I have worn my copy of The Kenneth Williams Diaries to tatters through reading it so many times. In those readings I have laughed, cursed and frowned both with and at Kenneth Williams. His autobiography, Just Williams, is, understandably, a more sanitised version of events than his diaries. It is equally well-written and observed, but a little drier around the edges. Most people will read Just Williams and then, if sufficiently interested, move on to the diaries. That is the right order of things. In this, as in so many things, I’ve gotten it the wrong way around.
Just Williams tells the story of a working class boy from London who, born in any other era, would almost certainly have slipped unnoticed into an honest trade and (no doubt) unhappy life. It was his fortune to find his fervour for the theatre and a life as an entertainer at a time when the traditional obstacles to doing so – namely social – class were breaking down. For someone who was practically self-taught in everything (acting, literature, writing, politics, music) he pulled himself up and out of the proverbial gutter, whilst never forgetting or hiding exactly where it was that he had come from.
Autobiographies often have an air of a vindicatory oration about them, with the author justifying their tantrums and feuds. Williams does this, but without apparent bitterness. Things move in a resolutely linear fashion, and we follow a career that began in earnest shortly after he was de-mobbed from the Army following the Second World War, and end in 1975 with Williams a bona fide star of the cinema, television, radio and theatre.
More than anything, it is the story of a jobbing actor at a time when film, pop music, radio and television were the only forms of entertainment that existed. Those who – as I did – grew up watching the endless repeats on television, may only have known him from forlorn and uppity characterisations in the ‘Carry On...’ films. Those same people may be surprised to know that he understudied Richard Burton, was great friends with Dame Maggie Smith and the playwright Joe Orton, was directed by Orson Welles, and worked alongside Ingrid Bergman and Margaret Rutherford. He was doted on by Noel Coward, and door-stepped by Judy Garland. It is these friendships and dalliances that, more than anything, tell the story of Williams’ life.
Just Williams by Kenneth Williams is published by Harper Collins.