Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

November 22, 2008

Book review - Kenneth Williams Unseen

For the many Kenneth fans, a new book has been a long time coming. Since his death in 1988, there has been just one biography, but since then the release of collections of his dairies and letters have made that book seem most inadequate. It's more than decade now since the release of new material on Kenneth, so this book has been eagerly awaited.

"Kenneth Williams Unseen - the private notes, scripts and photographs" is written by Wess Butters and Russell Davies. Wes is a broadcaster and clearly a big fan. Russell edited the diary and letter collections and also a broadcaster. And no, he's not the one who writes Doctor Who.

The book describes itself as a scrapbook and it is a bit like that. Photos, notes, scripts, chunks of verbatim transcripts of interviews conducted at different times stand alongside the text. That's not to say the publication is anything but thoroughly handsome. This is a beautiful book, stunningly well presented and illustrated. There are lots of photos and if Kenneth was not a handsome man exactly, he was at least someone who it seems it was impossible to take an uninteresting photo of. He has a different expression in every picture.

The book begins with possibly the most interesting question about Kenneth - did he kill himself? The chapter also covers the question that has been mentioned in the papers and on this blog - was he in some way connected to his father's death? Charlie Williams died after taking poison. He and Kenneth did not get on.

For something that was the headline in the papers, there are only a few lines devoted to the possibility that Kenneth poisoned his father. The authors suggest that at one point the detectives investigating considered whether Kenneth might at least have put the poison "in harm's way" by switching bottles around. But the book says nothing came of that line of enquiry. I think we can put the "Kenneth poisoned his dad" line down to mere speculation.

As to his own death, the diaries have been taken by many, including me, as evidence that Kenneth did plan to take his life and eventually when the pain got too much, carried out his plan. The chapter has a good chunk of close friends - including JAM co-stars Derek Nimmo and Sir Clement Freud - doubting that scenario. Their line of argument is essentially "I knew Kenneth well", that he wouldn't have left his mother in the lurch and that he had an engagement the very next day and he wasn't the sort to let someone down.

The last argument seems very dubious - if you have reached the point of being suicidal, the fact you are booked for a TV ad seems unlikely to boost your spirits sufficiently. But still, one accepts that for many close friends, the suicide was out of character.

But the book contains new evidence in an interview with the man that carried out the autopsy on Kenneth. The doctor makes two major points - that the pills Kenneth took were of such variety and number that it is hard to imagine anyone taking them by accident. Secondly that the gastric ulcer he was suffering from would have been "extremely painful". The book leaves you to draw your own conclusions but to me, the question has been answered.

On the other issue around him, his sexuality and the inability to find love, the book has less that is new.

But there is a large section on Just A Minute. There are a number of quotes from Derek Nimmo which are fascinating. There is some of his early correspondence with the BBC producer David Hatch, who may be regarded as the father of Just A Minute, and arguably the man who did most to make the show a success. JAM fans will want to read this part, which includes some stats taken from this website. The authors make the point that in the last part of his life JAM was the one continuing job he had and was therefore very important to him. They also make the point that Kenneth's influence on the programme can still be seen today, 20 years after his death.

This book makes you hunger for a new biography on Kenneth, pulling all the strands together. It will have to be written soon as sadly Kenneth's friends and family are becoming fewer in number. Davies may be the man to write it. A final verdict on the suicide issue would be welcome, but also there are so many questions about his professional career that could do with examination. Why and how did a man who started out as such a talented actor become something of a caricature, for example?

Butters' enthusiasm for the subject also shines through in the book. There is a delightful segment at the end where Butters describes breaking into Kenneth's old flat, now sadly under the demolition hammer. A few bits of furniture, presumably not Kenneth's, are still there and in the bathroom is the famous toilet which Kenneth protected for 16 years - now sadly in a million pieces.

This is a very good book. As I read it, I watched Kenneth's "Audience With" DVD and marvelled again at the man's brilliance. the book suggests it brings Kenneth back to life, but you do miss that voice.

If Kenneth was still alive he would doubtless be something of a national icon. He'd probably still be doing chat shows, though these days with the likes of Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross. And he'd still be on JAM, bawling at Paul Merton for buzzing him, cuddling up to Clement and Gyles, and dismissing Nicholas as a "great fool". This book revives his memory even if it does leave us wanting more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

9:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This can be an excellent book!I must read it!It's a pity I can't buy it at my country so it'll be expencieve including shipping prize. But I need everything about him!

I don't agree with one sentence below. He WAS a really handsome man!I haven't seen such a beautiful face before! And his mind & soul also wonderful!It's not prepossession. He is the same as me in most things in life. Sometimes in little things also...I will read this book for sure!

4:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

kenneth williams was a handsome man. brilliantly precise never given to dumbing down and a twinkle

1:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in his eye. he was so good at the theatrical that i think that many people neglected to give him

1:41 am  

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