SEAT AT THE BACK

SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

INFAMY AT ST PANCRAS! // KENNETH WILLIAMS goes in search of his 'COMIC ROOTS' (BBC1 1983)





"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 . . " 

Kenneth Williams was found dead in his own bed, five years after this edition of the BBC's COMIC ROOTS was filmed, in 1983.

Williams, through his own diaries, had often hinted at suicidal intent, but had never carried out the threat to self.

Had he done so, in April 1988? Had he taken a fatal overdose of painkillers and sleeping pills, and robbed the world of a singular comic talent and raconteur?

We will probably never know. The coroner's report was that suicide was unlikely, but possible.

Williams, as all who have read his wonderful and essential diaries will know, was a bright, intellectual, generous and mostly happy man, who adored people and company. But the flipside of that coin was equal amounts of loneliness, self-doubt and very real pain.




Best known for the smuttily sublime CARRY ON British comedy films, mostly shot in the 60s and 70s - including some of my own personal favourites: CARRY ON ABROAD (1972), CARRY ON BEHIND (1975), CARRY ON SCREAMING! (1966), CARRY ON COWBOY (1965) and even CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE (1978 - which Williams probably quite reasonably, hated) Kenny was also a much-loved radio, theatre and TV star (especially renowned for his guest appearances on talk shows, most memorably the Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson-fronted ones which revealed the unstoppable wit and good humour of the man himself).




EMMANNUELLE - but Kenneth dreaded this one last Carry On movie!

In COMIC ROOTS, Williams wanders around a deliciously vibrant early 80s playscape of schools, pubs, flats and shops that - some decades later - still exist sporadically. Many of these places are no more. But for those who may think Williams was the eternal sad clown with the happy public face, lost in crass comedy but desperately wanting to crawl out of the gutter and be among the more intellectual kind of stars out there - think again!

COMIC ROOTS displays a man full of joyful nostalgia. A man completely at ease among noisy school kids yelling about their BMX bikes - stunning the youngsters into silence by telling them about how he used to roller skate to school on the back of a horse and cart. A man able to lead a pub full of matriarchal women with their glasses full of gin, or hardened drinkers with the height and size of the great Bernard Bresslaw himself, in saucy traditional pub songs!


All this newly-filmed jollity and raucous singing around the battered old piano (a piano that was once trundled across the road to the pub, when Williams was a boy, by friends - the Palmer family, who lived on the other side) starts up when Kenneth shares a drink with the regulars of The Boot pub in St Pancras - a place that's thankfully still standing and serving its customers today (albeit with a brighter red and yellow painted outer demeanour to the smoke-stained bricks of old; walls that were once stained by the waft of a billowing tobacco haze racing outside for a breath of fresh air every time the doors slammed open).



These days, according to visitor reviews, the pub does good food and serves a decent mix of lagers and traditional beers (if apparently little to excite the trendier real ale drinker out there). As an authentically local Irish pub, the best tap is saved for the Guinness it seems. And locals still huddle in corners to play cards and tell stories to raise the old hidden rafters with booming laughter. One reviewer mentions that "the barmaid is very pretty" and a vision can't be helped of Barbara Windsor (Kenny's favourite co-star and pal from the CARRY ON days) pulling a swift pint in a top that dares to say its goodbyes and head off into the St Pancras sunset on sabbatical.





So Kenneth Williams returns to some of the locations of his childhood - an especially poignant moment being a visit to the site of his dad's old barber shop. Close to this place, he has his hair trimmed by a modern purveyor of the cutter's craft - a man carrying on the same kind of no-fuss traditional short back 'n' sides experience as Kenneth's dad once spent a lifetime perfecting.


The barber's elderly shaking scissor-hand is now filmed on camera trying to avoid marking the flesh of this comic legend riskily spinning his head around wildly in the chair in front of him as he remembers days past (about how flouncy hairdressers and their "pink mirrors" stepped on the scuffed toes of the traditional craft of barbering and how the arrival of luxurious henna to dye the hair was greeted with such accusations in his road back then, to anyone thinking about trying it out, as: "You'll look like a tart - you don't want to look like a tart do you?").

As Kenny walks back across a grill in the pavement next to his dad's old shop, he peers inside - the room is now decaying and empty (but with the same sink defiantly standing in the corner, covered in dust and no doubt a liberal handful of asbestos fibres to boot) and he remembers how two American servicemen once emptied their bladders on that grill in the pavement as his dad worked underneath, shovelling out coal. He remembers his dad shouting angrily at his mother that he would "bet his shirt" that it was the servicemen who had done this to him and his mother (a real wit and influence on her son) replying dryly that it would be better still if he would just take the shirt off, so she could wash it.


Louisa - or 'Lou' - Williams was bursting with rude wit, recalled with warmth by her son throughout his COMIC ROOTS. On one occasion he remembers how she referred to a neighbour as having "a face like a bum with two carrots stuck in it for eyes" and on another that she once chided the fruit and veg shop owner about the price of a more exotic vegetable with the threat to shove it up his backside charging that kind of price, "whether it's come from Jerusalem or not" (to which the shopkeeper replied that there wouldn't be room as he "already had a cucumber shoved up there"). Kenneth remembers that he almost "Laughed? - I almost died!" hearing that response and upon watching the man pretend to limp away from his mother in pain.

Or that time a neighbour boasted of buying a new TV with a 17" console and his mother replying that: "If she's got herself a seventeen incher, then she's not going to need any consoling!".





Our man Kenneth Williams, so full of grace and charm, and bursting with love and pride for the people of St Pancras, both then and now, talks of women singing songs in the old Boot pub, while adding gin to their port and finishing off, absent-mindedly, the nearest discarded (but not quite empty) drinks to hand. He starts singing traditional songs with the drinkers in the pub throughout the documentary, and EVERYONE joins in . .

Towards the end of the episode, there's a lovely moment where Kenneth, surrounded by puzzled kids on a busy street and intrigued shoppers, talks to a handsome young man wearing only very short shorts in the bright summer sunshine - his arms folded a little self-consciously across his chest as Williams confesses, in response to what is presumably a comment that it must be great to be so famous, that: "Well it's as boring as any other job in the end . . learning your lines . . a photographic memory." He also confesses that the pay he always received for film work, compared to the months spent doing the job, wasn't so great and that when you spread the money out across the time you spend working on these films, that it's "very little really" - a poignant moment in an otherwise upbeat walkabout.





“My father and I didn’t get on. He was sport-mad and wanted a son who enjoyed that. He also liked to go to the pub for a pint of bitter . .
When I was old enough to go with him, I asked for a sweet sherry. He was shocked and said: ‘You namby-pamby sod.’”


We know that Williams had a close relationship with his mother Louisa but less so with his stricter father. But as the great comic actor stands by his dad's still just about standing barber shop in COMIC ROOTS, and talks fairly reverently and colourfully about his old man's life and career there's huge affection for how proud the family were of Charlie Williams getting his very own business and moving up in the world.



Kenny stares again through the filthy window at those old memories blanketed in rubble within; he remembers how the front window of his dad's shop was always so well-presented back in the day. Now there's just rubbish and rot. For the bad press Kenneth's father has received about his supposed intolerance and dismissal of his son's theatrical career and lifestyle, you still get the feeling there was still love and respect for each other deep down, if less easy to say out loud at the time. It's respect that may now be clad in nostalgia and a certain wistfulness on Kenny's part as memories flood back; the flight of freshly cut hair to the shop floor; the smell of Brylcreem that still stains the air.



But Charlie Williams died in 1962, poisoned by cleaning fluid kept, unexplainably, in a cough medicine bottle in the cupboard at home. Kenneth worked on stage on the last day of his father's life and didn't visit the hospital (to keep the press intrusion away) and later confided to friends that he was sure it had been a suicide - he records the poison finding its way into the medicine bottle in his diaries, shortly after the police come round, as being: "v. mysterious".

You can't help but think, in that moment up on screen as Kenneth takes a final look at his father's shop, that - thanks to a low-key BBC documentary from 1983, for a man so troubled by self-doubt and ulcerated pain (that would worsen in the few years that he had left to live) it felt good to be wandering those childhood haunts again and feeling, as he once had, so safe and loved as the notes on the pub's piano ring out and the crowds start to gather around him; he later strolls the streets with a genuine smile across his face and no greasepaint needed to fix it there with.



Williams seems to realise, as he recounts increasingly and ever more affectionately snide tales about family, friends and neighbours from his formative years growing up in St Pancras, that these people and places equipped him with a treasure chest for life - full of outrageous anecdotes and comic inspiration. This place, and those memories, were often wounded for sure - but also defiant and as resilient as he had always had to be throughout his life (even when just putting on a brave public face on things, it was always one that you rarely caught not grinning or gurning - nostrils flaring with wild abandon).


Those familiar songs, that we see Kenneth singing around the pub piano throughout this documentary (all introduced with scandalous little stories about how they were sung by one and all back in the day) sees him putting his whole heart and soul into the short performances he gives in front of chuckling drinkers cheering him on or joining in so infectiously. It clearly shows that the music that Williams grew up listening to, and being a part of, must have heavily influenced his later life and career on the stage where comic songs featured so prominently in his repertoire; a childhood spent dreaming of escape with a head full of dreams, staring out of a classroom or over a plant pot covered window ledge at all the colourful characters rushing past below, a certain influence on his unique brand of comedy that was always so driven by characterisation and caricature.





The influence on the career of Kenneth Williams of his own childhood may not be immediately identifiable with the slightly snobbish (deliberately, self-mockingly so) personality he later adopted, but it probably played a greater part in the actor's success than maybe the man himself had ever dared previously realise.

Until, perhaps, Williams came to shoot the sequences for this BBC documentary in 1983. You can see that his face is etched joyously and proudly with a kind of suddenly dawning realisation that the past has finally caught up with the present - that the two had never been as indistinguishable from each other in his life as he may have once thought.



The stories have been told before of course, but in this 'forced' and direct return to his roots they become more alive. Williams seems quite overwhelmed at times by the affection the locals still have for him - perhaps some still remember him as the boy who would run errands for his mum and forget what she had asked for, or who would take part in school productions with unusual gusto (hilariously, a local paper review shown to camera of his first school play in the role of a princess, praises his 'mincing step'!).

Watching Kenneth Williams meeting some of his old friends and sing the songs that his mother once loved and sang herself (and that he has never forgotten any of the words to!) you realise that just for a moment, even if just for one day - everything, for little Kenny, as he returned back home, was A-Okay.


Words: MARK GORDON PALMER

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