Colin Elmer is an actor who, for the last seven years, has played Kenneth Williams with Apollo Theatre Company. In 2022 he's taking to the road again in 'Round The Horne' and his one man-show 'Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams'. Here he shares his story about when he was first cast as the iconic performer, and the experiences he's encountered.
It was the afternoon of my thirtieth birthday, and I was just about to put a live lobster in the pot, when I received a call from my soon-to-be director, who announced I was to play Kenneth Williams.
Like Anthony Burgess, whose opening line from his novel, Earthly Powers I have just mercilessly cribbed, I'm fond of the contrivance of what is known as 'an arresting opening'. In my case, there's nothing of contrivance about it (it's also not nearly as arresting as Burgess'). Though the fact is, it was my 30th birthday, and I was just about to shove a live crustacean into a boiling cauldron of death for mine and my wife's consumption.
So that's the picture; me in the kitchen, phone in one hand, a fairly pissed-off lobster in the other. I was an occasional 'in work actor'. This is actors' code for 'out of work without a pot to piss in'. Well, I did have a pot, hence the lobster. My wife had paid for the latter.
"Hello?!...", the voice on the end of the phone repeated. "I said, I'm offering you the part of Kenneth Williams in Apollo Theatre Company's national tour of Round The Horne, would you like to take it?" I suddenly remembered the phone in my hand. I collected my thoughts, double checked which hand was holding the phone and which the lobster, and put the phone to my ear..
"Erm, hello...yes sorry I was just doing dinner."
"Oh sorry." came the cheerful reply. "Anything nice?"
I looked at the creature still clutched in my other hand, who now seemed to be staring at me with a questioning eye, probably wondering if I was some kind of sadist.
"Lobster" I said quickly, in a kind of frantic, high pitched 'Bertie Wooster-style' voice, as though I was used to eating this kind of meal every day.
"Oh!", came the still cheerful if now somewhat bemused voice. "Erm, well....very nice."
The fact that he didn't hang-up there and then, signing off with "I've changed my mind, you're obviously a pretentious git" whilst mentally ripping me limb from limb, is a testament to his enduring good nature and kind patience. You're probably thinking the same thing. You're probably right.
As it was, I eventually managed to stammer out a few words of profound thanks, and gratefully accepted his offer. I'm not sure if he was relieved at this point, or currently going through a mental list of other actors he wished he'd called first. We ended the conversation with the usual pleasantries, safe in the knowledge that rehearsals would start in a few short weeks.
Dinner was lovely by the way. The lobster didn't agree. The lobster was dead. Consumed. Finally.
The role, like the meal, was worth waiting for. Christ knows I'd been 'doing a Kenneth Williams' since I was about 12 years old. Pretty good considering my balls didn't drop until I was at least 14. I blame the water in the Suffolk countryside. Better late than never I suppose.
Since that first tour I've played Williams and other parts in various 'Apollo Theatre' productions, from Round The Horne, The Goon Show to Hancock's Half Hour, via my own one man show, Cult Figure, (more of which shortly) all of which spurned from that initial tour, probably the best birthday present I've ever had.
If you play a role long enough, you're always going to find the odd coincidence, especially if the role you're playing happens to be a real person. During my first tour with Round The Horne, I secured some digs with a wonderful lady called Sarah. Before we ended the call confirming my booking she asked, "So, who are you playing?" I replied, "Oh, Kenneth Willaims". "Really?" she asked. "That's funny, he stayed here once before". She rang off. I had to wait a further two months to find out more.
Turns out, Williams had stayed in the house years before Sarah had moved there herself. Like me, he stayed there whilst on tour, recording his time in his now infamous diaries:
"Spent the afternoon sleeping, and the evening trying to learn lines in a very cold bedroom. Couldn't use the sitting room because a Scotsman with an incredible line in pedantry monopolises it..."
When I eventually rocked up to the address, Sarah, a tall, elegant lady, welcomed me warmly and said 'I've put you in Kenneth's room'. Unlike Williams, my own stay was a delight, and the room, very warm and comfortable. I've stayed twice since.
Other events have also followed me over the years, both on and off tour. Whilst performing in London in 2016, I was asked by author/broadcaster Wes Butters to attend a special 90th celebration of Williams birthday at Joe Allen, the famous 'actors' restaurant. Present were many of Kenneth's dearest friends, and I was touched to be included. It was moving to hear so many people talk warmly of a person who had touched their lives, and whom they still missed. It also served as a reminder of the responsibility that comes when playing someone who is still so loved and respected. Similarly, I ended up co-presenting a book launch for the publication of The Kenneth Williams Companion by Adam Endacott. Once again, surrounded by friends of Kenneth's and reading out extracts and anecdotes from his life. No pressure then.
It was shortly before this latter engagement that I was approached by my director, who asked if I fancied compiling a solo show, celebrating Williams' life and work. No small task. But not one I was about to pass up. The homework was certainly fun. Much has been deliberated on his personal life, the usual cliches of an inwardly tortured soul who made others laugh but couldn't do it for himself. This has been compounded in the years following his death with the publication of his aforementioned diaries. Then there is, of course, the nature of his death, which the coroner recorded as an 'open verdict'.
Kenneth's oft quoted phrase, 'I'm a cult figure' is as true today as when he first said it. His status has gone from being a 'national treasure' during his lifetime to that of an almost mythical entity in the years since. It's almost impossible to categorise him. It's with that in mind that we set about creating the production, and the choice of its final title. 2022 will be Cult Figures' second tour. We would have done it sooner, but...
Well you know the rest. Sadly, as the rest of us, my professional life was turned upside down in 2020 with the outbreak of Covid. Like all 'resting' actors, I had to 'diversify'. Again, actor's jargon for 'I need to make some bloody money, fast'. Not an easy enterprise when the rules kept changing every five minutes. Thankfully, I'm a dab-hand with a paint roller, and I got a job decorating a friend's deserted flat in King's Cross. No, it wasn't a flat previously owned by you know who. Though he did live in the flat upstairs.
I found this out later.
Had I known at the time, I probably wouldn't have played Round The Horne quite so loudly during my seven day stay (for research purposes of course) with the windows open. C'mon; paint fumes and all that. My employer, and owner of the flat, is a priest. As far as I know, he hasn't yet had a call from his upstairs neighbour asking for an exorcism. "The Power of Ken Compels you!"
So, two years after we did our last performance, Apollo Theatre Company is now back on the road, with both Round The Horne and Cult Figure. This time round, I've got Ken in stereo! Playing the same part in two very different productions.
It's incredible that over thirty years since Kenneth's death at the age of only 62, we still marvel at his unique talent and ability to captivate, enchant and entertain. He excelled in all mediums, on stage, radio, film and television. His body of work throughout his life was incredible, and like all unique figures, we are captivated as much by the artist as by the work he left behind. In Cult Figure I hope we reveal both these elements side by side.
As he said himself, 'we are a portion of everything we've ever loved'. Well, I certainly love playing Kenneth Williams. I look forward to getting back to work.
Round The Horne runs from 19th January to 20th February. Info & dates
Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams begins in February and runs until 27th May. Info & dates