I've always loved that fine Scottish actor Gordon Jackson. He had a long acting career, beginning during the Second World War in 1942 and rising to prominence in the early 1970s through two stand out roles on television, as Mr Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs and later as George Cowley in The Professionals. While I admire Gordon's performances on screen, and his career is littered with classic films (The Great Escape, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Ipcress File to name only a few), I also found his long, close friendship with Kenneth Williams particularly fascinating.
Gordon Jackson was a quiet, unstarry member of the acting profession. In the days before social media and reality television, he just got on with doing his job and being a family man (he was married to the actress Rona Anderson for nearly 40 years and together they had two sons). However we do get glimpses of the man off stage through his regular appearances in Kenneth's wonderful diaries. Kenneth and Gordon were friends nearly all their adult lives. In a rare diversion for Kenneth, his friendship with Gordon matured and endured despite the various ups and downs of life. It was rare if not impossible to find any mention of Gordon Jackson that was not completely positive and in full admiration.
I must dispel the myth that Kenneth Williams had few friends and was a loner. He quite simply was not. Yes you can see from his diaries that he could be difficult, awkward or down right rude, but in essence he was a lovable, sentimental character who cherished long term friendships. Kenneth had well rounded, deep friendships with the likes of Maggie Smith, Richard Pearson, Stanley Baxter, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor and Joan Sims for many years.
While some friends came and went, Gordon and the rest of the Jackson family were constants. Kenneth, although undoubtedly a gay man, relished the so-called "straight domesticity" that regular trips to the Jackson household in Hampstead provided. Reading the diaries, as I often do, I can't help but smile when Kenneth records an enjoyable dinner party chez Jackson, an afternoon with their children or being included in a family Christmas. Although Kenneth suffered great pain and sadness at times in his life, it is heartening to see moments of relaxation and pleasure too.
I remember clearly one of the very few times there were cross words between the pair. Jackson came across as someone who did his best to avoid conflict, however one family trip to Wales on which Kenneth was invited ended badly. Kenneth appeared to have rather old fashioned ideas, even back in 1966, and when Rona's culinary efforts did not meet with his satisfaction, a rather curt exchange resulted! This led Kenneth to leave early and unannounced and head back to London. Normal service was resumed, but it temporarily damaged their solid footing.
Kenneth did clearly adore Gordon though as a trip to the theatre in 1982 definitely demonstrated. Kenneth was notorious for hating the theatre, particularly later on in life. He was known to walk out mid-performance if it was not to his liking. Patience often wore very thin indeed! However, in 1982 he sat through an entire Agatha Christie play at the Vaudeville Theatre (very close to me now as I write this) and as his diary records, he loathed it. He stayed until the end regardless, only because it starred Gordon Jackson, who's performance he still praised. That from Kenneth, is the ultimate sign of respect!
Gordon outlived Kenneth by only a couple of years. He, along with many other close friends spoke movingly at Williams' funeral in 1988. Sadly, by late 1989 Jackson has been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer. He passed away in early 1990 at the age of just 66. He worked right up until the end, his last performance screened posthumously.
Kenneth clearly admired Gordon Jackson as an actor, but also more importantly as a man and a human being. I always think it's a touching friendship and a high point in the diaries. If you are unfamiliar with Gordon Jackson or his work, track some of it down and check it out. He was quite simply fantastic in everything he did.