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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 19 September 2013
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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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 30 August 2017
Loved this book! I read the diarys and the the letters when purchased in the 1990s which I loved. This book is a combination of a biography and the diarys and letters as more material released since the 1990s.
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on 13 September 2017
Always entertaining. Sad he took his own life. Self loathing
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on 17 April 2017
Interesting book in good conditionv
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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 24 November 2015
Mediocre
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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 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 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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