The Complex Comedian

By Louis Barfe

Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the death of Kenneth Williams, an event that still raises questions. Not least of these is whether Williams intended to kill himself or whether the fatal overdose was accidental. His biographer Christopher Stevens is sceptical of Williams’ intent, to say the least, and this Sunday on Good Morning Scotland  (BBC Radio Scotland) Chris Diamond interviews him at length on the subject.

Williams stockpiled painkillers and referred to them as his ‘exit stash’, and his last entry in his diary reads, ‘Oh, what’s the bloody point?’ Stevens thinks Williams didn’t care if he lived or died, being in terrible back pain, but that he was pushing his luck rather than setting out to kill himself. However, it’s not a morbid chat. As well as being a journalist, Diamond is a comedy historian and fan, so this half hour is something of a labour of love. Stevens is at pains to celebrate Williams’ career and the obscured breadth of his talent. It wasn’t all flared nostrils and Carry On japes – Williams had range, with Joe Orton, 

Robert Bolt and Peter Cook all writing parts specially for him. One of his greatest frustrations was being pigeonholed as he was. Widely read and a waspish writer himself, he wanted to be taken seriously and should have been. And yet, Stevens presents a case for Williams sabotaging his own progress, rejecting offers to go to America, getting out of long West End runs by blaming his haemorrhoids. Stevens is convinced that Williams suffered from impostor syndrome, not believing in his own abilities as much as others did. Maybe so, but as anyone who’s read his diaries will know, at times Williams showed massive self-regard. A complex man indeed. Doubtless he would have been both gratified and horrified by the way he is remembered. 

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