Saturday, June 24, 2006

An Audience with Kevin Williams

An Audience with Kevin WilliamsAs a child I used to enjoy listening to the BBC comedy show Round the Horne, a show which still makes me laugh out loud today.

One of the regulars on that show was Kenneth Williams with the weekly two poof 'Sandy and Jules' sketches, although of course as a kid I didn't get that aspect of the humour.

In 1980, as a fan of the show and in a fit of nostalgia I bought Williams' heavily promoted and hyped book Acid Drops which had received great critical reviews, but which I found a huge disappointment. I experienced the same sense of disappointment and over-hype again this week with the DVD release of the 'Special Edition' of An Audience with Kenneth Williams.

Acid Drops had been disappointing for two reasons. Firstly it was an extremely thin volume - the sort that could easily be read in less than an hour as I recall. But more importantly it didn't strike me as very witty at all, being mostly 'famous' quotes or anecdotes that seemed to contain a great deal of filler that were neither 'memorable quotes' or 'acidic'. In a book of so few pages it seemed scandalously over-priced, more befitting of the word 'pamphlet' than 'book'.

Even at that young, less cynical (well, OK, perhaps not ;)), phase of my life I felt that the critics had become somewhat obsessed with the idea of Williams as a cult British film figure from the Carry On films, most of which, let's face it, were the film equivalent of 'The National Enquirer' or 'The News of the World'. With the Carry On films it's as if a nostalgic glow and love for things past have removed all critical faculties so that everything we once loathed and hated at the time gets forgotten, and those things that we once thought average somehow become something special.

Until now, I've enjoyed all of the An Audience with broadcasts that I've caught, and I've enjoyed the ability to catch up with those I originally missed, on DVD. The series has turned out to genuinely contain some of the very best work of some of our very best comedians - the Barry Humphries, Bob Monkhouse, Ken Dodd and Victoria Wood shows come immediately to mind, but I'm sure there are others I've missed.

But this show featuring Kenneth Williams left me curiously cold.

Heck, let's not beat about the bush, it left me bored and distinctly unamused! I didn't laugh out loud. Not once. I smiled once or twice, but over a 77-minute period that isn't enough, and given the rave reviews I'd read that made me order this DVD at the last minute, I'd expected a lot more than that.

Ultimately, I guess you either 'get' Williams' particular brand of camp comedy or you don't, and I've never been a fan of camp for campness' sake (Julian Clarey comes to mind as a comedic act that lived well past its prime, although I enjoy him when he's not doing a simple stand-up act). However, even if we push that dislike of 'too easy' camp innuendo aside, what we have here is a rather tedious telling of Williams' life, made all the more difficult to follow because of his overly-effected neighing, whinnying and clipped tones throughout the telling. In a show that's supposed to be funny, a few outright jokes, might have been nice too.

There are some, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks amongst them apparently, who think that DVD extra's are spoiling the magic of cinema. I love my DVD extra's and the insights they often give, but have to admit that Messrs Spielberg and Hanks may occasionally have a point, and this DVD - although based on a TV show rather than a film - is a classic example. Previously released in 'vanilla' form, this 'Special Edition' contains three decent-length interviews from the likes of 'The Russel Harty Show' or daytime TV with Gloria Honeyford. The same anecdotes heard on 'An Audience with...' are regurgitated on these chat shows, taking away what little spontaneity the original 'live' show might have had, at least for everybody other than completists who must have every recorded inch of celluloid there is. In adding the extra's just like the ending of 'The Wizard of Oz' the mechanics of the limited magic on show get somewhat lost.

Let's be honest here, these anecdotes aren't even Williams' own stories for the most part (does Stanley Baxter get royalties?), with most being prefixed 'xxxx told me once that...', and whilst one wants to give credit to Williams for actually admitting they aren't his own stories, they really aren't THAT funny to start with.

Fans would no doubt argue that the TV show and extra's on display here were of a gentler time, a time before the dumbed-down and crude world of Ali G, Jonathan Ross and biting satire, but I'd counter-argue that they weren't really very funny even at the time of broadcast. The truth is that I watch Williams and it's like listening to an old relative, reminding me of infrequent visits to my nan in Stoke-on-Trent when I was a child. Where others find amusement and laughter (usually 'at the expense of', rather than 'along with') I just see a sad, rather boring person whittering on endlessly, getting more eccentric as time passes and their loneliness becomes heavier upon them, while others around them indulge them, encouraging them to further excesses. Very sad. And as a DVD, one to miss!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a bit of a harsh criticism of "An Audience with Kenneth Williams". It was, after all, so successful in 1983 that it launched an entire series of "An Audience With..." programmes, made by LWT, that continued for many years, with the latest being made by Ken Dodd as recently as 2002. I found the programme hilarious, and Kenneth's style was what made it so. The individual anecdotes were reasonably funny, but he made them tremendously funny. "It's the way I tell 'em..."
Stephen Poppitt