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No substitute for the diaries
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.