British Library buys Kenneth Williams diaries

Library pays £220,000 for actor’s journals, which show waspish wit and barbs directed at Carry On peers and Doctor Zhivago

It may be considered one of the greatest movies of all time but for Kenneth Williams, Doctor Zhivago was dull beyond belief. “Everyone has LONG PROFOUND looks at each other – they frequently cry on meeting, or seeing people shot or something … no film should be boring, and this one is.”

Williams’s low opinion of the critically acclaimed film and its director, “David (dreary) Lean”, are revealed for the first time in his diaries, which have been acquired and made public by the British Library. “This may be the Great Russian Novel,” he continued, “but it’s a pain in the arse as a film.”

The library has announced the acquisition, for £220,000, of Williams’s personal diaries and letters spanning his life and career from the age of 18 to his death in 1988, aged 62. Around 85% of the archive – 43 diaries and 2,000 letters – is unpublished material never previously available to researchers.

Kathryn Johnson, the library’s curator of theatrical archives and manuscripts, said people might be surprised by what they read. “If anyone was looking for smut, they would be disappointed,” she said. “He is a chronicler.” He could be acerbic and unpleasant, she said, and there were a few lines of theatrical bitchiness, but he was often kind, reflective and poignant. “He could be deeply uncharitable about his fellow professionals but then a week later he’s forgotten about it,” said Johnson.

A case in point is a diary excerpt from 1969 when he fell out with Joan Sims on the set of Carry On Camping. “Her patronage & assumption at times that she should tell me what to do, is intolerable. I shouted ‘You cow cunted mare’ and Hattie [Jacques] intervened and told me to stop it.” He went on to say he loathed “her standards & her mouldy respectability” and liked nothing about her. A week later Williams was recording a radio comedy with Sims who was “v buoyant and performed quite brilliantly in the show – her characterisations and singing are quite superb. There’s no doubt she’s an asset all right.”

The archive will be of interest to social historians as well as cultural historians, the library believes. Williams was an obviously gay man before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, although he never formed any lasting relationship. “Every now and then he talks about his sexuality and he was chaste,” said Johnson. When he wrote about young men he met on holiday in Tangier it would be no more than a kiss and a cuddle. He didn’t loathe himself because he was gay, he loathed how he could not make a commitment, Johnson added.

The diaries also reveal his wide circle of friends, from playwright Joe Orton and his boyfriend, Kenneth Halliwell, to the actor Gordon Jackson and his wife, Rona. The Jacksons were especially good friends and, according to his diaries, Williams would enjoy dinner with the couple, with whom he would watch “rubbish” on TV because he refused to have one in his flat.

The archive was acquired from Paul Richardson, a friend and neighbour to whom Williams left his estate. Richardson said Williams was a great admirer of and regular visitor to the British Library and would be pleased and honoured by where the diaries were now housed. At one stage Pinewood Studios was interested in buying them, a move Richardson blocked. “He hated the Carry On films, he loathed them, he said the scripts were “crap … crap! I thought he’d be looking down on me thinking, what are you doing?” he explained.

Williams often used his diaries as a half-serious threat to his friends, – “you’ll be in my diary” was a favourite saying if someone had annoyed him – and the library will have to black out some references he makes about people still living. But the vast majority of the material will become available to researchers from March 2016. Johnson said her overriding feeling reading them had been, “Oh Ken, get a sense of proportion,” as Williams sees the end of the world in the most trivial of situations. Famously, on the last entry before his death, Williams wrote: “Oh, what’s the bloody point?”

The famous final words have fuelled speculation that he took his own life, but Johnson remained unconvinced. “He says that so many times,” she said. “He would sink into despair. But it generally doesn’t last long.”

Throughout the diaries are Williams’s very direct, snap opinions about people, films and plays – and he is often wrong. For example in August 1950 Williams was understudying for Richard Burton in The Seagull: “Dreary day spent watching the lousiest production of ‘Seagull’ in rehearsal. It was monumentally boring. Can’t see it EVER being a success … Performance in evening bad. Lousy house.” The run was a huge success.

Caroline Dawnay, the literary agent who negotiated the sale, predicted people would look back and see Williams as a great diarist, rather than a famous actor or raconteur. In one memorable entry, Williams recounts returning from a visit to his accountant in 1984: “Walked home via Aldwych. Reflected that nothing really changes. I’m still walking about this city dragging my loneliness with me, putting on a front, whistling in the dark. It is getting darker all the time.

“Went to Tesco’s and got fish and ham and tomatoes and had that at 5.30. Tried doing a bit more writing but my heart, it isn’t in it. Think I’ll have to leave it for a bit. Feel more like weeping.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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