Thursday 27 July 2017

July 1967 through the eyes of Kenneth Williams


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary since The Sexual Offences Act received royal assent. This piece of legislation decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have reached the age of 21. The Act only applied to England and Wales and did not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. The law did not come into force either in Scotland until 1980 and Northern Ireland two years after that.

Why am I writing about this on a blog all about the Carry On films? Well, apart from it being a momentous moment in the recent history of the United Kingdom, it also had a real, tangible effect on some of the Carry On cast. While the Carry Ons remained light, fluffy confections of ribaldry, innuendo, boobs and bums, the times were certainly a-changing during their long reign at the box office. The coy post-war era of Carry On Sergeant was definitely history by the time this law was passed nearly ten years later. While gay characters were never really covered in the Carry Ons in any great depth (John Clive and David Kernan being the closest thing we got to any kind of gay couple in the world of Pinewood comedy), leading actors Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey both dealt with being gay and in the public eye at a time when society at large deemed it completely unacceptable.


Kenneth and Charles were never ever gay in the Carry Ons. Yes their characters were always camp and outrageous but the same could be said for Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor or Joan Sims. Kenneth's sexuality in the Carry Ons was never touched upon although one had to suspend disbelief when his Carry On Abroad character was seen coupling off with Gail Grainger's Moira at the end of that particular film. Kenneth Williams was usually playing it over the top and it was very camp but it was with a small "c". Charles Hawtrey was camp with a very big "C" but still not portrayed as a homosexual. He was the loner, normally apart from the group and often the mummy's boy. In real life both Williams and Hawtrey took entirely different approaches to their sexuality. 

By all accounts Charles relished who he was and what that meant, becoming a well-known and flamboyant figure when he set up home in the seaside town of Deal in Kent. Hawtrey enjoyed his private life at a time when it was still perilous to do so and although he lived a troubled life, I do hope his freedom to enjoy who he was gave him some light in the darkness. We know more about Kenneth Williams and his attitudes thanks to his infamous, beautifully written diaries, which provide as much of a social commentary on the modern age as any other document. And hardly any other document could be quite so entertaining. Williams, close to his mother, outwardly confident, intelligent and beloved, lived a simple life in private fighting between his strong faith and working class roots and the knowledge that he was always a bit different from those around him. Much of Kenneth's adult life seemed pitched into an inner torment that is sometimes agonising to read about, let alone actually live through. 


I try not to write in too much detail about the private lives of actors I've long been fond of. That's not what this blog is about. You can go elsewhere for biographies, documentaries and dramas that rake over the coals of lives lived. This is and will always be more of a celebration of these wonderful performers who still provide so much entertainment, joy and comfort so long after they have left us. However, on this momentous day, I found myself picking up my rather weathered, well-worn copy of Kenneth Williams' Diaries to see how he reacted to the decriminalisation back in July 1967. 

On Thursday 13 July, Kenneth acknowledged the news that the House of Lords had passed the bill, brought forward by Leo Abse:

The Lords have passed Leo Abse's bill, legalising homosexuality in England: It's all right between two consenting adults in private except the services! and in Scotland. So it won't do any good for the queens of Dundee and the like.

On Sunday 23 July, Kenneth was with the playwright Joe Orton and his longterm partner Kenneth Halliwell at their flat in Noel Road, Islington:

Went up to see Joe Orton & Kenneth. They were v. kind. We chatted about homosexuality and the effect the new clause would have. We agreed it would accomplish little. 

Sadly, none of these men would see the benefits the change in the law would finally bring about. Just over two weeks later, Kenneth Williams received the following news:

John Hussey telephoned me at 4.45, he'd read in the paper that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell are dead. Apparently it is a murder and a suicide. The BBC wanted me to go on TV and talk about Joe, but the Police will not name Joe Orton as being dead so the programme has been cancelled...I said no to the BBC anyway. I couldn't talk about Joe in public - not at the moment.

Kenneth did eventually talk to the BBC about his association with Orton and Halliwell, in the 1982 Arena programme - A Genius Like Us: A Portrait of Joe Orton. Kenneth discusses how they met, the relationship between the couple and their sad end:

While Orton and Halliwell left this world not long after the law was changed, Kenneth Williams did live on to experience the greater freedoms and changes in culture it brought about. He would witness the liberalisation of many aspects of British life however sadly, for whatever reason could never quite become involved himself. I often wonder what Kenneth would make of the world today - I think we miss his acerbic Willo' the Wisp take on things more keenly as time passes.

While people like Joe Orton were fuelled into creativity by their sexuality both publicly and privately, the likes of Hawtrey, Williams and Frankie Howerd forged careers as part of the establishment, making us laugh until we cried. We all knew they were gay but it was never really discussed. Kenneth's unique stranglehold on camp comedy at the BBC was challenged by the late 1970s as more flamboyant and openly gay performers like John Inman (or that Inman creature as Kenneth called him in 1977) appeared on the scene. However, for me, he will always be the master.


We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to these talented, complex, sometimes troubled and tortured men. Not only have they left us a huge legacy of fun and laughter, but they also paved the way, living through extremely challenging, unfair times and bridging the gap to equality. 

See also: Carry On Blogging: Kenneth and Joe 

AndCarry On Blogging: Carry On ... Camping?

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