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Kenneth Williams (February 22, 1926 – April 15, 1988) was an actor, raconteur, and writer. He was beloved by the British public as much for his outrageously camp persona as for his considerable comedic gifts. British audiences had long tolerated gay stereotypes in comedy but Williams "pushed the envelope," especially on radio, at a time when homosexuality was only just becoming acceptable to a wider public. His popularity on chat and game shows--where he often displayed a highly amusing, acidulous, and somewhat hysterical temperament--could also be said to have helped to widen general acceptance of non-straight behavior.
The son of a London hairdresser, Williams was born on February 22, 1926. He studied lithography before the war, but was evacuated during the blitz. He performed briefly with the Tavistock Players, an amateur dramatic troupe, but was inducted into the army in 1944. He began his professional performing career in Singapore just after World War II, as a member of Combined Services Entertainments.
When they were lads, two of Britain’s best-loved comedy entertainers, Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams, had different experiences of the war. Kenneth Williams was just 18 years old in 1944, working as an apprentice draughtsman, when he was drafted into the Army. He became a sapper in the Engineers Survey section. Interviewed by the popular talk-show host Michael Parkinson on BBC television in the 1970s, he recalled: I’d been brought up in the Christian faith, and the idea of holding guns and killing people was abhorrent to me, quite apart from the fact that I’m not really born for that kind of thing. I don’t look good with a gun. Some people can hold them, trying to look tough, and it really isn’t my forte. You have to accept it’s just part of one’s limitations. I went to my father and said, ‘I don’t want to join the Army,’ and he said, ‘Look, this country’s facing a tyrant.’ He said Hitler was an evil man and the situation had become such in Europe that the only thing to do was to fight, and I believed what he said was true, because I thought him in a better position to judge. I was only eighteen, and he was considerably wiser and had been through another war, which he thought was for good reasons at that time, but he certainly thought this was an even better reason. So I joined the Army and spent three years of my life there, which of course was an awful thing for me to do. Not only did I not believe in killing […] it also infringed my freedom and involved a way of life I’d never faced. I’d never undressed in public and I didn’t like it. I did not like taking my clothes off in front of a lot of people, and in barrack rooms I had to. So I used to arrange the shirt to cover the dick, and then they checked. They’d shout at you and say, ‘Go on, show us your willy,’ and accused you of a lack of manhood because you didn’t show it. So eventually I got exhibitionistic and started going, ‘Yeah!’
In 1948, having returned to Britain, Williams embarked on a career that would encompass theater, film, cabaret, television, and radio. After a spell in repertory theater, Williams enjoyed critical acclaim as the Dauphin in a London production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1954) and popular success in three celebrated revues, commencing with Share My Lettuce in 1957. Beginning with Carry On Sergeant in 1958 and continuing through the late 1970s, he appeared in 26 of the slapstick, innuendo-filled "Carry On" films. In these he played characters that were, to a degree that varied from film to film, camp, knowing, and sarcastic. The "Carry On" films were lucrative for Williams, but they stereotyped him as a campy queen and eventually limited his career. A gifted actor, Williams periodically attempted to play roles more challenging than the campy ones with which he was associated, but audiences seemed uncomfortable with this. Even his turn as Inspector Truscott in the original production of his close friend Joe Orton's Loot (1965) was not well received by the audiences to whom he had become a household name. Williams's vocal talents brought him fame through two comedy radio shows of the 1950s and early 1960s: Hancock's Half Hour and Beyond Our Ken. His ability to create vivid comic characters through voice alone was never put to better use than in another radio show, Kenneth Horne's Round the Horne (1965-1968). Especially memorable, considering prevailing attitudes to homosexuality at the time, were the "Julian and Sandy" sketches. Here, Williams played Julian to the actor Hugh Paddick's Sandy: a pair of screaming queens who burbled on cheerfully and provocatively in the gay argot polari to a middle-class audience of millions. Williams was homosexual by inclination but avoided sexual relationships. From his astonishingly frank diaries (published posthumously), it seems clear that he felt safer with the satisfaction afforded by masturbation rather than in an encounter with someone else. By turns outrageous and conservative, he was plagued by disgust for what he considered to be typical gay lifestyles (promiscuous, disordered, camp, in some way sinful) and admired heterosexual family life. He wrote in his diaries of wanting to find his perfect companion, but carefully avoided involvement with any possible candidates. Despite the ambiguity he felt about his sexuality, Williams supported the Albany Trust, which aimed to decriminalize sexual relationships between consenting male adults, a reform that was not adopted until 1967. Williams suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life. In his final years these bleak periods were made worse by his own poor health and that of his mother, to whom he remained very close. On April 15, 1988, he was found dead in his London flat. He had taken an overdose of barbiturate washed down with alcohol. The coroner recorded an open verdict on Williams' death.
With the publication of Born Brilliant in 2010, the hidden corners of Williams's life of public comedy and private pain are examined for the first time. Biographer Christopher Stevens has uncovered the depth of the star's friendship with a young gay couple who have never spoken publicly before and who were witness to Williams's long and bitter struggle with his sexual identity. Known as the Babes in the Woods, Tom Waine and Clive Dennis became friends with Williams after Waine, an Oxford undergraduate, sent him an amusing fan letter. Together with Williams's beloved mother, Louie, the couple became a vital support system, attending all the star's theatre and television performances and now and then unsuccessfully tempting him with other potential boyfriends, including rough labourers and squaddies which provoked an angry response. On one of many evenings at Joe Orton's home, Waine also recalls Williams's fury when the playwright revealed that he had spiked Williams's food with hashish. By chance, Dennis was with Williams at his flat in August 1967 when news of Orton's murder at the hands of his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, broke. He tells Stevens that Williams was unable to take in what had happened. He refused to speak to the BBC and instead went out to the cinema, remaining in denial for several months.
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