I first saw David Benson’s superb one man show about Kenneth Williams, Think No Evil Of Us, back in the 90s and so I was pleased to see that a video recording of it had emerged on new platform Scenesaver. It was as good, as funny and as poignant as I remember it being at the time centred round an extraordinary and fully sustained act of mimicry on Benson’s part but one which reveals the real man behind the clown’s mask and his desperate loneliness and desire to be loved.
Despite being on a West End stage the setting is a simple black box with a chair but that is all that is needed. Williams’ personality is so big that there is simply no need for other distractions. The opening is simple but devastatingly effective; opera plays, a man listens and then his face contorts into one of William’s mock outrage poses – suddenly he is there before us. Benson’s play is not a biography as such but contains a number of set pieces such as a poetry reading and a disastrous restaurant meal where Williams’ persona is brought vividly to life. His speech is peppered with witty aphorisms, gross crudeness, camp flourishes and orotund phraseology (just imagine Williams himself getting his teeth round that lot) all to serve a constructed public persona hiding the real man as revealed in his diaries. There is very little about William’s actual work – no specific reference to Carry On films, Hancock, Round The Horne or Just A Minute – and certainly no mentions of his deep desire to be taken seriously as a “proper” actor. Rather the play concentrates on his private life, his devotion to his mother, his crippling health problems, his inability to form meaningful relationships, his snobbish erudition and ultimately his demise. The last is particularly moving as Williams, racked with pain, takes pills and utters his immortal last words “Oh, what’s the bloody point?”
Williams flouncing offstage for some imagined slight leads to a long middle section where we learn about the young Benson’s life in Birmingham and how he came to have a tenuous connection with the subject of this show. He writes a story for a Jackanory competition and the prize is to have it read on television. Benson hopes to get Spike Milligan and is mildly disappointed to end up with Williams. En route Benson gives us all the details of how he came to be obsessed by the comedians and comic actors of his day – though ironically not Williams – and we are treated to many of his other high quality impersonations particularly the cast of Dad’s Army. (Earlier this year I saw Benson perform a couple of scripts from Dad’s Army with performing partner Jack Lane (click here); it’s good to see that earlier display of his expertise has now been fully developed). This same section also contains a digression into his schooldays with Benson now playing his very Brummie headmaster who condemns the youngster to merciless bullying when he highlights his competition success in a school assembly. In retrospect the inclusion of this apparent diversion from the main focus is a stroke of genius. 90 minutes of William’s strangulated vowels and rolling r’s would be too much and would barely show Benson’s versatility. At the same time, it is a clever nod to the sort of rambling anecdotes with sharp taglines of which Williams was himself the master.
I prefaced my viewing with a look at Oh Hello!, Jamie Rees’ intimate solo show about fellow Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey. As this turned out to be selected extracts rather than the whole show I shall forebear to try and write a review. Suffice to say I was struck by how similar Hawtrey and Williams were. Both tied to their mothers’ apron strings, both racked with guilt about their sexual preferences, both contemptuous of their film work for the Carry On series, both desperate for affirmation amongst their peers, both reaching tragic ends. It would be a real treat to see Rees and Benson work on a project together about their chosen subjects.
It’s good to see Scenesaver promoting material from the archives as well as more current fare. I noticed there were two other David Benson solo shows available on the platform (about Dr Johnson and the Lockerbie bombing) so I’ll definitely be back. Meanwhile if you weren’t around when this play was first performed and you enjoy Williams and his work, this tour de force is thoroughly recommended.
Think No Evil Of Us is available via Scenesaver. Click here
The extracts from Oh Hello! (about 30 minutes worth) are on Facebook. Click here
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