Kenneth Williams

1926 - 1988

Carry On Films: 25

Flaring nostrils, cries of "Matron" and comments of "trouble with the bum, you know" are only three factors in describing the complex character of Kenneth Williams.

Kenneth Williams was born at the home of Charlie and Louisa Williams in Bingfield Street on the 22nd February 1926. Charlie was pleased to have a boy who he could take to football matches or enjoy a pint with in the pub. As things turned out, however, Ken was never that kind of son and as a consequence, the two never really got on. Louisa, on the other hand, was devoted to her son and he was equally fond of her. In later life, Ken would take her on holiday and she could always be found in the front row of one of his many radio shows, if an audience was required.

On an academic level, Ken wasn't exceptionally bright and found most of the school lessons boring. His one good subject was English and he enjoyed poetry and drama, often reading out long passages during lessons. Having been encouraged by his English master to appear in the school play, Ken found he rather enjoyed acting but when the subject was raised at home, his father had strong objections. Acting was no way to earn a living and in his eyes "the men were poofs and the women were tarts".

Looking at what Ken was good at, Charlie decided the only thing for him was art. Even then, the only people who made any money were cartoonists and Ken wasn't much of an illustrator. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Bolt Court - School of Lithography in Fleet Street. Due to the war and his subsequent evacuation, Ken was son moved out of London to Bicester, where he continued his education until returning to London in 1941, where he took up an apprenticeship as a draghtsman with Edward Stanford in Covent Garden.

In 1944, Ken was conscripted into the army. It was a choice that he was unhappy with; he had been hoping to be able to joint the Royal Navy, having spent the last two years in the Sea Cadets. However, his apprenticeship at Stanfords served him well and he was given a place in the Royal Engineers - Survey Section. It was during this time that Ken took his first steps towards becoming an actor. He joined the Combined Services Entertainment (CSE). From then on, he continued to perform in shows and even designed many of the posters to advertise the shows, up until his discharge from the Army in December 1947.

After turning down a job with the water board, Ken returned to work at Stanfords, who had by then been taken over by George Phillip & Son. He wasn't happy working there, however, and after talking to a friend from his CSE days (Stanley Baxter), returned to the stage professionally. On 23rd February 1948, Ken handed his notice in and put pen to paper, writing to many repertory companies around the country.

For the next six and a half years, Ken struggled through repertory theatres in Newquay, Swansea, York, Bromley and Worthing. For a short while, he rehearsed with the Old Vic Company alongside Richard Burton, but asked to be released from his contract, saying he was too worried about being tied down for such a long time.

His big break came in October 1954, whilst appearing as the Dauphin in St Joan. Following an interview with Denis Main Wilson, Ken was booked to appear in "Hancock's Half Hour" to perform character voices. He joined Tony Hancock, Sid James and Bill Kerr to record the first in the new series, in October 1954. In the show, he played the part of an old duke, whose house had been rented out (by Sid) to Tony for a first night party. It wasn't a particularly big part but he was gradually offered more. Ken remained with the team for almost its entire run, missing only the last few, when he asked to bre released due to the increasingly bad atmosphere between a number of cast members. Tony Hancock was reportedly annoyed with Ken's character (which had come to be known as "Snide"), claiming that such "cardboard" comedy was not true to life. Ken left the show in June 1959.

His voice wasn't off the radio for long, though. During his time on Hancock, he was asked to join another series; "Beyond our Ken". The pilot episode was a success and it led to many more, before spawning the better known sequel "Round the Horne". It was a show that Ken was (as far as he could be) happy with. Working alongside Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Bill Pertwee and the leader of the gang, Kenneth Horne, the show had many memorable characters - many of them played by Ken. First there was Rambling Syd Rumpo, the ballad singing yokel who often confused Horne with talk of "nadgers and cordwangling". Then there was Peasmold Gruntfuttock, who wanted to get his hands on Judith Chalmers; Sandy of Julian & Sandy - two out of work actors, trying to earn a bob by offering their services in all different ways! Finally, there was Dr Chou N Ginsberg MA (failed), the evil mastermind whose plans were continually thwarted by Secret Agent Kenneth Horne. The shows were an enormous success and are regularly repeated on radio today. Sadly, the series was curtailed by the sudden death of Kenneth Horne.

As well as being heard on the radio, Ken could be seen regularly in the cinema, as one of the Carry On... gang. He starred in a total of 26 Carry On films. It is therefore interesting to note the comments in his diaries regarding his work there; he often claimed to be embarrassed by the "rubbish" churned out and often commented on his co-stars' appalling acting skills. All of which begs the question'; why he did so many of them. He was obviously grateful for the regular income, but despite the vitriol of his comments at the end of the day, the Carry On gang were an extremely close knit team (Ken accompanied Barbara Windsor and her husband on their honeymoon) who enjoyed working with each other. Another reason may lie with a comment in an old school report; "Quick to grasp the bones, slow to develop them". He could do the Carry On films with his eyes closed and probably felt it would be too much hard work to try something more complicated.

It was well known that Ken detested the theatre. Despite several successes with revue shows in the sixties, including "One over the Eight" and "Pieces of Eight", he found long runs of the same show boring and often found illness an easy way out.

When the Carry On films dried up in the late seventies, Ken was left with very little in the way of work. He was still a regular on the long running radio programme "Just a Minute" but apart from that, he relied mainly on chat shows; Ken was an accomplished raconteur and became a very popular guest.

Later on, he wrote several books, including his autobiography "Just Williams"; which subsequently led to even more chat shows! In the final years of his life, Ken was dogged by ill health; a hypocondriac all his life, he was now very ill indeed. He was constantly taking a variety of pills and visiting specialists to try and combat the pain from his ulcer. On the morning of 15th April 1988, Ken's Mum went to wake him up (she lived in the flat next to his) but couldn't get him to stir. After investigation by the porter, it was announced that he was dead. The coroner recorded an open verdict, saying it was possible (but unlikely) that Ken had taken an overdose of sleeping pills in addition to his regular pain killers that caused a lethal cocktail. To this day, views are still divided as to whether it was deliberate or not. On one hand, he mentioned many times in his diaries that suicide was the only option, but he always seemed to bounce back from his bouts of depression. Many seem to think that suicide is unlikely simply because he would never have entertained such ideas while his mother was alive (she was left nothing in his will, presumably because Ken was expecting to outlive her).

Over eight years after his death, Kenneth Williams the actor still lives on in the memory of the British public. BBC Radio Collection release tapes of many of the shows which he featured in. Books have been released, detailing every aspect of his life, but most interesting are the two books containing letters written by Ken, and his diaries. They are in places depressing, and in others amusing. Most importantly, they give the only real insight of a very complex man who to the public was nothing more than "that man with the funny voice".

Alan Langley

Further Reading

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- "Willo the Wisp" (1982) TV Series
- "Whizzkid's Guide" (1981) TV Series
- Carry On Emmanuelle(1978).... Emile ( the ambassador)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978).... Sir Henry Baskerville
- That's Carry On (1977)
- Carry On Behind (1975) .... Prof. Roland Crump
- Carry On Dick (1974).... Captain Desmond Fancey
- Carry On Abroad (1973).... Stuart Farquhar
- Carry On Matron (1972).... Sir Bernard Cutting
- Carry On at Your Convenience (1971).... WC Boggs
- Carry On Henry (1971)... Thomas Cromwell
- Carry On Loving (1970).... Percival Snooper
- Carry On Again, Doctor (1969)... Frederick Carver
- Carry On Camping (1969).... Doctor Soper
- Carry On Up the Khyber (1968).... The Khazi of Kalabar
- Carry On Doctor (1967).... Dr Tinkle
- Carry On Screaming (1966) .... Dr Watt
- Don't Lose Your Head (1966)... Citizen Camembert
- Carry On...Follow That Camel (1966).... Commandant Burger
- Carry On Cleo (1965).... Julius Caeser
- Carry On Cowboy (1965)... Judge Burke
- Carry On Jack (1964)... Captain Fearless
- Carry On Spying (1964).... Desmond Simpkins
- Carry On Cruising (1962) .... Leonard Marjoribanks
- Twice Round the Daffodils (1962).... Henry Halfpenny
- Carry On Regardless (1961)....Francis Courtenay
- His and Hers (1961).... Policeman
- Raising the Wind (1961)... Harold
- Carry On Constable (1960)....Constable Benson
- Make Mine Mink (1960) .... Freddie Warrington
- Carry On Teacher (1959).... Edwin Milton
- Carry On Nurse (1958).... Oliver Reckitt
- Carry On Sergeant (1958).... James Bailey
- The Seekers (1954)
- Valley of Song (1953).... Lloyd the Haulage