Kenneth Williams, 1926 -1988
Perhaps best remembered for his roles in the popular Carry On Films, Kenneth Williams had a long and varied career that spanned forty years.
Though Williams was fondly regarded in the entertainment industry, he suffered from depression and found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality.
It is his depression that many believe lead to his death in 1988 from an overdose.
Throughout his life he kept a series of diaries that gave him posthumous acclaim.
Kenneth Williams was born in Bingfield Street, Kings Cross , London. He was the only child of Louisa (“Lou” or “Louie”) Morgan (1901–1991) and Charles Williams (1899–1962), a van driver and/or barber — there are differing accounts.
A strict Methodist, it was his Father who insisted that his son learn a trade. Williams did not get on with his Father.
Education and Early Career
Williams was educated at state-owned Central School on the corner of Camden Street and Plender Street,near Mornington Crescent in Camden Town in north west London.
He did learn a trade becoming apprentice draughtsman to a mapmaker. However his apprenticeship was interrupted by the Blitz and Williams found himself evacuated to Bicester.
During his time in Bicester he stayed at the home of a bachelor veterinary surgeon. It provided his first experience of an educated, middle-class life, and he loved it. He returned to London with a new accent.
In The Military
In 1944, aged 18, a young Kenneth Williams was called up to the Army. He became a sapper in the Royal Engineers Survey Section, doing much the same work as he’d done as a civilian.
When the war ended Williams found himself in Singapore. Here he opted to transfer to the Combined Services Entertainment Unit, which put on revue shows. Whilst serving with the unit he met Stanley Baxter, Peter Nichols and John Schlesinger.
Kenneth Williams lived alone all his adult life in a succession of small rented flats in central London from the mid-1950s.
After his Father died, his mother Louisa lived near him, and then in the flat next to his. His last home was a flat on Osnaburgh Street, which has now been demolished.
During his life he had few close companions, apart from his Mother, and no significant romantic relationships.
He befriended gay playwright Joe Orton, who wrote the role of Inspector Truscott in the 1966 play Loot for him, and had holidays with Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell in Morocco.
Other close friends included Stanley Baxter, Gorden Jackson and his wife Rona Anderson, Sheila Hancock and Maggie Smith. Williams was also friendly with fellow Carry On regulars: Barbera Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims.
He died on 15th April 1988 in his flat; his last words (recorded in his diary) were “Oh, what’s the bloody point?
The cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates. An inquest recorded anopen verdict as it was not possible to establish whether his death was a suicide or an accident.
His diaries reveal that he had often had suicidal thoughts and some of his earliest diaries record periodic feelings that there was no point in living. His authorised biography argues that Williams did not take his own life but died of an accidental overdose.
Kenneth Williams had a career spanning some forty years. From Radio to Carry On, Children’s television, stage even advertisements.
Williams worked regularly in British film during the late 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, mainly in the Carry On series (1958–78).
He began his professional career in 1948 in repertory theatre with the aim of becoming a dramatic actor. His failure to make it as a dramatic actor disappointed him but his comic potential would soon send him down a very successful career path.
In 1954 whilst acting in Bernard Shaw’s St Joan in the West End, radio producer Dennis Main Wilson spotted him. Wilson was casting for Hancock’s Half Hour and hired Kenneth Williams. Staying with Hancock’s Half Hour almost to the end he would provide a variety of voices including the much loved ‘Snide’ character.
Five years later When Tony Hancock decided to steer his show away from what he considered gimmicks and silly voices, Williams found he had less to do. Tiring of this reduced status, he joined Kenneth Horne in Beyond Our Ken (1958 – 1964) and again in another legendary radio series: Round The Horne (1965 – 1968).
Kenneth Williams joined the Carry On cast for the first instalment in 1958 and stayed with the series until the end in 1978, appearing in 25 films, more than any other actor.
Whilst there was no doubting Kenneth Williams talent as a comic performer his voice lent itself to a variety of other projects. In 1983 he hosted his own An Audience With Kenneth Williams. He stood in for Terry Wogan on his Wogan chat show.
He appeared in no less than 69 episodes of Jackanory. he also voiced Children’s TV character Willo The Wisp.
Then of course there were the ads
Thirty years after his death Kenneth Williams still remains one of the best comic actors of his generation. We’ll lose this post with another classic Snide moment.