Thursday 25 February 2016

Kenny at 90: Kenneth and Joe

I have long been fascinated by the life of Kenneth Williams. He was a sublime comedy actor and lively personality, full of contradictions and complications. Unlike many of his contemporaries we know so much more about Williams and in his own words, because of his infamous diaries. Spanning his entire adult life, he is the modern day diarist and they have become his main legacy.

I have written before about some of Kenneth's most enduring friendships, namely with Maggie Smith and Gordon Jackson. One other friendship has always intrigued me too and that's his bond with the playwright Joe Orton. Orton was the sensational new young writer of the mid 1960s. Openly gay and proud of it, he relished his fame and his contentment with his own sexuality. He was the darling of the West End theatre scene until his life was cut tragically short at the hands of his long-term lover Kenneth Halliwell in August 1967.

I have read Orton's diaries and seen some of his plays and he is a fascinating character, very much of his time. He shook up the theatre scene in this country, challenged long held ideals and deliberately provoked, shocked and in some cases, appalled. He was an imp of a character and it's hard not to delight in his behaviour. What fascinates me even more is the relationship that developed between Kenneth Williams and Joe. They were both gay, working class and working in the arts but apart from that they were very much polar opposites. While Joe embraced his sexuality at every given opportunity, Kenneth shied away from that area of his life. Joe did and said what Kenneth never would or could. 

When they first met in 1964, introduced by theatrical impresario Michael Codron, Kenneth was at the height of his success. He was the star of the Carry On films, was a big name on radio thanks to his association with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne and had several theatrical successes under his belt, most notably the double bill The Private Ear and The Public Eye with Maggie Smith. Williams was growing dissatisfied with the work he was being offered and seized on the opportunity to work with the new young playwright. He admired Joe from the start and they became close.

Unfortunately, accepting a role in Orton's latest work, Funeral Games, did not turn out to be a happy experience for anyone connected with the project. The play, in which Kenneth starred with Geraldine McEwan, Duncan Macrae and Ian McShane, toured the provinces in early 1965 but was not a success. Most of the middle class audiences either didn't understand it or quite simply were shocked by it and walked out. These days are recorded in Williams' diaries and he was undoubtedly miserable. Fortunately his friendship with Orton endured despite this painful flop and they even spent time together in Morocco, one of Orton's favourite holiday destinations. They remained in touch even when, the following year, the now retitled Loot became an overnight sensation, taking the West End by storm with a new cast. 

Although Kenneth and Joe would not work together again, they socialised regularly over the next few years. Other friends of Williams thought Joe was rather self-obsessed however Kenneth was obviously caught up in the youthful glamour that came along whenever Joe was around. I've always loved the descriptions of Kenneth's regular visits to Orton's flat at Noel Road in Islington, the home he shared with his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Williams was much closer to Joe and he seemed wary of Halliwell on occasions, sometimes quietly pitying the older man. I think Kenneth Williams envied aspects of Joe's life, wishing he could enjoy himself more and be more like him, however what happened next put any ideas of that firmly on the back burner.

In August 1967, Kenneth Halliwell murdered Joe before taking his own life. Halliwell had been depressed for some time, feeling isolated and threatened by Orton's great success in life. The news came as a massive blow to Kenneth Williams and it caused him to reflect a great deal on their lives and his own life choices. 

Many years later Williams would direct two of Joe's plays at Hammersmith. I often wonder what Orton would have made of Kenneth's efforts. I also wonder what would have become of Joe Orton had he lived. He was undoubtedly a talented writer who was making a name for himself, but was he just very much of his time? His plays are still produced to this day so there is still an audience for his work. If Orton was still with us today he would be 82 so could still be active in the world of theatre. Sadly, we'll never know.

I will always be fascinated by the friendship that developed between Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams. Two men who shared so many common experiences but lived their lives very differently. 

To end, here's a clip of Kenneth Williams discussing Joe Orton in a BBC documentary from the early 1980s.


You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan 

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