Festival of Ideas: Christopher Stevens on Kenneth Williams (Bristol)
As part of the 2011 Festival of Ideas, Stevens gave a talk to a small crowd gathered at Bristol’s Watershed Centre. His book had already convinced the chair, Sue Shephard - a self-proclaimed KW ‘sceptic’, that here indeed was a man of great complexity and enormous talent. On viewing a clip of Williams singing his famous French pastiche, ‘My Crepe Suzette’, Ms Shephard commented that she was so impressed; she could “forgive him anything”.
It has been well-documented in other sources that there is much to forgive. Kenneth Williams was renowned for being difficult, petty, cruel and malicious. Yet such was his gift for comedy, mimicry and story-telling, there appear to be very few people with a genuine dislike for him.
The afternoon began with a recording of Williams singing the Noel Coward song, ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington’. His impersonation of Coward being so uncannily accurate, you could almost sense the audience thinking the wrong recording was being played. Then, rather than read from the book, Stevens gave his thoughts on what has clearly been a labour of love. With much enthusiasm for his subject and with an impressive memory for his research, he regaled the audience with stories of talking to the likes of Stanley Baxter (who has never before spoken of his close friendship with Williams) and Barbara Windsor.
Stevens spoke at length of Williams’ theatrical career and subsequent breakdown. Working with the likes of Richard Burton, Orson Welles and Robert Hardy, he suffered from a great lack of confidence when playing ‘serious’ roles. He also spoke of his brief spell as a successful director, before touching on review (with Maggie Smith and Peter Cooke), and going on to his performances in the Carry On films, then television talk shows and eventual status as ‘national treasure’. He also told a little of his research into a man who found it difficult to form close personal relationships. Rather, he would latch on to couples – a pattern of behaviour Stevens attributes to re-enactment of his own childhood with his parents.
All the while, with occasional prompting from Ms Shephard, Stevens held the crowd enraptured, introducing sound and film clips and taking questions. The audience’s huge affection for Williams could clearly be sensed; and when Stevens said that he “never gave short answers”, one could have easily imagined those ladies and gentlemen being more than willing to stay on all afternoon.
‘Born Brilliant: the Life of Kenneth Williams’ by Christopher Stevens is out now, published by John Murray Books.