A new biography drawing on diaries that were locked away for years reveals the lonely star’s unknown passion and a complex struggle with his sexual identity
As erudite as he was rude, Kenneth Williams is now remembered as the author of a bleak and illuminating diary and not just for his saucy anecdotes and Carry On films. But as a new authorised biography reveals, the outrageous performer and raconteur had melancholy secrets that are only now emerging.
With the publication of Born Brilliant this week, the hidden corners of Williams’s life of public comedy and private pain are examined for the first time.
Biographer Christopher Stevens has uncovered the depth of the star’s friendship with a young gay couple who have never spoken publicly before and who were witness to Williams’s long and bitter struggle with his sexual identity.
“Tom Waine and Clive Dennis feature frequently in the published extracts, but they’re never fully identified,” Stevens said. “One was an Oxford graduate working in the media and the other a postman. Kenneth introduced them both to Swinging London and he enjoyed the frisson of arriving at debauched parties with two 21-year-old men, one of them fey and elegant, and the other raffish and working-class.”
Stevens’s interviews with the two men, who have never sought publicity, have been a key element of his research. The varied extremes of their shared social life, from glamorous parties with famous names such as Rudolf Nureyev and Williams’s good friend, the playwright Joe Orton, to quiet evenings of Scrabble at their north London home, have answered many questions about the private life of this lonely star. While Williams was clearly attracted to Waine, the friendship remained platonic.
“Their relationship was so close that it was really Kenneth’s only long-lasting love affair – he adored Tom, and admired his education, but they were never physically intimate,” says Stevens. “But as a threesome they partied, dined, promenaded, and raved it up in Tangier.”
Over the years Williams wrote to the couple, who still live together, on around 150 occasions, and all his notes and letters have been preserved.
One airmail letter sent to Italy by a depressed Williams after he dropped out of a holiday with them is typically revealing: “Living with someone always means a denial of self in SOME way and I suppose I have always known it was something I couldn’t accomplish. So I’ve always stayed on the sidelines. Getting the pleasure vicariously. It’s not wholly satisfactory, but then of course no lives are, and you know what I think about indiscriminate sex and promiscuous trade. I think it’s the beginning of a long, long road to despair.”
Known as the Babes in the Woods, Waine and Dennis became friends with Williams after Waine, an Oxford undergraduate, sent him an amusing fan letter. Together with Williams’s beloved mother, Louie, the couple became a vital support system, attending all the star’s theatre and television performances and now and then unsuccessfully tempting him with other potential boyfriends, including rough labourers and squaddies which provoked an angry response. On one of many evenings at Orton’s home, Waine also recalls Williams’s fury when the playwright revealed that he had spiked Williams’s food with hashish.
By chance, Dennis was with Williams at his flat in August 1967 when news of Orton’s murder at the hands of his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, broke. He tells Stevens that Williams was unable to take in what had happened. He refused to speak to the BBC and instead went out to the cinema, remaining in denial for several months.
Aside from offering fresh insight into Williams’s closest relationships, Stevens’s book benefits from exclusive access to the diaries themselves. The 43 volumes found in Williams’s flat on the day he died now belong to his friend and legatee Paul Richardson. In 1993 startling edited extracts were published in a book which has not been out of print since, but for the next 15 years the diaries were stored in the sealed vault of a London bank. Stevens was granted access to all the volumes to research his biography on the condition that he housed them securely inside a research library.
Waine and Dennis helped Stevens to unravel the background to many unexplored sections of the diaries, which Williams started keeping in 1942 and famously finished with a final dark entry on 14 April 1988, the night of his death, with the words “Oh – what’s the bloody point?” But the content of the diaries is not the whole story. The appearance of Williams’s daily entries turns out to be evidence of an unsuspected twist in his psyche, a bewildering array of handwriting styles and an extraordinary personal colour-coding system.
“The big shock, when I began to read Kenneth’s journals, was the extraordinary and expressive variety of handwriting,” Stevens said. “Millions of people know Williams kept a diary for more than 40 years, but almost no one realises they are such beautiful, diverse, fascinating collections of handwriting styles.”
Williams, a trained engraver, worked as a map-maker during the war and listed calligraphy among his hobbies in Who’s Who, but his astonishing skill has confounded even Nicolas Barker, a former handwriting expert at the British Museum, who has looked at the diaries.
“He is capable of beautiful copperplate script, but can produce very different kinds of writing with very little resemblance to each other,” Barker said.
Piecing together the writing styles, Stevens realised that Williams appeared to be channelling different personalities as he wrote. The colour coding was easier to crack. Williams wrote in red pen when discussing his health and in blue when he had dramatic news, for example. Stevens now sees the fluctuating styles as the symbol of Williams’s subtly distinct moods, moving as they did from disapproving, to intellectual, to schoolboyish or to outright furious.
Perhaps the most moving of Stevens’s discoveries, however, are lines in one of the letters to his friends Tom and Clive that express his growing disenchantment with the notion that it was possible to be truly close to another person: “All problems have to be solved eventually by ONESELF, and that’s where all your lovely John Donne stuff turns out to be a load of crap because, in the last analysis, A MAN IS AN ISLAND.”
Born Brilliant (published by John Murray at £25) will be launched at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on Wednesday www.bornbrilliant.info