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on 10 January 2011
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.

One of Stevens' pet theories is that Williams could have "conquered America" had he deigned to try. On page 192 he tells us the actor was "much admired in Hollywood" (but not by whom). Personally, I doubt American audiences would have "got" Williams. I suspect Williams thought so too, and would not have risked potential rejection by appearing on Broadway or in an American film: "...they would never allow the camp" [Diary, 15th October 1967]. In any case, Williams explicitly said he did not want to go to America: "All these Americans seems to regard New York as a theatrical Mecca. It is ludicrous. I haven't the slightest desire to see any part of their country" [Diary, 15th October 1967].

Another irritant was the number of times I found myself thinking: "Surely that can't be right?" An example is on page 226 of the hardback where the author talks about the casting of Carry on Doctor. Apparently, Williams complained that Frankie Howerd had been given a better role than he, but was reassured after the producers promised: "[Howerd] would be dropped from the film ... he [Williams] did play Doctor Tinkle." After a couple of quotes from the film's dialogue, the biography moves on to other matters. But hang on: Howerd did appear in the film as Francis Bigger the faith healer. This is hardly an obscure detail of film history, because Carry on Doctor is still seen regularly on the TV; in fact it was screened about three days before I read the passage in Born Brilliant. This makes it doubly puzzling that Stevens (or his editor) didn't spot the anomaly of telling us Howerd was going to be dropped from the cast without telling us how he came to be reinstated. Even more interesting, how did Williams react? [Paul Connelley helpfully points out in his comment on this post that Stevens does mention in a note at the back of the book, which I missed, that Howerd is in the film. However, this point would clearly have been better made in the main text].

On page 194 Stevens tells us that Carry on Cowboy was Williams' "least successful" Carry On. Perhaps it was. However, I'm pretty sure that in the diaries Williams refers to Cowboy as one of his favourites in the series [On 9th February 1966 Williams wrote in his diary that Cowboy was "...the first good British comedy in years...the first `Carry On' to be a success on every level...they'll never top this one."]; it's odd for Stevens to record his own verdict while omitting that of his subject. Similarly, on page 183 he refers to Carry on Cleo as "superb". A valid point of view, but again it's strange not to mention that Williams disparages it in the diaries [On 22nd July 1964 Williams wrote of Cleo: "It's all like an incredibly tired echo of the beginning of the series. Surely the wheel can't turn much further?" To be fair, on 12th May he had referred to the script as "very funny"]. These may seem like trivial points, but a lot of people who read Born Brilliant will know the Carry Ons and the diaries as well as I, or better, so they will notice them too.

There are other niggling problems with the text. On page 90, Stevens refers to Williams in the role of the pilot of a "jumbo jet" - at least 10 years before the 747 entered commercial service. I'm still puzzling over the meaning on page 302 of "exercise his despite" (rereading the diaries I see that despite, in the somewhat archaic sense of malice or hatred, was one of Williams’s favourite words. This is no reason for Stevens to use it; “display his malice” would have avoided ambiguity).

Notwithstanding these problems, Born Brilliant is a perfectly good introduction to Kenneth Williams for anyone unfamiliar with the man and his work. If you've read the dairies, be prepared for a canter round highly familiar territory. Diehard fans will have to hope that one day a heavyweight biographer like Peter Ackroyd or Zachary Leader will tackle the subject and really do him justice.
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on 22 October 2010
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. Another similar error occurs towards the end where the book states Williams was engaged with regular radio work in the 1980s such as Give Us A Clue - Give Us A Clue being, of course, a TV show.

Apart from those small errors, and an over-reliance on too many already well-known Keneth Williams anecdotes and interview quotes, the book excels at filling in some of the blanks of his early life, a controversial conclusion about his death, and lots of original interviews from people who knew and evidently loved this unique man.

A career guide at the end listing all his professional work would also have been something nice.

As for the Diaries, when will a volume come out giving us much more than the published ones ever did?
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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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on 9 November 2010
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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on 2 July 2011
I have been fascinated by KW since I heard him on Round the Horne in the late 60s. This is a well-written book that pulls together significant points from a mass of evidence. It is good on his early rise as an actor. I wish I could see him as the Dauphin, or as the evil shop boy in House at Sly Corner, or the detective in Private Eye. It's a shame there is no record of these performances.

He was a very good writer. I'd also like to read the conversations that we're told he recorded. Orton stole a lot from him (and so did Maggie Smith!). I'm sure that one day, when there's no longer a risk of libel or upsetting relatives, his diaries will be published in full.

I've just reached the point in the book when his life seems to be disintegrating - so sad! He had some bad experiences in the theatre (Gentle Jack sounds dreadful) and retreated from it. He was always lonely, but when he made relationships he was all over new people and then got bored with them quickly. His friends put up with some awful behaviour. He bore grudges and wrote long paranoid letters (or diary entries). He saw slights where none existed (or made them up). He was depressed. He was ill. Would we now say he was bipolar? He had sexual problems - could a therapist have sorted them out?

I'd just like to address the reviewer who speculated that when Stevens wrote "exercise his despite" he meant "exorcise his despair". KW loved to show off his huge vocabulary (OOooh, Matron!), and he liked to use the word "despite", which means "contempt". (You despise someone, but hold them in contempt; a few centuries ago you could contemn them and hold them in despite.)
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on 5 December 2011
This well thought-out and well-written biography throws some revealing new perspectives on several areas of KW's life and death - e.g., his relationship with playwright Joe Orton during the troubled first production of `Loot', and the probability that KW did not in fact intend to commit suicide, but mixed his medications unwisely. However, 'Born brilliant' contains some curious omissions in terms of KW's legacy and aftermath. For instance, there's little mention of KW's inspirational and legitimising influence over succeeding generations of 'camp' comedians, from Larry Grayson and John Inman to Julian Clary and Graham Norton. And there's no mention of KW 'tribute acts', such as the one-man show by David Benson, that have appeared over the last decade.
The revealing `Comic Roots' documentary that KW made in 1983, in which he revisited several of his former Bloomsbury haunts, doesn't seem to have warranted a mention; nor has the extensive 'Kenneth Williams: Seriously Outrageous' Reputations BBC-Tv two-part documentary broadcast in 1998, which featured informative testimony from several of KW's friends and fellow thesps.
There's also scant mention of KW's friendship with actor Gordon Jackson, which was, the published KW 'Diaries' suggest, one of tremendous importance to him; the book doesn't even say much about how they met.
Quibbles, you say; and you'd be right. Don't let them put you off buying and enjoying this otherwise excellent book.
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on 20 January 2011
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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on 24 August 2012
Kenneth Williams was one of the finest of all radio comedians, making outstanding contributions to Hancock's Half Hour, Round the Horne, Just a Minute and many other comic series.

I was a fan of his but am relieved never to have met him, for he could be very unpleasant. The book mentions his appearances on Countdown during the early years of the programme but does not state whether the contributions ceased because of his frequent rudeness to the contesatants or for other reasons.

Another omission is reference any to Carry on Texas, which if it had been made with a decent script might have revived the series and led to further funny films.

The difficulty facing Christopher Stevens was many of Kenneth's associates are still alive and a certain
discretion had to be applied in deciding which stories could be told. Without reading Kenneth's full diaries it is hard to judge how well he did the job.

It is a pity Kenneth Williams never played a major dramatic role on television once he became a star. He undoubtedly had the talent to be famous as a serious actor and if he had applied himself in a major role his reputation would have been enhanced.

A book for all Kenneth Williams fans and one of interest to anyone who with an interest in comedy
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on 2 January 2011
I have always been fascinated by Kenneth Williams and understood there were many facets to his personality. Of course the Diaries provide an insight into Williams but there was always something missing. This book by Christopher Stevens does fill in some of the missing gaps. The book mixes well known facts and new information with ease, making it flow as a constant read. At no time did I feel I had to skip parts because I had read it previously. Really enjoyed reading this book and for me it is the final word on the life of Kenneth Williams.
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on 22 February 2013
I love Kenneth Williams. Not in the same way you'd say "I love cheese" and obviously not quite the same way you'd say it to a living person who is a part of your life. But ever since the diaries were published in 1993 I have been in love with him in a manner of speaking. And when the said diaries reveal as much as they did about the man why not? So it was quite challenging to read accounts of his behaviour in this book that really justified everything I'd ever read till now about him being "difficult". I found I could no longer sweep under the carpet incidents that showed not just insecurity, aloofness or all the other things we already knew but real spite and selfishness. However, this is no hatchet job and as the title indicates the author is very much an admirer and has certainly done his research. The best compliment I can pay the book is to say that by the end of it I felt I knew Kenneth even more so than before and loved him just as much. I was also very appreciative of the author's well argued contention that Kenneth's death was NOT suicide as a counter to Russell Davies' equally forceful conviction as per the Diaries that it was. (Davies acknowledges both sides in his later "Unseen" book to be fair.) We are lucky to have so much available in print, on DVD and on youtube. This book cements yet again the fact that Kenneth Williams was a one off, a (flawed) genius and an extraordinary talent.
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