Sunday, 3 May 2015

Kenny and Mags

Kenneth Williams is one of my comedy heroes. Along with Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth he is one of my all time favourite Carry On actors. 

Unlike some of his Carry On contemporaries however, Kenneth had originally set his sights on a very serious theatrical career. Back in the 1950s and early 60s he appeared regularly on stage, making it into the West End after years of slogging it out in regional rep theatre. A lot of this period is recorded in his diaries which make fascinating reading.

It was through appearances on stage that he first met, worked with and fell under the spell of Maggie Smith. Mags, as he called her, was in many ways a female equivalent of Kenneth Williams. Seeing them together or hearing them perform I am always struck by their similarities. It really was a match made in heaven. I wish I had been around to see them work together on the London stage.

It was quite unusual for Kenneth to form such a close bond with another performer, let alone an actress. He was close to Hattie Jacques, who he adored as a kind of mother figure as well as Barbara Windsor who had a similar London background to his own. He famously asked Joan Sims to marry him (imagine!) but she very wisely turned him down. Kenneth and Joan had a spiky relationship, if his diaries are to be believed, but I also think there was a real understanding and closeness to their relationship too.

On stage he could be a menace with leading ladies. He rowed endlessly with Fenella Fielding during their revue days. While the record of this in his diaries might be amusing to us today, it must have been a trying experience for all concerned. He also struggled with Sheila Hancock as she answered back and didn't take any rubbish. Eventually they called it a draw and became good friends. While Kenneth was in awe of Ingrid Bergman when they worked together in 1970/71, it still didn't prevent the occasional loss of temper and snide comment in her direction. Jennie Linden fared no better in My Fat Friend a year later. The only one who seemed to escape any of this rancour was Maggie Smith.

They first appeared together in Share My Lettuce, a review performed in 1957. They immediately bonded. Kenneth also got on very well with Maggie's then boyfriend and future husband, the playwright Beverley Cross. They continued to grow close, socialising a great deal and sharing dinners late into the evening, fuelled by theatrical gossip. What fun that must have been. They later reunited on stage in The Private Ear and The Public Eye, by Peter Shaffer, which was staged in 1962. Again they worked brilliantly well together.

The intervening years saw Maggie's career go stratospheric while Kenneth stayed within the safety of his North London parameters. However the two actors stayed in touch, writing to each other regularly. Many of these letters are reproduced in The Kenneth Williams Letters - also worth a read. Whenever Maggie returned to London there would be dinners and fun. The bond never seemed to fade. When she appeared on the London stage again in 1972, the two actors were in neighbouring theatres which brought about a great reunion. Those days are recorded in the diaries with great relish and affection by Williams. It was heartwarming to see him happy. 

Contact between Kenneth and Maggie seemed to dwindle in later years, probably mainly due to Kenneth's ill health and general attitudes to life as he got older and more disenchanted. Sadly one incident is recorded in his diaries from the mid-1980s when he returns tickets he's been sent to attend a play Maggie was doing in London. I do honestly believe that in some ways they were twin souls, I think they understood each other in a way others could never dream of doing. As performers and friends they seemed very closely attuned. 

Dame Maggie Smith has rarely spoken of her long friendship with Kenneth Williams. I don't recall ever seeing her discuss him in print or in a television interview, although if I've missed something I'm sure you'll let me know! I think it's lovely that she has kept these cherished memories private although part of me would also love to hear her reminisce about a man she probably knew better than anyone else. 

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1 comment:

  1. You are probably aware of this, but there is a masterpiece episode of Parkinson with Kenneth, Maggie Smith and John Betjeman where Kenneth rants about critics and property developers,and gets into a heated argument with Parky about unions, industrial action and the class struggle more generally. It's fantastic television, because both are such professionals they instinctively know just how far they can push it. When Parky calls Kenneth's arguments "crap", amid gasps from Maggie and the audience, Kenneth defuses the tension with a brilliantly timed; "I've never been so insulted!" As a result, Kenneth was invited back for a serious debate with union leader Jimmy Reid on a subsequent show.

    He and Maggie Smith also read a haunting rendition of John Betjeman's poem, Death in Leamington. Its my favourite Parky episode. It's on Youtube, as well as the Jimmy Reid debate episode.

    Thanks for another great article