heavy breather

Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Charles Williams (22 February 192615 April 1988) was an English comic actor, star of 26 Carry On films and radio comedies with Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne, as well as being a witty raconteur.

Life and career

Kenneth Williams was born in 1926 in Bingfield Street, King's Cross, London. The son of barber Charles Williams, he was educated at Lyulph Stanley School. His relationship with his parents — he adored his vivacious mother, Louisa ("Lou"), but hated his morose and selfish father — was key to his personality. Williams became an apprentice draughtsman to a mapmaker and joined the army aged 18. He was part of the Royal Engineers survey section in Bombay when he first performed on stage, with Combined Services Entertainment along with Stanley Baxter and Peter Nichols.

Comic performer

After the war, his career began with roles in repertory theatre, but few serious parts suited his delivery. His failure to become a serious dramatic actor disappointed him, but potential as a comic performer gave him his break. He was spotted playing the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw's St Joan in 1954 by the radio producer Dennis Main Wilson, who was casting Hancock's Half Hour. He lent his distinctive vocal and comedic talents to the series until almost the end of its run, five years later. His nasal, whiny, camp-cockney inflections (epitomised in his "Stop messing about..." catchphrase) became hugely popular with the listening public and would endure in popular lore for many years.

When Hancock decided to move the show away from what he considered to be 'gimmicks' and silly voices, Williams found himself having less to do on the programme. Tiring of his increasingly reduced appearances, Williams joined Kenneth Horne in Beyond Our Ken (1958–1964), and its sequel, Round the Horne (1965–1968). In the latter, his roles included Rambling Syd Rumpo, the eccentric folk singer; The Amazing Proudbasket, human cannonball; J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, professional telephone heavy breather and dirty old man; and Sandy of the camp couple, Julian and Sandy (Julian was played by Hugh Paddick), notable for their double entendres and gay slang known as Polari.

Williams appeared in West End revues including Share My Lettuce with Maggie Smith and written by Bamber Gascoigne, and Pieces of Eight, which included material from Peter Cook who was still a student at Cambridge University. The revue included Cook sketches such as One Leg Too Few that would become classics and also starred Fenella Fielding. Williams' last revue was One over the Eight, with Sheila Hancock. Williams later starred opposite Jennie Linden in My Fat Friend in 1972. He also appeared with Ingrid Bergman in a stage production of George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion in 1971.

Carry On

Williams worked in television and British films, notably the Carry On series with its British "nudge nudge" double entendre-laced humour, which were highly successful but for which he, along with the rest of the cast, was poorly paid. In his diaries Williams claims he earned more in a British Gas commercial than the entire Carry On series — although that might only be true if one adds the fee he earned from the highly popular spin-off cartoon series Willo the Wisp (taken up by the BBC rather than the commercial TV network). Despite making a good living, he lived in small flats in north London, the best known location being the now demolished block on Osnaburgh Street.

Radio and television shows

Particularly in the theatre, Williams was famous for breaking character, ad-libbing and talking to the audience. He was a regular on the BBC radio panel game Just a Minute from its second season in 1968 until his death, a frequent contributor to BBC2's What's My Line? in the 1970s and presented several editions of the children's story-reading series Jackanory. He appeared on Michael Parkinson's interview programme on eight occasions. Williams was also one of the stand-in hosts on the Wogan talk show.

Private life

Williams insisted he was celibate, and his diaries suggest this was, at least, the case from his early 40s onwards - in part because he found his homosexuality difficult to deal with and the attendant lifestyle distasteful. He lived alone all his adult life and appears never to have had a steady companion or a romantic relationship of any great significance. His diaries contain many references to unconsummated or barely consummated dalliances, which he describes as "traditional matters" or "tradiola" (homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK before 1968). He did, however, befriend the gay playwright Joe Orton (who wrote the role of Inspector Truscott in Loot (1966) for him) and enjoyed holidays with Orton and lover Kenneth Halliwell in Morocco. Other close friends included Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona Anderson, Sheila Hancock, Maggie Smith and her playwright husband Beverley Cross. By turns gregarious and reclusive, Williams was also fond of the company of fellow Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Bernard Bresslaw. Williams rarely revealed details of his private life, though he spoke to Owen Spencer-Thomas about his loneliness, despondency and underachievement in two half-hour documentary programmes entitled Carry On Kenneth on BBC Radio London. In later years his health declined, along with that of his elderly mother, and his depression deepened. He died on 15 April 1988 in Camden. The cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates. An inquest recorded an open verdict, as it was not possible to establish whether his death was suicide or accident. Doctors said it was "possible but very unlikely" that his overdose was accidental.

In popular culture

The posthumous publication of his diaries and letters, edited by Russell Davies, caused controversy - particularly Williams' caustic remarks about fellow professionals - and revealed the bouts of despondency, often primed by feelings of isolation and underachievement, that marked his life. Williams wrote in his diaries from the age of 14 in 1940 right up until his death some 48 years later.

The flat Williams had lived in was bought by Rob Brydon and Julia Davis for the writing of their dark comedy series Human Remains. The building was demolished in May 2007 and according to the actor David Benson's Myspace blog, he and ex-Radio 1 DJ Wes Butters broke in to take photos prior to demolition.

In April 2007, Williams' line "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!" (from Carry On Cleo) was voted the greatest one-liner in movie history by a thousand comedy writers, actors, impresarios and members of the public for the launch of Sky Movies Comedy Channel. The line was borrowed by scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell from Frank Muir and Dennis Norden.

In April 2008, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the two-part documentary The Pain of Laughter: The Last Days of Kenneth Williams. The programmes were researched and written by Wes Butters and narrated by Rob Brydon. Butters purchased a collection of Williams' personal belongings from the actor's godson, Robert Chidell, to whom they had been bequeathed.

The first of the programmes claimed that, towards the end of his life and struggling with depression and ill health, Williams abandoned his Christian faith following discussions with the poet Philip Larkin. Williams had been a Methodist and took a keen interest in religion, though he spent much of his life struggling with Christianity's teachings on homosexuality.

Kenneth Williams Unseen by Wes Butters and Russell Davies, the first Williams biography in 15 years, is due in October 2008.






  • Acid Drops
  • Back Drops
  • Just Williams
  • I Only Have To Close My Eyes
  • The Kenneth Williams Diaries
  • The Kenneth Williams Letters


  • Kenneth Williams on Pleasure Bent 1967, Decca LK 4856. Arrangements and musical direction by Barry Booth, sound supervision by Roger Cameron.
  • The World of Kenneth Williams 1970, Decca SPA 64. Stereo edition of recordings from the 1950s and 1960s.


Williams has been portrayed in two separate made-for-television films. In 2000, Adam Godley played him in the story of Sid James and Barbara Windsor's love affair, Cor Blimey! Subsequently, in 2006, Michael Sheen played him in the BBC Four drama Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!.

David Benson's 1996 Edinburgh Fringe show, Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams saw Benson playing the character of Williams, and after touring, the show ran in London's West End. Benson reprised his performance again in a number of shows at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe and continues to tour with this portrayal.

See also


  • Williams, Kenneth (1993), Russell Davies, ed. The Kenneth Williams Diaries. London: HarperCollins.

External links

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