The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Ever since I was little I have been obsessed with ‘Carry On’ films; yes they are seaside postcard rude, predictable and I wasn’t even alive when they were made, but I LOVE them! They remind me of many childhood Christmases when constant reruns were on the telly, and of an England I wish I had been alive to see. I have all the films on DVD and I know I can put any of them on in the background when I am working etc and I can tune out and be comforted by the familiar characters, jokes and music, and it is this familiarity and sense of nostalgia that I find most appealing about the films.

Many years ago I read Barbara Windsor’s autobiography, and was ridiculously excited when I saw her in panto a few years ago, and I have seen various TV programmes about the actors and actresses involved in the films, but I have never read any other books relating to the series until now – The Kenneth Williams Diaries!

In many of the films Williams played the antagonist to Sid James’ good guy, and built a reputation as the snide, authoritive figure. Williams starred in 26 of the ‘Carry On’ films, so imagine my surprise when I discovered how much he hated filming them and saw them as repetitive, crass and dull pieces of film (a view that some people might agree with). It raises questions as to why he continued to play a significant role in the series, but it is clear from his descriptions of his fellow ‘Carry On’ stars that despite not liking some of them, he enjoyed the family type atmosphere they developed on set, and this seems to have been a considerable draw to him when debating the merits of starring in yet another film. Williams was famous for his dark sense of humour and ability to critique not only himself, but his fellow actors and friends in an uncompromising fashion. There were many occassions when reading his diaries that I laughed out loud; the following description of Sid James is a prime example:
‘Down to Pinewoord for the end of picture party. Apart from Jim Dale, I was the only actor there – O! no – Sid James attended – but perhaps the first half of the sentence is still correct.’

When reading someone’s personal diary there is always a sense that you are seeing their innermost thoughts, their feelings that they never expected to be made public; a sense that can sometimes prompt an uncomfortable feeling in the reader. Yes Williams’ diaries are funny and amusing, but they also display his personal struggle and attempts to come to terms with his homosexuality, celibacy and deep suicidal depression; a depression that would eventually lead to his death. Williams referred to his sexuality and experiences in code (perhaps hinting that he expected his diaries to be published) so his personal relationships were never completely clear…unless it is me missing something in my reading, which is a huge possibility. Regardless of this it is clear that Williams was constantly struggling with who he was and how he was perceived by the public and whether or not he was accepted, and this struggle is demonstrated beautifully in some entries:
‘The leaf that blossoms, dies and falls from the tree is, in the falling tragic: but I am the leaf that has not blossomed. I am the blighted leaf. My tragedy lies in the knowledge of my failure to blossom.’

Perhaps the most striking part of the collection was the vast number of performers, actors, actresses, comedians etc. who committed suicide. Yes, Williams’ diaries span 40 years, but it is shocking how many suicides he notes/comments on; I almost wish I had counted them as I read. I am not going to analyse or question all these suicides, and a lot of them I know nothing about, but from Williams’ comments, it is worth noting that most of those listed were struggling to come to terms with their faltering fame.

I never realised that Williams had killed himself until fairly recently when I was watching a programme about him, and it was this programme that prompted me to buy this book. The last few months of diary entries are difficult to read in places; throughout the collection Williams talks freely of suicide, but his change in mood and temperment is obvious in the months leading up to his death.

With non-fiction and autobiographies there is always the sense of knowing the ending, and I felt this all the way through the diaries, and perhaps because of this I was more in tune to the suicidal references and comments. However these didn’t take away from the fact that Williams’ was an educated and witty individual; he is bitter and malicious in places, but then we all have these tendencies, some more than others, and it is refreshing that he acknowledges this and doesn’t pretend he is something he is not. I don’t know if I will look at the ‘Carry On’ films or Williams’ roles in them differently having read his personal opinions on the films and those involved with them, but it has certainly been an entertaining and insightful experience reading about the life of Kenneth Williams.