Do you know, I think I may have stumbled across the secret of happiness. And as is so often the case, the thing I have been looking for was under my nose the whole time.
Kenny We all know what should have made Kenneth Williams happy. He was brilliantly funny, the greatest raconteur of his age, bar none; he had a career that was the envy of his contemporaries in the entertainment world; he was loved by millions. And still is: I can bear witness to this myself. In promoting my show at the Edinburgh Festival I have, like all Fringe performers, spent long hours trudging the streets of Edinburgh, forcing flyers into the reluctant hands of passers-by. Normally, this is an activity requiring the perseverance and resilience of a Scottish Tory: how many rebuffs and expressions of outright contempt can one take before one admits defeat and retires to a life of blameless anonymity? But I have a secret weapon: I take Kenneth Williams with me. As soon as I bray the words 'Oh it will be a triumph my dears! Oh yes, they'll be flocking, they will be flocking!' the look of disdain is gone in a flash. Their faces light up and they say 'Oh we loved him. Give us a few more and we'll hand them round.' This has even happened in deepest, darkest Leith, in pubs where no Englishman has ever set foot.
Yet this love brought Williams little joy in his own lifetime. In fact, it was torture to him. Time and again in his published diaries, he refers to 'the nudges and leers of cretins.' 'They don't like their actors, they want to eat them alive.' He regarded theatre audiences who wept with laughter at his performances as 'sycophants'. And after his blisteringly funny outbursts on Just a Minute, when with his voice rising to a quavering nasal crescendo, he would berate his teammates and Chairman for failing to recognize his genius, he would go home and submerge himself in shame and despair, the sound of the audience's laughter still ringing in his ears.
In the end, fatigued and in terrible pain from his chronic bowel disorder, he killed himself. The Coroner recorded an Open Verdict; had he read the Diaries, there's no doubt it would have been Suicide. The portents are there from the earliest entries (June 1947: 'Realize now, I'm a suicidalist'), and throughout his life, suicide remained both a threat ('That'll show 'em!') and a source of comfort.
To his nation of admirers, these revelations are unsettling. They show that we, all of us who loved him, are implicated in his tragedy. Imagine yourself, as I have, walking down a street in London, on a summer's day in, say, the mid-1980s. A familiar figure approaches: the hair neatly combed, an expression of haughty composure settled on the extravagantly nostrilled face; the shoulders narrow, the steps short, fast and light; and despite the heat of the dat, the tie firmly knitted under a crisply buttoned Tweed jacket. 'Can it be? Surely not! It IS! I must say something...' You heart is in your throat as he draws alongside you, a flicker of suspicion in the corner of his eyes. 'Mr Williams,' you begin; and words stumble falteringly from your lips. 'Always been a fan...loved your voices...funniest thing I ever heard.' Then, as you gently reach out to offer your hand, he flinches: 'Bugger off, you great nit! If you want an autograph write to me care of the BBC.' With that, he turns on his heels and trots away, with a slight turn of his head to make sure you aren't trying to follow him.
This imagined scene acts as a salve to my conscience when I feel that pang of guilt common to anyone who has lost someone to suicide. 'If only I had told them I loved the. If only I had taken them in my arms and said 'We love you for who you are, and none of the other stuff matters', perhaps they would still be alive today.'
I do regret that I never told Kenneth Williams that I loved him' I never wrote to him, as so many others did (one of the first people I handed my newly-printed flyers to was a woman who exclaimed 'My son wrote to him when he was eight years old! Told him he loved his voices on Willo the Wisp. He still has the letter he got in reply framed on his bedroom wall.' Later she showed me this sacred object and I felt deep regret that I do not have one of my own). What's more, I had every reason to do so.
When I was thirteen, in 1975, the BBC ran their annual Jackanory Story Writing Competition. In the Kenneth Williams Letters (Harper Collins) is a letter dated 21st October 1975: 'I have been busy reading over a hundred and fifty essays by children...there is a depressing sameness in their themes. There is always some castle and a wicked knight, or a dragon, a prince, or a lonely princess.'
I take some pride in the fact that amongst these stories must have been mine, and that it obviously stood out from the rest. Titled The Rag and Bone Man, it was a satirical tale, heavily influenced by Spike Milligan, of whom I was and still am an ardent fan, about the curator of an ailing provincial museum, who purchases an Egyptian mummy from the titular peddlar for fifty pence, thereby reviving the fortunes of his museum. The mummy (who for some reason speaks with a German accent) tires of being a stared at and leaves his master to 'become a sailor'. 'But mummy,' cries the curator 'You can't leave me - I don't want to be an orphan!' On Wednesday 10th December 1975, my story was given the star spot on the programme; it was read by Kenneth Williams himself.
It should have been the proudest moment of my life. Now that he is dead and gone, it is; and I bitterly regret that the footage was long-ago erased by the BBC. And yet...would you believe that, at the time, I was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing? For a number of reasons, I felt deflated. For a start I felt that he had read my story all wrong: I didn't want those voices for my characters. I heard Milligan reading it, in my head (or at a pinch Harry Secombe). I felt Williams pointed up the jokes too obviously and made them sound contrived.
But there was something more fundamental, about Williams himself, that caused me to cringe. To all schoolboys, a solitary nature is synonymous with homosexuality. As anyone who was a loner or anything other than 'one of the lads' at school will know, worse than sticks and stones were the cries of 'Bumboy!', 'Homo!' and 'Poof!'. In my case they were absolutely spot-on. But at the age of thirteen, I was scarcely able to admit this to myself, let alone to the world, and checked my behaviour for the merest hint of ignominious effeminacy.
Yet here on national television, watched by all my schoolmates (for a humiliating announcement was made at that morning' assembly) was the most outrageously camp entertainer in Britain reading my story. With deep trepidation did I return to school the next day, and my schoolmates did not fail me. Kenneth Williamses, of both sexes, crying 'Ooh Duckie!' and flapping their limp-wristed hands in my face. I began to regret that I had ever written the damn story and I cursed the name of Kenneth Williams.
By the age of nineteen, I had come to terms with my sexuality sufficiently to be able to make it know; timidly at first, later blatantly enough to frighten the horses. I learned that so long as people liked you, and you did not gone into detail about your sex life, then no-one cared a jot about your proclivities. By 1986 I had moved to Scotland in order 'to find myself' and even became what might be called a 'professional homosexual', working at West and Wild Bookshop, Edinburgh's only gay bookshop. During this time, I saw little of Kenneth Williams.
An Audicence with Kenneth Williams Willo the Wisp passed me by completely: I never watched a single episode. I never thought of writing to him, even then. I thought he would always be there, popping up on chat shows the way he always had. Then, in April 1988, came news of his death. The papers were full of it: he had been terrified of a forthcoming operation; he had lead a strange an solitary private life; he had kept his life (and details of his bowel movements) assiduously documented in his diaries. Later came the tributes; clips from chat shows, the odd Carry On, a repeat of his supreme performance, the 1983 An Audience with Kenneth Williams. Too late, I began to miss him.
Suddenly, I made a discovery that changed everything: I could do the voice. Even at school I had won some respect from my contemporaries for my gift of mimicry. But it wasn't until after his death that I tried to imitate Kenneth Williams. And like a child discovering masturbation, once I found out how it was done, I wanted to do it all the time. Recently a friend who knew me back then told me of an evening spent drinking single malts in The Barony Bar: as I became increasingly drunk so I seemed to take on the persona of Kenneth Williams, braying, whining and frenziedly rolling my r's. I was shocked to hear this story: not only had I no recollection of it, but it sounded uncannily like any number of incidents from Williams' own life.
Now, in the summer of 1996, as a fully fledged professional actor with my own one-man show, I am merely doing on stage what I have been doing in private for years. I am not presenting a biography of Kenneth Williams, or even trying to tell the audience something they do not know. What I am trying to do is to summon up the spirit of this extraordinary man, so that he lives and breathes before them. I want every detail of my portrait to be exact and true. Not because I want to be Kenneth Williams: it's just an act of love on my part. I want the audience to join me in celebrating him, ulcers and all, as he was and thereby to do the one thing he was unable to do for himself: to redeem him. His favourite quote, by the Victorian novelist Mrs Craik speaks of '...pouring it all out, chaff and grain together: knowing that a faithful hand will take the thoughts and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away'. Quite. Think No Evil of Us
And the secret of happiness, that so successfully eluded our Ken? Just this: Love yourself. Then open up your cupboard of unfulfilled dreams, cast off your self-doubt with the contempt it deserves, and make your dreams come true. After all, you've only got one life.