Williams, Kenneth (1926-1988)
Plaque erected in 2014 by English Heritage at Farley Court, Allsop Place, Marylebone, London NW1 5LG, City of Westminster
Actor and Comedian
KENNETH WILLIAMS 1926-1988 Comic Actor lived here in Flat 62 1963-1970
King of the Carry On
Born on 22 February 1926 in Islington, Williams was the only son of a hairdresser, Charlie, and his wife, Louie. By the age of nine, he was already showing a theatrical flair and a comic talent for mimicry. His theatrical apprenticeship began during his national service and on demobilisation – after a brief period working at Stanford’s, the map-makers – he decided to pursue life as an actor, entering repertory work with serious ambitions.
His first big break was in 1950 when he was invited to join the highly talented Welsh Company at Swansea’s Grand Theatre. There he was understudy to Richard Burton – who considered him an outstanding and versatile talent – and gave a notable performance as the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, a role he would reprise to great acclaim at the Arts Theatre, London. This part opened the way to joining the cast of the BBC radio series ‘Hancock's Half Hour’, through which Williams gained national fame as an animated and hilarious comic character with huge vocal range, known especially for the catch phrase ‘Stop messin’ about!’.
The 1950s also saw him first appear in the Carry On series. Starting with Carry On Sergeant, he was to become indelibly identified with these immensely popular farces, appearing in 24 in total. In his diaries, Williams would almost invariably dismiss the scripts as rubbish but they provided the roles and one-liners for which he is most widely remembered. On stage, in the early 1960s he appeared with Sheila Hancock in One Over the Eight by Peter Cook, and with Maggie Smith in the Peter Schaffer double-bill The Public Ear and The Public Eye.
By the mid-1970s, Williams had developed a reputation as one of the ablest chat-show raconteurs and his repertoire also included after-dinner speaking, lucrative voiceovers for advertisements, television quizzes, and children’s shows, all of which he regarded as lightweight fodder. Far more gratifying to him was his work directing Loot at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and Entertaining Mr Sloane. He focused, too, on writing – producing works including Acid Drops, Back Drops and Just Williams: an Autobiography.
From early 1986 he suffered severe health problems as a result of an ulcer and back pain; money too was a perennial concern. All this, and the decline of his aged mother, sent him into a depression. While awaiting surgery, Williams took an overdose of barbiturates and died in the early hours of 15 April 1988.
Kenneth Williams was an actor whose gregarious, quick-witted and hilarious persona made his career and fame while simultaneously curtailing his real ambitions for serious recognition. Despite a reputation as a difficult colleague, he won the respect and admiration of many of his peers for his talents and the nation's affection for his ability to create laughter. Today, his gift for comedy lives on in film, in recordings and in print.
On what would have been his 88th birthday, 22 February 2014, Williams was commemorated with a blue plaque on the London apartment block where he lived during the heyday of the Carry On era. He lived in Flat 62 on the ninth and top floor of Farley Court, a 1929 apartment block located between Madame Tussauds and Baker Street station, between 1963 and 1970. During this time, he starred in such Carry On films as Carry on Cleo, Carry on up the Khyber and Carry on Camping. Williams would have returned from the Pinewood studios to his flat having delivered such classic one-liners as ‘Ooh Matron!’ and ‘Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!’
On moving into Farley Court, Williams was ‘elated’, writing in his diary, ‘My bedroom looks out over Regent’s Park. The trees are turning now and the sight is beautiful. I can see all the traffic twinkling down the Marylebone Rd … It’s all so marvellous, I could cry.’ But later, in a more misanthropic mood, Williams wrote of looking down upon ‘the nits crowding round outside the waxworks. How I loathe them and Madame Tussaud.’
While living at Farley Court, Williams was a major contributor to the BBC radio comedy programme Round the Horne with Kenneth Horne, while in 1968 he first appeared as a panellist on the BBC radio panel game Just a Minute – he would continue to be an irrepressible star of the programme until his death in 1988. His Farley Court years also saw him develop his television career as the host of International Cabaret and appear in the first stage production of Joe Orton’s Loot in 1965.