My Comedy Hero: Andrew Doyle on Kenneth Williams
Comedian Doyle pays tribute to the humourist and Carry On star
Kenneth Williams despised himself. Even at the age of 21 he wrote in his diary that he was a ‘suicidalist’ who didn’t ‘believe in existence at all’. And yet at the same time he looked down on virtually everyone else. One of my favourite entries in his diaries reads: ‘Sometimes I feel so unutterably superior to the people surrounding me that I marvel at my ability to live among them.’
He was a man of endless contradictions – a working-class snob, a self-hating narcissist, a prudish exhibitionist, a celibate who craved intimacy – and I suppose it was from these tortuous origins that his inimitable brand of comedy emerged.
Watching him in old television interviews, I’m always struck not just by his astonishing comic timing and acerbic turn of phrase, but how much of himself he concealed: his whole life was a performance. He seems like a character from a PG Wodehouse novel, but with a queer twist. I love his excessive characterisations in the Carry On films; the wide eyes and flared nostrils, the shrieks of indignation. The humour has dated, as all humour does, but I still find him compelling.
But it’s his appetite for mischief that always appealed to me the most. Williams loved deflating the pretentions of others, and he understood better than anyone that shock is a powerful and important comedic tool. At an Equity meeting in 1977 he ended his speech with the following: ‘Specialisation means that everyone becomes better and better at less and less and eventually someone will be superb at fuck-all.’
A quarter of a century after his death he still makes me laugh. To my mind, that’s a comedy hero.
The Stand, Edinburgh, Thu 20–Sun 23 Feb.