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

4.5 out of 5 stars 58 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 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 (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 92,722 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

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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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have recently completed the book. I am quite a fan of the Carry On's and Kenneth Williams in particular. I have recently read the Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims biographies, and I can honestly say the "Born Brilliant- Kenneth Williams" book provided a much better insight into the star's life. It is well written, with the author regularly referring to elements of 'Williams's' diary. The author highlights the star's brilliance as well as the darker side of 'Williams' life and his troubled character.

I think its worth a read even for NON-avid fans.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting book in good conditionv
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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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Mediocre
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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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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Format: Hardcover
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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