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Kenneth Williams: Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams Paperback – 7 Jul 2011

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (7 July 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184854197X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848541979
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 3 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 49,022 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Journalist and author - I am the TV critic of the Daily Mail, with a column five days a week to review the previous night's television. I write regularly for the main features pages of the paper, as well as for the Mail's Weekend magazine.

WRITTEN IN STONE traces the Stone Age words that are the basis of English. It unravels the DNA of our language, to show how prehistoric syllables thousands of years old are the source of everything we say and write. You will never think the same way about our ordinary, everyday words.

I am also a passionate fan of classic British comedy. I am the official biographer of Carry On star Kenneth Williams, and of comedy geniuses Ray Galton & Alan Simpson. My proudest moments include interviewing Ray and Alan on stage at the National Theatre on London's South Bank, and compering I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue at the Old Vic theatre in Bristol, with Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Colin Sell.

My biography of the Carry On star Kenneth Williams, BORN BRILLIANT, was authorised by his estate, and I was lucky enough to be entrusted with all his diaries and his archive of letters, more than five million words of comedy history.

BORN BRILLIANT was serialised as a Radio 4 Book of the Week, and shortlisted for a Sherry, the Sheridan Morley Theatre Biography Prize.

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson helped to invent situation comedy - MASTERS OF SITCOM is a celebration of their careers, and includes many extracts from their lost shows. Perhaps the most exciting discovery was the script for the feature film that they wrote for Tony Hancock but which was never made, THE DAY OFF.

A REAL BOY is the story of how my family coped with bringing up our younger son, who is profoundly autistic. It was endorsed by the National Autistic Society, whose president, Jane Asher, called it "wonderfully honest". A GIRL CALLED BARNEY is a novel about a single dad who must come to terms with his little girl's autism.

My guide to mnemonics and traditional memory aids, THIRTY DAYS HAS SEPTEMBER, was the best-selling reference book on Kindle for many weeks.

Product Description


Christopher Stevens's diligent biography offers illuminating insights into Kenneth Williams's work and inner life. Underpinned by a warm sympathy, Born Brilliant is often revealing and . . . well-written (Sunday Telegraph)

The book does something interesting and necessary. There is a danger with any book on Williams of just further nailing down the received wisdom: that he was entirely morbid, socially inadequate and consumed by guilt. What Stevens manages to do, even as he throws out all the examples of The Fear, is retune the accepted facts a little and tell the story not just of the melancholia but also of the happiness (Herald)

Christopher Stevens has written a solid, workmanlike, authorised biography of this least solid or workmanlike or authorised of figures (Mail on Sunday)

Stevens adeptly captures the mercurial temperament and frequent malice. For all his flaws, however, Williams remains lovable, to his devoted friends and fans, as well as to Stevens' readers (Metro)

Stevens has done a grand job of reconciling the public and private Williamses (Daily Telegraph)

Williams gets the biography he deserves: impeccably researched, compelling and, despite everything, sympathetic (Scotsman)

a portrait far more sympathetic than the ascerbic one conjured by Williams' edited diary extracts in l993 (Independent)

Excellent biography (Choice)

Stevens has unearthed a great deal of new material (TLS)

Book Description

The authorised full story of the troubled and brilliant comic genius that was Kenneth Williams

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By ButteredToast on 22 Oct. 2010
Format: Hardcover
I must confess to having read every book thus far published on Kenneth Williams, including those authored by Williams himself.

Those, like me, who never tire of reading something new about Williams will be happy with this latest book to look at the life and times of someone who has achieved just as big a following from today's generation as he did from his own.

This really is the first proper full-length biography of Kenneth Williams, with the first attempt being a rather poor effort by Michael Freedland. Therefore I expected Mr. Stevens to come to his subject having delved deep into the backgrounds of the people and places that so dominated the life of Kenneth Williams. In this the author doesn't disappoint, as drawing on access to the full Diaries, he has managed to bring to the table facts that we otherwise never really knew before. For example, Kenneth's Army career is detailed in good length, including where he was posted at what times, and his early forays into army entertainment is equally nicely documented.

There are revelations scattered here and there, although do not expect anything too shocking because for one Mr Stevens respects his subject too much to allow that, and for another, we already seemed to know every facet of Williams' life that there wasn't a great deal left to find out.

The book is illustrated with some rare pictures, although more pictures would have been welcome. And my only criticism is that there are one or two errors relating to facts; for example, on page 14 the author quotes from an interview with Kenneth Williams which says how rude Charlie Williams (KW's father) was as an hairdresser, the book says the anecdote was from the Pakinson Show when in fact it comes from Desert Island Discs in 1987, which Parkinson presented.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Friend of Dorothy on 10 Jan. 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'd like to be able to give this biography more than 3 stars, because it is well-intentioned and (as far as it goes) thorough. Stevens has persuaded a lot of Kenneth Williams' surviving friends and relatives to be interviewed, but unfortunately the results are disappointing. Most of the quotes are of the type: "Kenny could be quite cruel at times". The reader learns little he didn't already know or could easily surmise, especially if he has read the published diaries.

The diaries overshadow Born Brilliant and detract from it. At (if I remember correctly) 800 pages they are more than twice the length, so by comparison the biography feels light on detail. It's more than 10 years since I read the diaries but they made a big impression, and as I read Born Brilliant I continually found myself thinking: "Didn't Williams cover this event more thoroughly in the diaries?" I don't own a copy of the diaries so I couldn't check, but the sense of missing detail was constant.

The author tries to correct the impression that Williams hated his father, Charlie, and gives a more sympathetic portrait than emerges from the diaries; he quotes an extract from 1961 that refers to both parents as "darlings". However, I'm not convinced [September 2014 update: I just bought a copy of the diaries. On 8th September of that year Williams wrote in his diary of "all the pent-up hatred of the years" welling up when he saw Charlie. On 18th November: "His kind of egocentricism has always disgusted me...increasingly despicable."]. Williams was capable of expressing love for a friend or relative one day and contempt the next; that was the nature of the man. I retain the view that he and his father disliked each other but maintained cordial relations for the sake of family harmony.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Post Scriptum VINE VOICE on 8 Nov. 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
The publication of Kenneth Williams' diaries had the unfortunate consequence of encouraging some to assume the 'false' KW was the public man and the 'real' KW was the diarist - which is a big simplification, as the diaries are full of exaggerations, self-delusions and variations in mood. This biography is more balanced, giving as much insight into the public as well as the private performances. There are a few minor weaknesses, as noted above, but I'm giving it full marks to offset the misleading 'fixed price' complaints, which are aimed unfairly at the blameless author.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Dr Colin Morris on 9 Nov. 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an excellent new bio of the irreplaceable, inimitable Kenneth Williams.

What I found most interesting was to realise firstly, how extremely celebrated he was in the 50s and 60s and, secondly, how much less his fame was by the last ten to fifteen years of his life. I had known this from my reading elsewhere, of course, but Christopher Stevens underlines these themes and charts the change very precisely.

The author muses, rightly, on the might-have-beens had KW been less fearful of travelling to the States when he had the chance - several times. It is a wistful story, then, but also wonderfully evocative of the times in which KW lived and worked.

Highly recommended to any who love the Carry Ons, Round The Horne or Just a Minute - or, simply, that flawed genius who was, and in many ways still is, Kenneth Williams.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 20 Jan. 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a "better class" of biography in that, rather than simply running through all of its subject's credits, it tries to get inside the person and give the reader new insights. So much has been written about Kenneth Williams - who was certainly a fascinating character - that it's hard to say anything new, but the author succeeds in telling us things we didn't know.

While it's much more sympathetic than the depressing TV depiction "Fantabulosa" (which Mr Stevens rightly criticises), the book tends to confirm that Kenneth Williams had a life of wasted opportunities: that he could have been wealthy and internationally famous, but was held back by his character flaws and inability to grasp new opportunities.

A well-illustrated, engrossing read.
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