I grew up reading Kenneth Williams' fantastic diaries. The diaries, edited by Russell Davies and first published in 1993, were a revelation when first made public and continue to entertain, provoke, shock and appeal to us all so many years after they were written.
I remember very clearly when I first started reading them. I was 18 years old, off on holiday with my parents and picked up a copy at an airport book shop. I wasn't sure I wanted to read them as I was worried the true picture of Kenneth would be unpalatable and the diaries would debase one of my comedy heroes. I persevered though as they were Kenneth's own words, not those of a biographer who never knew him.
So here are a few reasons why I love the diaries and why you should read them:
They offer a unique insight into the private life of a public figure
It's not often someone in the public eye reveals so much of their private life and private thoughts to us. Although committed to paper for his eyes only, in published form they give us a fully rounded portrait of a much loved man.
They were so well written
Kenneth Williams shows complete dedication to his diary and to writing. Although a published author by the early 1980s, the diaries are his main body of work and his legacy. Kenneth had a fierce intellect, was mainly self-taught and his command of the English language was legendary. In short, Kenneth wrote beautifully.
The extraordinary cast of characters
So many famous faces, both alive and dead, pass through the pages of Kenneth's diaries. Some were close friends - Maggie Smith, Gordon Jackson, Stanley Baxter, Barbara Windsor, Hattie Jacques, Sheila Hancock. Others merely acquaintances or colleagues - Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Dirk Bogarde, Alec Guinness, Billy Connolly, Ingrid Bergman, Edith Evans, Fenella Fielding and Noel Coward. The diaries span a massive chunk of modern British culture and nearly anyone who is anyone features at some point. Not only do we hear stories about these icons in their prime, we also get Kenneth's unique take on them. Priceless.
What a Carry On
As Carry On fans, the diaries are a wonderful insight into the making of the films, the people involved and Kenneth's general hatred of the finished product! While many of his reactions or nasty asides are obviously committed to paper in the heat of the moment, they also provide a delightful sideways glance at life at Pinewood. From his adoration of Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw; his apparent love/hate relationship with Joan Sims and his unflattering portraits of Charles Hawtrey and Sid James, they are a joy to behold. I also love it when Kenneth compliments other performers. He wrote some very sweet things about the likes of Gail Grainger and Angela Douglas.
A love of London
Kenneth Williams was a Londoner through and through. Apart from evacuation to Oxfordshire during the war, he always lived within the same confines of the Kings Cross / Bloomsbury / Euston district. Despite his growing hatred at being a star without star money and being constantly recognised in the street, in shops or on the bus, Kenneth always loved his city. He writes beautifully about London, catching glimpses of the twinkling lights from up above at his Farley Court flat or describing long walks through the areas of the city he grew up in. I love it when I find myself in parts of London Kenneth knew well and remain the same today as they were when he was a Londoner.
A social history
Kenneth's diaries record so many major world events during their forty years. They begin in the middle of the Second World War and end at the height of Thatcherism and the rise of the Yuppie. They take in the Queen's coronation, the assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy, the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the legalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, the Moon Landing in 1969, Watergate, the Aids epidemic and the Falklands War. They are a fantastic social history document and a time capsule.
Kenneth the man
Not often do we get such a unique and sustained portrait of an individual. From the youthful optimism and early faith in socialism to the wary, weary right wing man he became in maturity. We all change as we grow, develop and move through life, and Kenneth's diaries display this perfectly. While many of his attitudes changed and were informed by life experiences, I do believe Kenneth stayed true to himself until the very end.
Those final words
We all know Kenneth Williams died well before his time at the young age of 62. As the diaries progress, he becomes more and more disenchanted with life and more frequently suffers from pain and various ailments. The last few years of his life are, for the most part, a difficult read. When the end came, it left more questions and than answers, however his last words leave little to the imagination. While we mourn the loss of a comic genius and a true individual, Kenneth's story should make us all think.
I often wonder what Kenneth would have made of the reaction his diaries received on publication. He was quoted in interviews saying he wouldn't mind them being published once he had gone, so I can't imagine he would have reacted badly. Although The Kenneth Williams Letters were published in a collection the following year, the diaries definitely do leave you wanting more. The full transcripts remain locked away in a vault, with only the editor and Kenneth's trustees being fully aware of what was not chosen for public view. I'd love access to the rest of the diaries. Wishful thinking!
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