Kenneth Williams Never Stopped Carrying On

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FOR THE BRITISH, the Carry On series of 31 comedy films produced between 1958 and 1978 has become a staple of comedy folklore, even a national treasure. Known for their gag-a-minute bawdiness and uncanny ability to tap-dance around the censors with crafty use of double entendre and innuendo, it’s the type of humor that has lecherous men with wandering hands chasing squealing young women to the sound of a cheeky slide-whistle and jokes involving characters inexplicably losing their clothing.

            As cringe-worthy as I found these antiquated romps, there was one cast member who kept me glued to the screen whenever he appeared. It was Kenneth Williams, the most prolific of the Carry On ensemble, who appeared in 26 films in total. He was usually given the role of the overwrought, snide intellectual in a position of authority. His presence was unfailingly electrifying, with his clipped, nasal vocal intonations and facial expressions of remarkable elasticity. He could elevate even the most lowbrow of breast-related puns with a subtle glance, a curt turn of the head, or an elaborately scandalized vocal delivery.

            I found him magnetic to watch, and wanted more—preferably to see him perform on his own terms, without a script, which could be limiting to the natural range he clearly possessed. Thankfully, YouTube has those in abundance. Williams was a remarkable raconteur, appearing on many chat shows where he was allowed to shine, revealing his talents as a storyteller, impressionist, and humorist who could craft a narrative while sagaciously reading the audience response, cultivating a close, conversational relationship that set him apart from other guests.

From The Last Years of Kenneth Williams, a 2022 documentary.

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Ellen Walker is a UK-based illustrator, writer, and researcher at the Royal College of Art, specializing in internet storytelling and identity-based digital cultures.

 

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