Kenneth Williams: Interview 1 | Interview 2

Kenneth Williams says "Carry On Shocking!"

Unknown, 1978

How did you come to meet producer Peter Rogers and perform in the very first of the thirty Carry On films?

Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas came to see a successful revue I was in at the time called "Share My Lettuce". They were casting Carry On Sergeant without any idea that it was going to be the first of a record-breaking series. They thought I would be ideal for the toffee-nosed recruit, the kind that keeps saying things like "I don't really want to wear this kind of uniform" to the officers.

What has been your favourite role in the series?

The judge in Carry On Cowboy. I based it on an interview I had with American producer Hal Roach who came over here hoping to recruit a team that would be America's answer to Carry On. He's a most interesting Hollywood personality who originally teamed with Harold Lloyd and also made some great Laurel and Hardy comedies. so he obviously lot about slapstick comedy. He was desperately anxious to form a nucleus of a team here, and when he interviewed me with this in mind, his voice and character absolutely imbued me. I went out talking exactly like him, and I used the character for this mad old western judge.

Another of my favourite roles has been the latest - Emile Prevert, a foreign diplomat at the Court of St. James whose sexy, naughty wife threatens to topple the Government. The film is Carry On Emmannuelle.

How many Carry Ons have you made so far?

Emmannuelle is my 26th. Carry Ons are excellent examples of the type of humour I appreciate. They are full of vulgarity but innocent. Throughout history, social commentators have been vicious, gossipy people and yet they have given us an accurate picture of their times. If their diaries had been written by "pleasant" personalities. they would have been totally dull. Surely it's more fun to be outraged than bored. They say I'm demonic in humour in the sense that I think people need somebody to wake up their mental processes.

People need to be peppered or even outraged occasionally. Our national comedy and drama is packed with earthy familiarity and honest vulgarity. Clean vulgarity can be very shocking, and that, in my view, gives a greater involvement.

The Carry Ons are vulgar but innocent. Adults in the audience can see themselves or someone they know reflected in a slightly ridiculous way. So, I say, let's carryon shocking.

Would you like to play straight roles in films in contrast to the Carry On parts?

People often ask me "what kind of part do you like to play?" I've no interest in that sort of thing. There's no part in mind that represents the ultimate in stretching one's capability. Obviously when you're young you think of "Hamlet" because it seems to ask all the questions that have ever been asked about life. Certainly I went through that phase. But in the thirty years I've been asking I've learned that my forte is comedy. And I think that what you can do reasonably well is _hat you should stick to in the main.

But would you be interested if someone offered you something totally different?

Yes, but I'd like it to represent both sides of the coin. It's important to remember that, as far as drama is concerned, there is one coin. On the one side you've got a laughing face, and on the other a doleful face, but they are the same coin and as long as we have that quality in a performance, then I think an audience is going to get their money's worth. They're not if you only present one side, like the heavy drama side - unrelieved tragedy, frustration and so on.

Has anyone had a decisive influence on your career?

There's one man who influenced my approach to comedy from the beginning, but he's not a man many people know much about. He was John Vere who played the bishop in "Hancock's Half Hour". His mainspring for getting laughs was a built-in sense of indignation. That quality is also inherent in some of Edith Evaps's best work. I quickly got on to this in comedy. In Carry On Sergeant there was a fundamental indignation about being subjected to almost everything in the army.

If you hadn't been an actor, what other profession would you have enjoyed?

Originally I was a draughtsman, simply because my school reports said "his only aptitude is for drawing." But being in the army and meeting the people I did meet gave me the courage to throw it all overboard and risk unemployment to do the kind of work I loved. But if I had to choose now what profession I would go into, I would certainly plump for teaching because I like children and get on well with them. I would teach literature and drama for then I would be able to enjoy the great poetry in the corpus of English literature. To get into that field in England you need an enormous number of qualifications - except of course through the medium of children's television, which I already do to a great extent, like "Jackanory".

Were you interested in making entertainment your career before the war?

Not really. I was interested in dramatics at school but not compulsively. The compulsion came because I met people like Stanley Baxter in the Army Entertainment Unit and got enchanted by the idea of being surrounded by such people. What a wonderful thing, I thought, to make your career alongside them so that vou were constantly neeting these delightful minds, cerebrally they are terribly nteresting people - actors, I'm alking about the thinking actor, 10t the run-of-the-mill actor. The Jeople in our unit included Baxter, Peter Nichols (once a Jerformer, now a playwright), John Schlesinger (once an actor, lOW a director) and Peter Vaughan who married Billie Whitelaw.

Did you have a favourite role in the theatre?

The part of Julian in Peter Shaffer's double bill "The Public Eye". This was filmed as Follow We with Mia Farrow in the lead, Jnd the part of Julian, the detective, was played by Topol. On stage I found it a wonderful role because in only one act I was' given a chance to encapsulate at !east half a dozen really important human emotions.

Do you think writers for the theatre are inferior 10 what they were thirty years ago?

Totally. The kind of writers we had - even for our revues just after the war - included N. F. Simpson, Harold Pinter, Lionel Bart, Sandy Wilson, Peter Cook. And all of them were contributors. It was very much a pot pourri of minds, and all of them were working purely for the theatre. That same quality of authorship is now being directed into films or television. Christopher Fry, for example, after becoming a leading light in the theatre, did screenplay after screenplay. Robert Bolt, after writing wonderful plays, has gone largely over to films. The same with Peter Shaffer. Peter Nichols, who has been so prolific in the theatre, will tell you, "It's much more rewarding and profitable to write for television because if you do get a commission you know that you are going to get some money, whereas with an out-of town tour that might never come in, you are taking a terrible gamble, sometimes with months of work."

Is that one of the reasons you do less theatre now?

I do less theatre now because I find you are a prisoner for six nights a week and two matinees. The latter are always death except that the matinees I did with Ingrid Bergman in "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" were every bit as exciting as an opening night because she packs them out. But normally, when I do the eight performances a week, I find it very hard to make it fresh and immediate each time. The other thing I don't like about the theatre is you are working with the same group of people night after night, and there's bound to be a limit to the amount of experimentation and adaptation you can do. Now that doesn't occur in television or films. You are given a whole new set of challenges each day.

Even the Carry Ons with the regular players?

Yes, You might not have seen them for a few months, so it has all the excitement of a new experience and a family reunion at the same time. I also like the economic independence engendered by belonging to the Carry On team. You don't have to accept some play you thought was going to be very hard work and not very rewarding simply because you need the money. I shall always be grateful to Peter Rogers for letting me conduct my career without being rushed into anything. That's why I get angry when I hear people say that the Carry On cast should have some share in the vast profits from the films. I say, "Why the hell should they?" The man who makes the initial investment in a film and takes that kind of risk deserves everything he makes. You still get paid if it makes nothing. It is also an excellent thing for an actor who works in radio and television to be constantly in circulation in a series like the Carry Ons. A lot of people call Peter Rogers dictatorial, but then he is certainly a most benign dictator - fatherly, one would say. And he looks after his group of regulars extremely well, especially when they are in any state of stress of trouble.

Have you any hobbies?

Collecting gramophone records and reference books. I also do a lot of doodling which is fundamentally calligraphic, because I like the formation of letters. I used to prepare a parchment and do rather lovely souvenir documents, but I don't get around to that much nowadays.

Do you like cooking?

No. I only cook for survival, and find it quite difficult even to boil an egg. My omelettes turn out like something you sole your shoes with.

Are you superstitious?

As a Christian I can't be. If vou believe in God. vou can't believe you can't walk under ladders.

What are your pet aversions.?

Footsteps in the street behind me, either by night or day. I turn off into a side turning or look in a window until they've gone.

What is your favourite kind of music?

I don't much care for modern music. Mv favourites would be Brahms. Schumann, Schubert, Bach, Mozart. I also enjoy some opera, such as "Tosca", "Aida", "Carmen" and "La Boheme".

What is your favourite kind of art?

Pictures that illuminate. Some do unquestionably give you a different angle on something that previously you saw in a totally different way. I often go to the National Gallery just to look at one canvas. I never go to a gallery to look at everything, I think that's a daft idea. The only gallery in the British Museum I like is the Assyrian because it's got the head of Hadrian in porphyry. Of course. I do appreciate the greats like a Rembrandt. Titian or Michaelangelo, or something like the statue of David in Florence.

Do you collect paintings yourself?

No. I live in a very bare flat with two rooms, kitchen and bathroom. I've got two chairs and a gramophone, a desk and a bed. All other available space is taken up by books. There are a lot of books for the size of that flat. If! had a house to live in. every single room would be crammed with books.

Would you like a bigger house.?

If I continue to live in London, I wouldn't want to be in anything but my flat. Being a Puritan! think it would be wicked for somebody who lives alone to have more than two rooms and a kitchen and bathroom. The two rooms I've got are tiny - about 14 by 10. I've got this thing about waoste, and I think it would be wasting space for me in London to occupy anything larger.

Would you rather live abroad:'

No, never. If ever I had to move away from London, I would look for a little detached cottage with room to shove all the things! really want to have around me. The only problem is: will the time come when the body mechanism is so slowed that vou are no longer able to appreciate any of the things you would like to do?