Beyond Our Ken

I hope like me you’ve been watching the excellent ‘Handmaid’s Tale’: it’s totally up there with quality adaptations such as ‘The Night Manager’ and ‘Wolf Hall’.  Tales of oppression and liberation are always compelling; however, since it has still six weeks to run I shall hold off on a review.

But before last night’s episode (and after The Archers, of course) I caught up with one of Michael Sheen’s biopics.  Sheen is an actor best known for playing real people and has, in a process that is half-impersonation, half-representation, portrayed Tony Blair in The Queen, Brian Clough in The Damned United and David Frost in Frost/Nixon.  But last night he was Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa!

In order to understand Kenneth Williams we must remember the age in which he lived.  He was gay at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence: being outed would not only have ended his career but perhaps also his life though ironically, it was being in the closet that probably drove him to suicide.  It is hard now to understand the degree of denial that existed about homosexuality; my mother was a huge fan of Kenneth Williams and would have been shocked to the core to discover that he was gay.  To one of my generation it was fairly obvious, but it wasn’t until his diaries were published posthumously that we knew for sure.  His diaries are a sad read; a tortured account of an inner life whose only sexual release was ‘the Barclays’.

Sheen is extraordinary as Williams: he’s a difficult man to play without resorting to caricature but Sheen manages to capture not only the mannerisms but Williams’ unique voice.  It was the voice above all which made Kenneth successful; it was nasal but resonant and he had the range of an opera singer, varying his tempo and register for comic effect.  Like Barbara Windsor he almost certainly threw away his talent on too many awful Carry On films: unlike her he was unable to form relationships.  Had he been born today he’d be able to marry and live openly: then again perhaps his loneliness was caused by other factors.

In spite of Sheen’s performance I found the film somewhat episodic, lacking a centre and consisting of vignettes: a scene with Jo Orton where Williams rejects a man’s advances; another glimpse of him eating with Orton’s lover Kenneth Halliwell; slices of Carry-On action (the other actors portrayed to the life) and slices of life with his mother who lived downstairs and remained his most intimate companion until his death.

With a story like his, you look back and think how did people not know?  True, a lot of people did know, and many more suspected, but nobody talked about it.  Gays and lesbians hid in plain sight.