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Monday 5 December 2016

Review: Gold channel rises to a new standard with its documentaries

The Interviews: Kenneth Williams (Gold)

Kenneth Williams was at his funniest, and also darkest, as a tireless chat show raconteur
Kenneth Williams was at his funniest, and also darkest, as a tireless chat show raconteur

GOLD has moved on somewhat from being a little-regarded depository for old sitcom repeats to quietly carve out a reputation as a reliable source of documentaries about comedians.

The programmes may not always possess the depth of insight of similar offerings from BBC4, but they’re usually breezily entertaining.

The latest is The Interviews, which vigorously raids the archives to tell the stories of various famous funny people through their chat show appearances. The series is seasoned with a light dusting of biographical detail by narrator Dawn French; the real meat, though, is in the wonderful clips, which occupy virtually the entire hour.

Future subjects include Spike Milligan, Les Dawson, The Two Ronnies, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but this first show kicked off in ideal style with the late Kenneth Williams, the camp, nostril-flaring star of the Carry On movies and expert practitioner of the double entrendre, and the occasional single one too.

Williams’ timed-dimmed fame rests primarily on the Carry Ons, which still provide afternoon television filler to this day, but he was arguably at his most entertaining as a chat show raconteur, which in his declining years became his main doorway into the public eye – and, one suspects, his main source of income too. Nobody appeared so many times on so many different sofas.

DISGUSTED

By now, the Williams story is a well-thumbed one. Various books, TV and radio documentaries, stage plays and the 2006 BBC4 play Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, starring Michael Sheen, laid bare the hypochondriac, self-loathing homosexual, alternately fascinated and disgusted by his own body, who lived in a small, sparsely furnished flat next door to his mother and claimed to be celibate his entire life.

And then there were the posthumously published diaries (Williams was a compulsive diarist from the age of 14) that revealed an intense dislike, bordering on hatred, for many of his showbusiness colleagues. Michael Parkinson, who had Williams on his show more times than any other guest and considered him a friend, was deeply upset that the entertainer, a working-class boy who bizarrely affected a grandiose class snobbery, had privately described him as “that Northern ninny”.

Watching Williams in full flight with Parkinson, Wogan, Russell Harty, Michael Aspel, Joan Rivers and countless other interviews on countless other, mostly forgotten TV shows is something to behold.

The man was a walking avalanche of anecdotes (one for every occasion, featuring a cast of famous people like Richard Burton and Orson Welles) , delivered with an exhaustive range of funny voices, wordplay, innuendo and tongue-twisting comic songs.

It’s also slightly disquieting, in that you never know how much of it is real and spontaneous, and how much carefully rehearsed. Williams was always “on”.

The most interesting moments, however, are the ones when the mask seems to briefly slip. “I’m a complete egotist,” he tells Mavis Nicholson in a late-70s interview, “the whole world revolves around me.” Self-mockery or self-hatred?

There’s another moment from the same encounter when a stony-faced Williams talks with throwaway matter-of-factness about his loneliness, despair and depression – then along comes another quip, another funny story to chase the blues away.

Watching this stuff now, it’s hard to understand how anyone could believe Williams’ life would end in anything other than tragedy.

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