Kenneth Williams versus John Betjeman


So Kenneth comes on stage and instantly launches into a nervy diatribe about one thing or another, and it’s all very funny because the alternative is that it isn’t. Maggie Smith is there and leaned way back and does try a couple of times to butt in and add or ask but realises there simply isn’t any point; though she is commendably comfortable enough in her own skin and pleased enough with herself for it not to worry her or make us feel in any way awkward for her.


All the while the great, talcum-ed lump of poet is sat opposite. The documentary is about Ken so we don’t hear the earlier interview with John Betjeman. He has brown eyes and the camera scours his face and he is utterly oblivious of being seen, so it seems. Think of a big white dog with perpetually down turned ears, as a mark of absolute and preternatural compliance.


Parkinson manages to navigate the super tanker of Ken’s conversation towards what he must have been interviewing John B about: architecture. John lights up and Ken gives him some airspace. Betjeman scores treble twenties with the audience by slamming some modern (then) blots on the landscape and deriding homes that aren’t on the floor. Ken clearly has space around his hatred for humans like Betjeman to occupy. Then Ken takes the baton and his sneer is so vicious and his invective so violent the audience has to laugh. This is Kenneth Williams white and tired-eyed with hate.


Betjeman calms Ken when he talks of his respect for actors, how they are givers quite unlike reviewers and critics. All people like you, he says to Kenneth and Maggie, is give. How exhausting it must be, all day, giving of yourselves. Yes, Ken agrees, it is exhausting.


Poor human beings. Poor Kenneth Williams. Washed up on Parkinson with Betjeman and Maggie Smith, like a brown island in the seventies, dragged out of the exhausting fact of their lives to share in how hard it is being them: how hard it is being Kenneth Williams. It looks hard.


Then the best thing ever: Parkinson alludes to what they planned earlier and Kenneth pulls a big book from his big blazer pocket. He and Maggie take turns on the stanzas of Leamington Spa, as a surprise for JB. And as well as if they were each the writer themselves, deliver the poem. Kenneth’s classic RP and Dame Maggie’s neatest speaking voice. With John Betjeman looking on, mouthing the words without a hint of arrogance. Shaking Kenneth’s hand heartily at the end, and saying something that gets lost in the applause.


How these two men were made meant that there was simply no contest: in each other’s company neither felt in any way threatened by the other. Kenneth Williams versus Sir John Betjeman makes no sense. Whatsoever.


About grahamcliffordpoet

Graham is an award winning poet, based in London. He graduated from the University of East Anglia with an MA in Creative Writing, and has since published nationally and internationally, winning many awards and performing at some of the most prestigious and well known Literary Festivals. His debut collection, The Hitting Game, is published by Seren.
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