Saturday 20 January 2018

Carrying On at the British Library: My thoughts on Kenneth's 1951 Diary


Yesterday I made a very special trip to the British Library in London. There was a great deal of publicity a year or so ago about the decision taken by Paul Richardson to entrust the treasured Kenneth Williams' diaries to the British Library. Paul, who was Kenneth's neighbour and friend for many of his later years, oversaw Kenneth's estate following his death in 1988. 

When I heard the news I immediately wanted to go and see these famous books for myself. As I wrote on this blog two years or so ago, my love for the diaries stretches back to my teenage years and I often dreamed of seeing the real thing. Now, thanks to Paul and the Library, it was perhaps more likely. Of course collating and cataloging the diaries is a huge undertaking for the Library and after a significant amount of time had passed, I contacted the Curator responsible for the diaries, Joanna Norledge. I think the process of preparing the diaries to be viewed by the public was taking longer than expected, however Joanna was particularly helpful and agreed that certain files could be made available to me if I applied for a Reader's Pass. And that's exactly what I did.

Late last week Joanna got in touch to confirm I could see the diaries in the Manuscript Reading Room at the British Library this week, so on Thursday I took the short trip from my home in North London down to King's Cross. I think it's really fitting that the diaries have found a permanent, lasting home here. The Library is an extremely well-respected, distinguished institution, one we should all be proud of. And secondly, the Library is situated in an area of London that meant a great deal to Kenneth, as he spent almost his entire life in Bloomsbury and St Pancras. Several of his flats are only a short walk away from the Library so it really does seem the best possible place for them.


After confirming my credentials as a legitimate researcher and receiving my Reader's Pass, I dropped off my personal effects in a locker and went up to the Manuscripts Room with my pads of paper and pencils (no pens allowed!) Sadly, but quite understandably, there's also a no photography rule so I'm afraid there aren't any pictures of my visit. The diaries had been ordered up and after receiving some specific instructions about what I could and could not do in the reading room, I was given the first file - Kenneth's 1951 Letts Pocket Diary - and allocated a table. 

The 1951 diary is very small indeed, quite different to the big A4 blue backed diaries Kenneth would move on to use in later life. The writing is beautiful, usually in blue ink, however the text is so small in this first diary that I had a headache from reading them after a couple of hours! It was all very much worth it though. I had to pinch myself as I held the very book Kenneth himself had used over sixty years ago to share his innermost thoughts about the day he'd just experienced. It felt very special and gave me a unique impression of a comic actor I've loved all my adult life. Kenneth had the most beautiful handwriting and his day to day script is lovely to read. However, as a trained draftsman and a lover of all the bits and pieces that come with putting pen to paper, he was also prone to experiment with different pens and styles of handwriting, some easier to understand than others! The only other issue I had in reading diaries was on the odd occasion Kenneth had returned to the diary at the end of a drink-filled evening! His handwriting becomes much larger, often sloping and sometimes even smudged! But I think we can forgive him that!

1951 was an important year for Kenneth. He was still very much finding his way in the world. At the age of 25, he was still living at home with his Mum Louie and his father, Charlie. The Williams family lived at 57 Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, in the quarters above Charlie's barber's shop. Kenneth spent a lot of time socialising in his twenties and certainly seemed to engage with friends and acquaintances a great deal more than in his later years once fame had both given and taken away freedom. Close friends at the time included Rachel Roberts, Annette Kerr, John Hussey, Michael Harald, Susan Sylvester, Michael Hitchman and Peter Nichols. Although living in Scotland at the time, Kenneth was also still in regular contact with his old Combined Service Entertainments chum and lifelong friend Stanley Baxter.  

On the employment front, Kenneth was still signing up for various stints at Rep Companies all over England and was yet to become a star of the theatre or of film. There are periods of employment however the unemployed Kenneth Williams is frequently depressed, unhappy and toys with the possibility of giving up acting for another life somewhere else. '51 was a crucial year for Kenneth's career though as it was the first time he met a man who would carefully steer and support his career and elements of his life for the next twenty odd years: his agent Peter Eade. 

The diaries were always somewhere special and private for Kenneth, a place to share his innermost thoughts and feelings and to discuss the events of the day, much as you would with a partner. Even in these early years there are frequent references to "traditional" activity and of things, events, parties, people, being "gay". Whether that is gay in the sense of happy or fun, as the term was used during this period, or gay as in homosexual, well the jury is out. He also regularly describes people or performances as being "camp". And I think we all know what he means by that! 

I was interested to see just how much time he spent in the company of Welsh actress Rachel Roberts, herself a troubled soul, particularly later in life. Rachel was yet to become the famous actress we all remember today. She was a regular visitor to Marchmont Street for tea; the pair even attended the Equity Ball together, although Kenneth noted: "I like R. She's gay but the trouble is, we both talk at the same time." I can imagine that might infuriate Kenneth who always liked to hold court in a conversation! 

January also brought some rather fraught exchanges with Stanley Baxter, based in Scotland. They seemed to exchange letters regularly however the relationship was in rather a spiky phase as this entry on 8 January shows: "Terrible letter from Stanley. He imagines another personal affront. Replied advising him not to write again. More than I can stand I think." Later, on 11 January, Kenneth writes:  "No word from Stanley so it's obviously farewell to a dream which was gay while it lasted." I am not sure what the argument was about, or what exactly is meant by Kenneth's statement here, however all was resolved and the friendship continued on, as we know, for many more years.

Stanley reappeared in the August of 1951 when he visited London with his bride to be, Moira. The published diaries certainly give the impression that Kenneth did not have the same close relationship with Stanley's wife as he did with Gordon Jackson's wife, the actress Rona Anderson. They did socialise, particularly in the early years, but there is nowhere near the same level of affection towards Moira. They met up on 17 August: "Both just the same as ever. S being camper, if anything. They plan to marry in June. It's the most stupid sop to respectability and compromise to create a safe environment away from influences 'parent terrible'. He doesn't realise that in a matter of time a wife will be just as stifling - Trying to get the best of both worlds." The frosty atmosphere persisted when the threesome met again on 23 August: "Impossible to have conv. with Stanley with her (Moira) there." and "After tea at Swan and Edgar, he (Stanley) accused me of trying to 'break it up'!"

Many of Kenneth's diary entries must be taken with a pinch of salt. We all write things or say things in anger, the heat of the moment, as it were. I'm not sure how much of this tension is a result of Kenneth's jealousy that Stanley was settling down into married life and that, perhaps, Kenneth saw Moira as taking his place. Williams was prone to fits of pique and jealousy, particularly as a younger man. However the inter-relationship between Kenneth, Stanley and Moira is definitely a curious one. 

February saw the first appearance of Peter Eade, the man who would represent Kenneth until the spring of 1979. Peter would make regular appearances in the diaries over the years and the two men shared a very close friendship with Peter being fairly long suffering in dealing with Kenneth's moods and ways. Kenneth's first impressions of Eade were favourable: "Richard suggested I meet an agent - Peter Eade. Did so. He seems a delightful person." Eade, then a relatively new young agent would also go on to represent the likes of Ronnie Barker and Joan Sims, working in offices on Cork Street in Central London. 

The bond with Peter Eade developed quickly and Kenneth obviously trusted him completely within a very short space of time. By May, he was ringing Peter in the middle of the night when he was troubled with thoughts and feelings about his situation. He went to visit Peter the following day: "I told him about unsettled nature of my particular frustrations. EP (I believe this to be the actor Eric Portman, a friend of Eade's) was there. Traditional larks. Feel the complete 'naif' consequently nothing happens. Begin to feel that I am utterly without any kind of courage morally or physically." These thoughts and feelings would persist throughout Kenneth's adult life however it is interesting to see how much he relied on the calm, sympathetic Peter Eade, even at this early stage. 

One of the joys, for me, of Kenneth's diaries is his deliciously waspish humour. Unlike his later years, as he became more and more disenchanted with his fellow actors and the theatre, the fifties saw Kenneth attend many parties and see a great many films and plays. He gives very frank reviews of everything in the diary and pulls absolutely no punches! Take this entry from 18 March: "Terrible party at Bernadette Hunter's flat in Kensington! Awful people like Denis Shaw there. The end it was!" Very Kenneth I think you'll agree! Now Denis Shaw was a legendary actor and fixture in Soho at time, indeed he even made a brief cameo in Carry On Regardless with Victor Maddern and Kenneth Connor ten years later. I wondered if it was actually Bernard Hunter who was having the party - another well known actor at the time who went on to become a theatrical agent.

Kenneth's sister Pat also makes several appearances in the 1951 diary and this for me is another fascinating relationship. We know, in retrospect, that Pat was born illegitimately before Louie married Charlie Williams. She was three years older than Kenneth. This was never spoken about openly by Kenneth as far as I'm aware, although her arrival from Australia in March 1951 provokes a strong reaction from him: "I still feel lack of affinity here and sense of undercurrent embarrassment. Complete incompatibility. She's certainly bellicose and resentfully bitter." Later, on 2 April there was an intriguing and rather unpleasant argument at home. "Great row about legit. joke and awful truth comes out. Ridiculous to make such a thing about it. Just to be accepted. That's all." Interestingly, underneath this entry the names of those involved were added in pencil, obviously at a later date - (Pat Williams, Louie, Kenneth Charles).

Kenneth may have been only 25, but his wonderfully arch descriptive powers were in full flight even in '51. In May he was travelling to Guildford for preparations for work in rep when he recorded this entry about the standard of those on board: "Terrible people - the train to Guildford. Awful little men in striped trousers with fat, overstuffed briefcases as ugly as themselves. A Sleeping clergyman with several chins. THE END." Very Kenneth! 

At the end of the day, I emerged from the Library tired but satisfied and desperate for some fresh air. Not easily obtained at rush hour on the Euston Road. Before I headed for the tube I took a stroll down Judd Street, where Kenneth had lived for a couple of years in the early 1970s on to the address where all of the diary I had just read was written. I lingered for a moment under the blue plaque to Kenneth Williams on the wall of 57 Marchmont Street, remarkably unchanged since Kenneth last lived there in the mid-1950s. The shop below the living accommodation is still a hairdressers in 2018, although probably much too fancy for the likes of Charlie Williams. It was a wonderful, memorable day. My plan is to return to the Library several more times and blog my thoughts on the other years from the diaries available for me to read. It was an absolute pleasure to see them and get one step closer to the amazing man, the one and only Kenneth Williams. My grateful thanks to all at the British Library and to you for reading this blog.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on a great start Graeme. I foresee you spending many happy hours at the British Library.