quite violent in nature. In practice, it appears that such contact was limited in both quantity and quality and led, almost invariably, to expressions of self-loathing and depressive bouts. His real desire was to for love and companionship but he was unable to open up to anyone sufficiently for this to be a real possibility.

His depressive spells were a recurring feature of his life - and not just in the sexual arena. He repetitively despairs of life and mentions his jar of pills which he maintains for the purpose of leaving the world. For most of the diaries, these entries can be followed by hugely optimistic ones before life returns to a more normal pattern for a while. Towards the end, however, as two years of stomach ulcers take their toll, the frequency of these entries and the seriousness with which he examines the prospect increase. The inquest only had sight of the last diary entry and returned an open verdict. Who's to say they wouldn't have come to another conclusion with sight of more of the diaries.

The book contains a biographical introduction and appendices detailing the addresses Williams lived at, the films he references in the diaries and an extensive index. I felt it could have benefited from a list of his various jobs over the years and some form of Dramatis Personae as a reference to the hundreds of people mentioned in the diaries. Indeed, now two decades have passed since publication, it may be possible for those not specifically named to now be so - and for the diaries to be re-edited with less fear of the libel laws.

I thoroughly recommend the diaries to anyone interested in Williams' career or the history of theatre and light entertainment in Britain.

P.S. You can read previous blog on some of his diary entries here.

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

Thanks for that very rounded appraisal, Andrew. This book could well be the same edition as I read some time in the 90s, which I only wish had been kept - but in any case I very much want to re-read now in the light of what you say. Let's hope your words bring this curious and infinitely fascinating man to the attention of inquisitive minds, some even younger than your own.