Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kenneth Williams - "Why Do You Smile When You Think About Earls Court?"


When travelling into the West End from the north of London at weekends my bus route goes down Albany Street which stretches from Camden Town's interface with Regents Park to the junction of Marylebone Road and Great Portland Street. It thus passes close to Osnaburgh Street where the comic actor Kenneth Williams lived with his mother for the last six years of his life prior to his death as the result of a possible accidental overdose of painkillers in April 1988. He was born nearby in Kings Cross and the actual building in Osnaburgh Street was demolished in 2007.

The 2010 Born Brilliant biography by Christopher Stevens is a marvellous companion to the often outrageous diary and letters collection edited by Russell Davies while I still recall with great fondness David Benson's moving one-man show about Williams - Think No Evil Of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams - at the Hammersmith Lyric many years ago and which indeed is still performed to this day.

An incredibly witty and cerebral habitue of Seventies and Eighties talk shows and variety, Williams was most famous for his appearance in 25 of the original 29 Carry On movies (from Carry on Sergeant to Carry On Emmanuelle) and for portraying the character of Sandy in the BBC radio series Round The Horne between 1965 and 1968.

Julian (played by Hugh Paddick) and Sandy were two out of work gay actors in the series and appeared in sketches in most episodes alongside straight man Kenneth Horne. As usually set in a Chelsea-based business scenario the characters' double entendres at Horne's expense were versed in the camp slang of polari - this at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Such usage included "bona" for good, "drag" for clothes and "vada" for to look etc.  In one episode the writers even managed to navigate Sandy's saucy commentary on Julian's skills at the piano past BBC management since "a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright" was not seen as obviously referring to male erections in public toilets.

A common thread through the sketches was Sandy dragging out salacious details about Julian's private life with the admonition "Go on - purge yourself" though at series' end it turned out that the couple were in fact married to female partners all along. They represented however the first openly gay males in British popular culture up to that point.

Sandy and Julian's underground language was joyously celebrated in 1990 in Morrissey's Piccadilly Palare - a song which, in light of Waterloo Sunset's current relevance to modern times being equatable to Protestant and Catholic children skipping hand in hand around Eleventh Night bonfires in Belfast, may well be considered the greatest song about our edgy and most certainly unromantic national capital. This despite not being included in a recent hour long and pedestrian BBC retrospective on London songs. Morrissey also mentioned the city in  Hairdresser On Fire and also  London, Half a Person and Panic while with The Smiths.

Modern London in reality is now enshrouded with stasis and stress for much of its working population and this at a point where projections suggest that by 2020 the average house price will reach half a million pounds. Such grotesque inflation being unaffected by the fact that a broken (and often sectorally pulverised) employment market is complementing the stagnant (and often decrepit) property market or that the city is experiencing lifestyle-deflating demographic shifts rarely seen in peacetime or wartime anywhere in Europe. Hence the treading water sensation many people have - whether employed or otherwise - of feeling trapped in the dressing room while everybody else is out on the pitch playing the game.

Piccadilly Palare includes various pieces of appropriate polari slang, hints towards nefarious sexual goings-on (for a price) and a wonderful and eternally relevant comi-dramatic climax in:

So why do you smile when you think about Earls Court?
Why do you cry when you think about the battles you've lost and won?
It may all end tomorrow but it could go on forever...in which case I'm DOOMED.

Earls Court was of course a centre for the London gay community  between the Fifties and Seventies with one particularly infamous pub - The Colherne - located nearby towards Brompton Cemetery. This drinking  establishment was also mentioned in the track Hanging Around by The Stranglers. An unreleased version of the Morrissey song includes one verse referencing London's grim rental hell - "A cold water room, it's not much I know, but for now it's where I belong" - and extra lines of alienation in the playout insisting "I won't be home tomorrow...no doubt...no doubt" or possibly (and with much more melancholic note) "no Dad...no Dad".

The musical legacy of Morrissey - as a literal life partner for millions of Britons over the past three decades - truly relates to Richard Ellman's final words in his 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde which noted "his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing and so right." Williams too remaining another reflection of a uniquely British, unforgettable and truly multifaceted talent - how tragic to think of his London now so changed as to be beyond recognition in character, atmosphere and presence.

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