(NB This was the first review of Think No Evil of Us to appear in the national press)
There are two shows in town that stage the similarly pill-popping final moments of Kenneth Williams, united with ex-colleague Tony Hancock in eventual suicide and an aggressive contempt for Sid James. Aidan Steer’s Kenny Carries On (Diverse Attractions) is a thoughtful, sparky piece that approaches its subject with affection and precision. Unfortunately, it does not have the power or the emotional complexity of its competitor, David Benson’s exhilarating one-man tour de force, Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams (St. John’s Church Hall, Princes Street). Benson never met his idol, but at the age of 13, won a story-writing competition and watched Williams read his work on Jackanory. Benson’s mastery of his subject’s every nuance and inflection ensures that the performance administers a multitude of tender, familiar shocks. Here, Williams lives and breathes in all his camply pompous tragedy, but the piece is not just artful bootlegging. As Benson interweaves uncanny re-creation with confessional autobiography Think No Evil of Us gains a startling intensity unmatched by anything on the Fringe. It is unforgettable and inspirational theatre that has the audience cheering in admiration.
INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
Resurrecting the spirit of Kenneth Williams
I knew Kenneth Williams for over thirty years, wrote for him, rejoiced in his talent, respected his intelligence, and was proud to be a friend. The elegance of his prose style belied his working-class background, but he could be (and frequently was) as vulgar as anyone could wish, telling the rudest jokes with great panache. His understanding of comedy made him an outstanding performer and a scriptwriter’s joy.
He was crucial to the success of Round The Horne. Rambling Syd Rumpo the folk singer; Chou En Ginsberg MA (failed), the fiendish Japanese mastermind; J Peasmold Gruntfuttock, ‘the walking slum’ guided by ‘voices’; and perhaps best of all, Kenneth’s Sandy to Hugh Paddick’s Julian. All were inspired characterisations. Marty Feldman and I invented these characters hearing William’s many voices in our heads and he returned our inventions with interest, rarely changing a line and never complaining.
Offstage, however, he could become very terse and, as the diaries published after his death reveal, downright vitriolic about his contemporaries.
His private life was monk-like, as was his sex life. He confessed to me on one occasion that a doctor had suggested he take as a companion an ex-naval petty officer. The implication was obvious and Kenneth was shocked. His loneliness continued and it was only in public – on stage or radio or in Carry On films – that he allowed the extrovert and highly charged emotional side of his nature to have its head.
Oddly, for a bachelor, he was an excellent entertainer of children, frequently reading stories on Jackanory. Which brings us to David Benson. Benson first came into contact with Kenneth when he won the BBC’s Jackanory prize for a story he had written which was read by Kenneth (much to Benson’s chagrin, as it happens, because he’d hoped for Spike Milligan).
But Benson came to realise that Kenneth was special and plunged deep into the personality of the strange genius. His oral biography of Kenneth Think No Evil of Us, an award-winner at Edinburgh this year, is remarkable not only technically (the voice and the body language are breathtakingly accurate) but emotionally too, capturing the ‘stop messin’ about’ persona and the tragedy lurking beneath.
I knew Kenneth Williams well and always felt it was impossible to impersonate him. I was wrong. David Benson is utterly brilliant.
EVENING STANDARD ‘Hot Tickets’
Benson’s just bliss
You can find the following celebrities resuscitated, or dug up, on the fringe this year: Zelda Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Marlene Deitrich and Karen Carpenter. But David Benson’s invocation of Kenneth Williams is something else. He does a brilliant impersonation, flared nostrils, basilisk stare, swivelling shoulders, cascading monologues, braying laugh and all. However, the true resonance of his already justly celebrated solo show…resides in the fact that this is a proper play, not a ragbag of anecdotes. The subject is as much Benson himself as the melancholy mummer who died ten years ago. The link is beautiful.
As a lonely thirteen-year-old in Birmingham in 1975, Benson submitted a story to the BBC’s Jackanory. He won the competition, and Williams read the story on the air. Benson never met his new hero. The incident is the hinge to Benson’s outpouring; about his unhappy homelife, his schooldays – the morning assembly at which Benson plays his own crotchety headmaster is sheer bliss – and his developing anger that Williams killed himself (which he almost certainly did) before Benson could tell him how much he loved and admired him.
Benson’s speculation is not unduly sentimental. He catches his temperament to perfection. A truly remarkable event.
15 August 1997
Think No Evil of Us, a homage to the great Kenneth Williams, is the best one-man show in town. David Benson does a wonderful impersonation of the great man at the height of his celebrity. But the show really takes off when Benson becomes himself and recounts his own schooldays, his camp tastes and the day Williams read out his award-winning short story on Jackanory.
The recollection of his school days – the morning assembly led by the vicious Brummie headmaster is superb – mixes with his childhood talent for impersonation. Benson has got the entire cast of Dad’s Army off to a tee. The point is that Williams is right there in front of you – embittered, petulant, very funny, and obsessed with his bowels. His coarseness, beauty of spirit, spitefulness and camp humour are all wonderfully recreated. This show is a labour of love, so go along and stop messing about.
Something astonishing happens during David Benson’s Think No Evil of Us, which is subtitled “My Life With Kenneth Williams”. It begins with a sustained imitation of Kenneth Williams: during which all those of us who have seen and heard umpteen Williams performances can see that Benson, while catching a remarkable amount of Williams’ looks and sounds and characteristics, happens himself not to be much like Williams. Then he does an enchanting central section of autobiography: his childhood in Birmingham, his oh-so-British way of copying every comic entertainer, his own story for Jackanory and Williams’s rendition thereof.
Then he returns to Kenneth Williams: Williams holding forth over dinner with friends, holding forth about having to read for Jackanory, about endless other things. This is the private Kenneth Williams the public did not see, remarkably close to the public Kenneth Williams but now more appalling than funny. And here, uncannily, Benson’s resemblance to Williams has become absolute: his very face seems to have changed shape.
From the very first, though, this show is breathtaking. You hear some awful recording of one of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, and you watch Williams listening to it. The lift of the brows, the lengthening of the neck, the flare of the nostrils, these are his queenly ways of advertising his own authority. He has been a comic act so long, wielding his own studied persona, that he is now stuck that way. As the show proceeds, we see more of Williams’s tricks and more of the persona; and the helpless lovelessness of his life becomes all-encompassing.
The only flaw of Think No Evil of Us is the ending. Benson has to spell out the moral for us: all about the value of love. But this is superfluous. The show has made us feel, deeply, what a life without love is like; and, again and again, has made us laugh about it too.
NB. See Alistair Macaulay’s follow-up review below
Lyric Studio, Hammersmith
“This is the black box in which we are burying it,” says David Benson glancing round the Lyric and speaking of his much-travelled, one-man show about Kenneth Williams. It’s well worth catching this remarkable entertainment before it expires even if you have ambivalent feelings about its subject.
I first saw Williams playing the Dauphin to Siobhan McKenna’s Saint Joan in the West End. I couldn’t believe that this earnest, pale-faced young actor was the same person I’d heard doing outrageous voices on Tony Hancock’s weekly radio show. What happened in later years is that this highly versatile and intelligent young man turned into that dubious thing, a celebrity trading on a vein of affronted camp on panel games and chat shows that, inwardly, he despised.
Even Benson, whose admiration for Williams is much less equivocal than my own, cannot help moralising about him. He gives us, in generous measure, the many different facets of Williams: the sensitive poetry-lover, the high-camp public performer investing even the simplest phrase with a salty innuendo, the private man wracked by physical pain and self-doubt. But he also turns on his subject, accusing him of whinging about being unloved even while he was publicly adored. This leads to the most fascinating passage in the show in which Benson explores his own fascination with Williams.
It dates back, we discover, to his school days when he submitted a story to Jackanory that ended up being read by the mercurial Ken. Benson’s early life acquires strange echoes of Williams’s: the realisation, in the school showers, of his sexual preferences, and the exasperated, sometimes murderous love he felt for a mother deemed clinically insane.
It is a measure of Benson’s ease that he is able to talk about such intimate matters to a gathering of strangers. But it also lends resonance to his portrait of Williams. In the final section he gives us an impression of Williams noisily dining with his chums in an Italian restaurant and displaying his characteristic mixture of brilliance, rancour and self-loathing before going home to die alone.
“How,” Benson asks at the end of the show, “can you accept love from others if you don’t love yourself?” That, he suggests, was the source of Williams’s tragedy. My hunch is that Williams was also the victim of an entertainment industry that wanted only one thing from him – a nostril-flaring camp that denied his true gifts as an actor and his genuine complexity as a human being.
Ooh, Matron, you mustn’t miss this carry on
David Benson’s wonderful one-man show has finally – and deservedly – made it into the West End, where it opens tonight. A huge hit two year’s running at the Edinburgh Festival, this will be its last ever season, and if you’ve missed it so far, I can’t recommend it too highly. Benson has come up with a rare show that is as endearing as it is funny. It is also in its own way remarkably original.
The piece begins with the best imitation of Kenneth Williams you are ever likely to see. Benson perfectly captures the prissy pursed mouth, the look of outrage, the quavering crescendos of nasal indignation. The jokes and smutty double-entendres are a joy, and a poignant reminder of what a fine, distinctive talent we lost when Williams took an overdose of pills in 1988.
But the show is much more than impersonation. It is an act of homage and also a strikingly personal confession. When he was 13, Benson wrote a story for Jackanory, and it was Kenneth Williams who read it out on TV. These facts lead into a blissfully funny description of Benson’s schooldays, including Assembly under his hilarious Brummie headmaster, and a moving account of Benson’s mother’s mental illness, which eventually led to her committal.
None of which has much to do with Kenneth Williams, whom it gradually becomes clear Benson never met. But Benson’s gifts as a mimic are so fine (he casually throws in Frankie Howerd, Maggie Smith and the whole cast of Dad’s Army), and his personality so engaging that you remain enthralled throughout.
The final section, in which he reverts to impersonating the comedian, is outstanding. We watch Williams entertaining his friends in a restaurant, and becoming increasingly desperate, especially when discussing his chronic bowel disorder in demented, disgusting detail over the spag bol.
Here you begin to sense Williams’s scorching self-hatred, the appalling lovelessness of his life, and this often hilarious piece suddenly achieves a tugging sense of regret and loss. Benson offers a tour de force of impersonation, but his quirky show is also blessed with singular compassion.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Mimicry and morality
How extraordinary – and how heartening – to find Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams in the West End. For this one-man show, written and performed by David Benson, is almost anti-West End in its whole mind-set.
Those who go expecting an array of jolly Kenneth Williams absurdities, or a sweet giggle down memory lane, will be disappointed. This show is often very funny; but if you go only wanting to laugh you may sometimes squirm. It is about mimicry and Englishness; it is about how public characters and ordinary people connect; it is a daringly structured example of Me Generation methods at their most serious; and it ends up being a morality play. Kenneth would have cringed. More sad he.
For, from the first, Think No Evil of Us reminds us of some of the more bizarre features and contradictions of Kenneth Williams’s persona. It takes us into Williams’s private life (now known from his diaries and the reminiscences of others) – and yet no one who knew Williams solely as a public entertainer can really be surprised to observe his offstage ravings here. For Williams – remember his contributions to Just a Minute? – really was this odd in public: capable of being affectedly superior and affectedly common in a single sentence, both joyously camp and coldly pompous, and almost always rampagingly solipsistic.
Sometimes to listen to Williams was to attend a mad scene. One reacted by laughing, but with a certain disquiet. Just how real was his craziness? And yet, however unique he seemed, one always recognised something in him: Kenneth Williams was the object-lesson of where Englishness and camp intersect. In particular, Think No Evil shows – sometimes funnily, sometimes poignantly – how full Williams was of self-loathing and misanthropy, and how furiously alone he was. Somehow this isn’t a surprise; and somehow, again one recognises, awkwardly, something of Williams in oneself.
David Benson spends about two-thirds of Think No Evil ‘being’ Kenneth Williams: the first third, and the last. In between, he is himself, reminiscing of his Birmingham boyhood. Here, too, public comedy and embarrassing private pain are curiously balanced. Benson is adorable being again the schoolboy mimic he once was, doing six characters from Dad’s Army to the life in 30 seconds, and he is cherishable as his bilious headmaster taking assembly. But this romp is sandwiched between other memories: of his aggressively lunatic mother, and, in particular, of the day she was taken away to an institution. To what extent is comedy an expression of life? And to what extent a refuge from real life?
When I saw Think No Evil at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, I loved everything about it save for its ending: when Benson gives us the moral to his story. Watching it again, I think there are moments that could do with tightening here and there, but the ending now seems absolutely right. Virginia Woolf once said that ‘one of the virtues of having a system of values is that you know exactly what to laugh at’. Think No Evil is about both the laughter and the values.