Born in London in 1926, Kenneth Williams was the son of Louisa (“Louie”) Morgan and Charles Williams, a barber and strict Methodist. He had an older half-sister, an illegitimate child of his mother’s born before she met his father. Although interested in acting from an early age, his father absolutely forbade it and refused to encourage him. After school, Williams apprenticed as a draughtsman for a mapmaker instead of pursuing his dream.
In 1944, aged eighteen, Williams was drafted in the army, where he became a Sapper in the Engineers Survey, putting his artistic mapmaking skills to good use. At the end of the war he was stationed in Singapore, and opted to enlist in the Combined Service Entertainment Unit to see out his service putting on revue shows to entertain the troops.
At the end of his army career, Williams returned to London and pursued acting, and started working in theatres in 1948. He wanted to become a serious dramatic actor, but it was his talent for comedy which made him famous. In 1954 a producer cast him in a radio sketch show, Hancock’s Half Hour, for which he worked for five years, providing a range of camp and silly voices which made him a firm favourite and a household name.
In 1958 Williams joined the cast of Beyond Our Ken, and in 1965 moved to its sequel, Round the Horne, the show in which he showcased his knowledge of Polari, the argot of the queer subculture. Throughout his radio career, Williams also acted in a succession of West End productions, and for twenty years from 1958 he was involved in his most famous project, the Carry On films. It was Carry On that ultimately secured Williams’ legacy, although he was paid very little for the films (in his diaries, he complained he’d made more from a single St Ivel ad than from any Carry On film), and his private opinion of them was scathing.
From the early 1970s until his death, Williams was a regular TV show panelist and chat show guest.
As is so often the case of actors who work in comedy, Williams’ private life was not happy. In October 1962, his father died as a result of poisoning after drinking carbon tetrachloride that had been stored in a cough-mixture bottle. It took him over a day to die, but Williams refused to visit him, despite being nearby. He passed away while Williams was out to lunch, and an hour after receiving the news Williams went on stage in the West End.
Some years later, Williams turned down an opportunity to work in America, claiming publicly it was because he disliked the country. His diary, however, records that he was denied a US visa because Scotland Yard had suspected him of being involved in his father’s death.
Williams was a dedicated diarist from the age of fourteen, and 43 volumes were found in his flat after his death, detailing his life from the age of sixteen onward, with the exception of the period 1943-6, when he was with the army. Subsequent examination of the diaries produced some surprises — not least the vast array of different handwritings Williams used. As a trained engraver and devotee to calligraphy he could produce a variety of different styles, all exquisite, and all, even according to an expert from the British Museum, apparently written by different hands.
Williams also colour-coded his entries, writing in different inks for different subjects and moods (red was for discussing his health; blue for dramatic news, and so on). As the tone and personality of his writing changed with the font and colour, the diaries suggest the tantalising possibility Williams was literally channelling different personalities as he wrote, that his psyche had been as disjointed as the characters in the sketch shows which made his name.
One of the other things the diaries revealed was that Williams, true to his word, had been celibate for most of his life. Some early encounters with other men were recorded — he referred to sex as “traditional matters” or “tradiola” — but from his early 40s on he didn’t appear to have any relationships or sexual contact. His friends tried on a number of occasions to set him up with men they thought he would like, but he reacted angrily and rebuffed them all.
Living with someone always means a denial of self in SOME way and I suppose I have always known it was something I couldn’t accomplish. So I’ve always stayed on the sidelines. Getting the pleasure vicariously. It’s not wholly satisfactory, but then of course no lives are, and you know what I think about indiscriminate sex and promiscuous trade. I think it’s the beginning of a long, long road to despair.
— Kenneth Williams, writing to a friend
Williams died in April 1988, from an overdose of barbiturates. The coroner recorded an open verdict, as there wasn’t enough evidence to determine if the overdose had been accidental or deliberate. Williams’ diaries revealed he was prone to depression and often had suicidal thoughts. His last entry, written the night before his body was found, is telling. It ended simply, “Oh, what’s the bloody point?”