Wednesday 24 January 2018

Carrying On at the British Library: My thoughts on Kenneth's 1952 Diary


Last week 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.

Joanna recently 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.

Today I am going to write about what I found in the 1952 diary so read on for more insights into one of this country's finest comic actors. I had a hairs standing up on the back of my neck moment almost as soon as I started to read the 1952 diary. Kenneth saw the new year in on the London Underground with a group of friend such as Rachel Roberts, returning from a party. It just so happens they celebrated the new year at my local tube station in North London which was an uncanny coincidence! 1952 was another important year for Kenneth. It would see him progress his career by appearing in his first new play and also his first proper television and film work, although often they turned out to be unhappy experiences.

Even at this early stage of his career, Kenneth was clearly exhibiting signs of becoming very bored, very quickly during rehearsals or long productions. He does suffer a lack of grace sometimes when describing the activities or behaviours of colleagues, even though these are generally campy, waspish and hilarious! One person he did enjoy being with was that diminutive little actress of countless Ealing comedies and other British films of the era, Edie Martin. They were both in a television production called A Wonderful Visit. "Edie Martin - that wonderful little actress is in it. She is a gorgeous person. Spoke to her. She sits quite alone at rehearsals. Somehow pathetic. Great little actress. Must talk to her a bit more."

A few weeks later Kenneth was bemoaning his advancing years and what he saw as a lack of achievements in his life. On 20th February he wrote: "I shall be 26 years old on Friday next. O dear - I feel awful about it. The terrible waste of the young years. I shall be old so soon." However there was work to be done. Kenneth was performing in a play and by the end of February he had been given a part in the film Trent's Last Case by Herbert Wilcox. This involved filming at Shepperton Studios at the beginning of March and he was reintroduced to a former colleague, the actor Sam Kydd. "Caught 8am to Shepperton from Waterloo. Am sharing a dressing room at the film studios with Sam Kydd with whom I got on so well on the TV show. This is really delightful." Later that day Kenneth even went to the cinema to see Sam's latest film: " To see Sam Kydd in 'Secret People' at Odeon. Sam was excellent - the rest were awful." High praise indeed from the ultra picky Mr Williams!


Later in March, Kenneth would also have his first professional dealings with a writer we all know, Norman Hudis. Norman of course went on to script the first six Carry On films before going on to further success on the other side of the Atlantic. In the early 1950s he was represented by Kenneth's agent Peter Eade, who had obviously been trying to encourage Kenneth to work with the young writer. On 17 March Kenneth wrote: "To Peter Eade to return the two plays of Norman Hudis. I told him he should send one to Guthrie - it's brilliant enough to interest G." Several months later Kenneth would cross paths with Norman again. On 18 June Kenneth travelled to Leatherhead with Peter Eade and the actor Eric Portman to see Norman's play 'Here is the End of the News'. And Kenneth's verdict? "Fine and interesting play. Not exactly served by a brilliant cast. A good piece of constructive writing. I think he (Hudis) will go places. I had a long chat with Norman afterwards about it. Sweet person." Little did Kenneth know at the time but within a few years he would regularly be speaking Norman's words on the big screen in several films for Peter Rogers Productions.

One of the thrills of the 1952 diary for me was turning to the page dated 24 March. Kenneth had been having some new photographs taken by Houston Rogers for his entry in Spotlight magazine and rather wonderfully, one of the photos was still pasted into the diary, with Kenneth's handwriting underneath giving his opinion on the finished product - "My new Spotlight photograph. Don't really like it but what the hell?" Further entries over the next days and weeks mention the photographer again so it would seem Kenneth had several sessions to get the pictures just right!

Kenneth was once again at his waspish best later in the year when he took to critiquing his fellow actors' performances. He went with Peter Eade to see the film I believe in You at the beginning of April. "It was quite good. Celia Johnson delightful. A boy called Harry Fowler as a delinquent was really rather phoney..." The next evening Kenneth went the Old Vic to see a production of King Lear and he was equally scathing: "Boy of 23 called (John) Colicos played title role as Stephen Murray is supposedly unwell after his awful 1st night notices. Lee Montague as Edmund was quite appalling." 

Kenneth's vivid ability to describe random happenings and events that occurred during his day was evident again after returning from an evening with Peter Nichols on 6 April. "Walked all the way home. My feet were murder at the finish. Several prostitutes accosted me on the way. Charming." Later, in a different pen he added: "One of them said 'My feet are bleedin' frozen' and I felt a wave of compassion sweep over my tired body." That compassion was still to the fore throughout the early 1950s as Kenneth, the young Socialist, looked for something better in life. Yet again he even contemplated giving up acting for a more reliable, decent career. 


Kenneth was back in the theatre by the end of April though, playing the part of Bastien in By Candlelight at Salisbury Rep. This job brought him into contact with the actor Denis Goacher, a familiar name for several years in the pages of the diaries. Once again Kenneth shows his changing attitudes to an individual, at first describing Goacher as "bitchy and someone to avoid", however within a matter of days his opinion was that Denis was "a dear man". Don't worry though, before the play was over, he was once more described as "dead weight!" That play also led to a rather surreal letter to the editor of a local newspaper in Salisbury which Kenneth carefully pasted into his diary on 30 April. The letter attacked the local theatre critic and his review of plays at the Arts Theatre. It was signed Mr Charles Williams of Salisbury. A curious coincidence that that was also Kenneth's father's name or an early outing for an Edna Welthorpe style Orton-esque character?!

September 1952 saw Kenneth once again tackling the medium of film, first of all with a trip to Elstree Studios. On 16th September he was filming scenes for the picture Innocents in Paris: "To Elstree to play 'Window Dresser' in Innocents in Paris. directed by Anatole e Grunewald. Dreary business. Masses of g. degenerates." Perhaps not the happiest of experiences. The finished film starred Alastair Sim, Claire Bloom and Margaret Rutherford, however sadly Kenneth's role went uncredited. Several days later he was back at Shepperton to play Jack the Pot Boy in the Beggar's Opera. 

The following month there was yet another example of Kenneth's generosity towards his parents. Still living with Louie and Charlie at 57 Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury and not yet earning a great deal of money, Kenneth still spent quite a bit of his money on Louie in particular, buying her a television set and doing odd jobs around the house. On the entry for 27 October is still neatly folded a receipt made out to a Mr Kenneth Williams for the purchase of a new carpet from The Eastern Carpet Stores. A lovely find and almost certainly a gift for his beloved Louie. 

Kenneth ended 1952 with a role in Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre. This was a job he seemed less than enthusiastic about. On 1 December he wrote: Peter Pan with Brenda Bruce and James Donald. And they've dug up Russell Thorndike for a pirate! Disgusting." Things continued to go down hill and by 18 December Kenneth exclaimed: "Wish I'd never seen Peter Pan. Hate it bitterly!"

The last entry of '52 ends with Kenneth summing up the year in typical Williams fashion, commenting that he'd done his first television and film parts and that "I suppose I have been reasonably happy. Certainly happier than other years."

I hope to get back to the British Library very soon to take a look at some of those other years Kenneth mentions there. I have four more years up to 1956 to view at present so stay tuned for more blogs on Kenneth's wonderful diaries coming up in the near future. 

And in the meantime, if you haven't yet read my blog on Kenneth's 1951 diary, you can do so here: Carry On Blogging: My Thoughts on Kenneth's 1951 Diary  

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