Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

February 21, 2011

Born Brilliant

A review of the latest biography of the great man, Kenneth Williams, Born Brilliant.

This book describes itself on the cover as "the authorised biography" which is always slightly off-putting. It sounds like it's a censored version. And to some degree the author's preface encourages this view of the book too. In the preface Christopher Stevens emphasises that Williams's friends don't like much of what has been written about him, or said on documentaries and films, that too much emphasis has been given to the sad, angry side of Williams.

So I rather expected a whitewashing of Williams's life. The first bit I read was his account of Williams's death. He tries to make the case that the death may have been accidental rather than a suicide. To me, it is not thoroughly convincing, though it's fair enough to acknowledge that we will never really know whether Williams intended to die that night.

But then I read the rest of the book and I have to say this is the best biography of Kenneth Williams I have read. It in no way glosses over Williams's unpleasant side - there is plenty here about how Williams was a very diffciult colleague and a very difficult friend. Those who want to read about Williams's peculiarities will find a great deal that is new.

And there is also a good deal of fresh material about Williams's professional career. The detail of Williams's successes and failures on the stage are recounted - and you end with a very good idea of both why Kenneth was so successful - but also why many of his shows ended unhappily.

I particularly enjoyed the account of the break-up of his, at first, successful partnership and friendship with Tony Hancock. This can be seen as Williams's first big success, and first big break-up, and Stevens gives a masterly analysis.

The Carry Ons are also discussed in detail and are given some attention as movies and what they show us of Kenneth Williams's comic skills. On Just A Minute there is not as much that is fresh, but one tidbit of interest - Stevens says Williams wrote to the BBC after one of the TV pilots - presumably the earlier one in 1969 - to say he would only appear in a televised series if Nicholas Parsons was replaced as chairman.

The book also says Williams once wrote a magazine article appraising his JAM colleague Peter Jones. How I would like to read that piece. The book also gives some attention to Kenneth's skill as a writer.

And there is plenty about his friendships, particularly with Tom Waine and Clive Dennis, the pair described as "T&C" in the published diaries. As I said, there is plenty of material here about what a good friend Kenneth was - and also about how difficult he could be.

This is a very good book - even with all the material said and written about Kenneth, there is plenty that is fresh here. And it does bring out the mercurial brilliance of Kenneth Williams.

Well worth reading.

February 19, 2011

the panel at tonight's recording

was Paul Merton, Graham Norton, Julian Clary and Sir Terry Wogan.

Julian tweeted – “Home from 2 joyous Just A Minute recordings with Paul Merton, Graham Norton and Sir Terry Wogan, hosted by the lovely Nicholas Parsons. Fun!”

I have to say I am really looking forward to hearing shows with Graham and Julian both on. Usually the “camp” comics are dosed out one at a time. I can’t wait to hear how much they played off each other.

And will be good to see how Terry Wogan went.

And an interesting – I hope – statistic. At the end of the season, Paul Merton will have appeared in every one of the 22 shows played in the past year. The first “ever-present” since Kenneth Williams!