The Kenneth Williams Walk

September 6, 2010

London Sights

Now before you get the wrong idea we’re not talking about your actual walk per se, we’re talking about taking a walk with Kenneth Williams (well, with the actor who has played him frequently on the stage, David Benson, to be precise) around the part of Camden that he called home.

Yesterday morning saw a large group gather for another of the Camden Borough walks highlighting the connections between important cultural figures and the Borough. Along with David, our guide for the morning, the Mayor also put in another appearance and this time brought along the vivacious Lady Mayoress, broadcaster, writer and entertainer, Amy Lamé. We started off at the 1960s Town Hall building and then ventured into an area that certainly most visitors, indeed many Londoneers, are unfamiliar with – the quiet and peaceful streets and squares of Bloomsbury.

As we strolled along, David stopped us from time to time at several places that were significant in Williams’ life, occasionally and hilariously slipping into the Williams persona – he certainly gave a couple of young lads in a white van on the Euston Road a conversation they weren’t expecting! Along the way we looked at the Methodist Church on Birkenhead St where Kenneth worshipped as a boy, which now has a Chinese congregation, and also at the Argyle St School (once the Manchester St School) where Kenneth received his first glowing review after performing as ‘Princess Angelica’ in William Makepeace Thackary’s ‘The Rose and the Ring’. After that we went on to two of the properties where Kenneth spent his formative years, Cromer House where Kenneth lived when he was of primary school age and of course we also took in the property on Marchmont Street where he had a top floor room until his early twenties, above his father’s barbershop. Strangely enough it has a similar use today, as a hairdressers, and now sports a blue plaque which was unveiled in October of last year by two performers who Kenneth had worked with during his career, Nicholas Parsons and Bill Pertwee.

Taking in other architectural oddities in the surrounding streets, including a building known as the ‘White Shop’, a butchers that once saw an elephant come through its doors, and the many small hotels now respectable but notorious in years past for the short-lived assignations of prostitutes and their clientelle, we finally finished the tour at the Boot pub. This venue is significant, not only because an inn has stood on the site since the 17th century and features in Charles Dickens’ work, but because Kenneth spent many an evening here entertaining family, friends and neighbours during raucous sing-a-longs, using a piano that was rolled down the street from a neighbours flat for the purpose. In fact, the pub features heavily in the 80s documentary ‘Comic Roots’ where Kenneth revisits many of the places that we saw today. The question that might be hanging on your lips at this point is ‘Did you have another sing-a-long today?’ Well of course we did, with pianist Stuart Nicholls tickling the ivories while David led the room in renditions of some of the old cockney favourites…

I really enjoyed the walk today and again, as I said regarding the Camden Music Walk a few weeks ago, I hope its something that turns into a regular event – I’m sure that fans of comedy from far and wide would turn up in droves to something like this. For those of you unfamiliar with Williams’ work I’ve found the ‘Heroes of Comedy‘ and ‘Fantabulosa‘ programmes (where the end of Williams’ life is dramatised by Michael Sheen) serialised on YouTube, which should serve you well as an introduction. If you want to delve deeper however, I can recommend the BBC CD sets of his Julian and Sandy sketches with Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Horne, from the ‘Round The Horne’ radio series, which are probably the best examples of his comedy acting – they’re absolutely outrageous, and even more so when you consider that they were broadcast to the British listening audience of the mid-1960s. Of course you could also go to see David Benson’s play, ‘Think No Evil of Us – My Life with Kenneth Williams’ but more on that later. Even without the Kenneth Williams angle this is a lovely part of town – there are some beautiful sights around here, and its surprisingly calm and peaceful given that traffic roars up and down the Euston Road only yards away.

From Kenneth Williams Walk, September 2010

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