The Secret Life of Kenneth Williams

We've all got out little secrets, haven't we? But you can't keep things hidden forever - so you are now going to hear about the side of me that no one knows.'

Two series of this show were made, The Secret Life and More of the Secret Life, although in the diaries, Kenneth refers to it as the Secret World of at one time. They were two distinct series with more than a year between them, but they retained the same formet throughout. I have located most of the shows now and will be bring you a detailed guide in the not too distant future, but to begin with, here are the basics.

Both series were broadcast on Radio 4, the first being of eight half hour shows, and the follow up series a full thirteen, and all were written by R.D. Wingfield. The dates are from the Radio Times, and the titles give an overview of the show, but these are not titles attributed to the scripts. Only one of the shows, The Black Widow, has been retained by the BBC for their archive.

At the time of broadcast, a portion of one of the scripts featured in The Listener, pictured left along with an article written by Kenneth, and this will be here very shortly. These shows are in a different vein to Beyond Our Ken, or Round The Horne, and cannot really be compared, but they are very good notheless. The main problem with radio shows with Kenneth as the star is there is very little to play his extrovert nature off of. With RTH and BOK, Kenneth Horne provided the stability of the show, and left a foot firmly on the ground whilst the rest of the cast could take people into the realms of fantasy. To a certain extent this is also true of the Goon Show, where although there are many trips into nonsense, Spike Milligan was able to write in such a way as a train of events could logically be followed, and if followed, would make the most ludicrous situation sound natural.

I have been very fortunate to be able to speak to the writer of the series, R. D. Wingfield about the show, Kenneth and many other things, and the transcript of this is reproduced below. It answers many questions and provides a rare insight into the production of a radio show. I have to thank Rodney very much for this opportunity.

Q: Secret Life is an unusual show as it is based entirely around Kenneth, unlike Stop Messing About that was a direct continuation from the success of Beyond Our Ken and Round The Horne, this was more structurally written. Why was this?

RDW: It was different because it was a Radio Drama production instead of the more usual Light Ent. It seems that Drama were offered this half-hour slot by Radio 2 - much to the annoyance of Lt. Ent. I don't really know what was behind the decidion but Drama and Lt. Ent. were daggers drawn for a while. Richard Imison, Script Editor Radio Drama, thought he could get Kenneth Williams and, being at the time one of Drama's blue eyed boys, (happy days!) I was commisioned to write a pilot script.

Q: Were you given any guidelines?

RDW: I was told Kenneth fancied playing a secret agent so based the script on this. KW loved the script and another seven were commissioned. I was given seven weeks to turn out seven finished half hour scripts. It was a teeth-gritting grind. I would finish one script Sunday night, post it off, then start with a blank sheet of paper on Monday Morning - I used to meet my deadlines in those days. Drama were happy with the scripts so a production team was formed, like me, all Kenneth Williams addicts. We were so excited at the chance of working with our idol and impatiently counted the days to the recording dates.

Q: Where did the recording take place?

RDW: At the Paris Studio, Lower Regent Street where, I was thrilled to learn, the famous ITMA wartime shows were recorded. It augured well, but…

Q: But…?

RDW: Perhaps, because Drama Dept. were inexperienced in audience recordings, we didn’t get a very good time slot at The Paris - Thursday lunchtimes as far as I can remember. We had a Drama Department Studio Manager who was very concerned with recording levels and kept the audience response mikes down low in case they overloaded the tape signal. Lt. Ent. Always turned the wick right up as audience reaction was important. My suggestion that we should do likewise was rejected.

There was one recording date - I think it was for an episode called THE PHANTOM LIGHT, or something similar - when no amount of turning the wick up would have made any difference. That day there was an IRA bomb scare in London and I walked to the studio through deserted streets and traffic-less roads - rather like the scene in the film SEVEN HOURS TO NOON where the city is evacuated because a maniac with a stolen atomic bomb threatens to blow up London. We had only about 40, very nervous, people in our audience, none in a laughing mood.

Q: You mentioned earlier that Kenneth was your idol. What was it like to work with him?

RDW: Traumatic! He didn’t stay our idol for long. He was difficult, unpleasant, bitchy and moody. One of his idiosyncrasies was that he didn’t want to see a script until he walked into the studio on the recording day. He wouldn’t know what the script contained until the first read through and if he wanted, as he often did, any alterations or re-writes, usually for no good reason, these had to be done by me on the spot. I didn’t mind this too much as I was good at off-the-cuff writing, but if these instant alterations meant that the required sound effects or musical effects weren’t available and there was a delay while the studio personnel had frantically to dash about to get these for him, Kenneth would spur them on with scathing, unpleasant comments on their efficiency.

At the first recording he curtly told the Production Secretary he did not want to receive any scripts in advance of the recording. Unfortunately, when the girl got back to Broadcasting House she found the next script was already going through the pipeline and its posting could not be stopped. The next week KW marched into the studio, face black as thunder, waving the offending script. "Where’s that f---ing girl?" he demanded. Spotting her, he spat abuse at her and aimed a kick which fortunately missed. He stomped off and wouldn’t listen to explanation. "That f---ing girl must go" he demanded. The girl left of her own accord together with the remnants of our admiration for the man. Later that day he boasted of how he had, the previous week, ruined a recording of Just a Minute by walking out half way through, leaving the team and the audience dumbfounded, because one of the contestants had dared to correct his pronunciation. I seem to be painting a very black picture of him. Now and again a sliver of his vulnerability would seep through and he seemed a pathetic figure who you couldn’t help feeling sorry for. And he had brief moments of being absolutely charming. A strange, mixed up man.

Q: How did he get on with those he was performing with if it wasn’t all sweetness and light with the production crew?

RDW: He seemed to tolerate the regulars, but probably tore them to pieces in his diary that night. As he didn’t get the scripts in advance, he didn’t learn casting details until a couple of days before the recording. He was then on the phone to Richard Imison saying that there was no way he would work with Y or X so the original actors had to be paid off and last minute replacements found - there were a couple of famous names involved.

Q: The first series must have been fairly successful for another to come along a year or so later - did things improve by then?

RDW: If we though he was difficult during the first series he was ten times as bad during the second. After signing the contract and agreeing to the series, he suddenly decided to withdraw about a month before the recording date and after all the scripts were written. "Sue me if you like" he told the BBC, "but I am not going to do it." He gave no reason. We suspected that Lt. Ent. Had got to him, suggesting he was being ill served by Drama. As the slots, the studio, and all the rest of the cast were booked, Drama frantically looked around for someone else to take over from KW. They came to me with the suggestion "Ronnie Corbett". They seemed to think that all I had to do was alter the name "Kenneth" to "Ronnie" in the script and all would be well. But I dug my heels in. If they wanted a different star the scripts would have to be completely rewritten to accommodate that star and there wouldn’t be time.

Q: So how did the second series come about then?

RDW: I took it upon myself to write a "clever" letter direct to Kenneth, saying how upset I was, but I quite understood why he wasn’t going ahead. It worked. I had a phone call from Richard Imison saying "How on Earth did you do it?" Kenneth had phoned him saying Rodney’s letter made him feel an absolute s—t and he would now go ahead with the series.

Trouble started with episode one. The actor cast in the role of Big Brother proved woefully inadequate, fluffing his lines, messing up everyone’s timing, and killing the laughs. Kenneth charged back to Broadcasting House demanding the man to be sacked or he would withdraw from the rest of the recordings. For once I was on his side. The actor was paid off and the terrific, under-rated Aubrey Woods took his place.

Stupidly (to save money), Drama didn’t completely re-record the first episode with the new Big Brother. They kept scenes in which he didn’t appear and simply did again the scenes where he did appear. These were recorded at the end of another audience session and didn’t get man laughs as the audience didn’t know the storyline or what the hell was going on.

There were many tantrums and rows between Kenneth and the Producer and then KW suddenly announced that he wouldn’t be able to male the last two recording dates as he had to go into hospital. This involved a lot of hasty re-scheduling and we had to record two separate shows, back to back, in little more than the time we usually had to record one. It was a hell of a grind but everyone responded magnificently. A snag was that out audience, most of whom had popped in during their lunch and hour had to get back to work, began filing our before the extra episode was recorded and the laughs were getting thinner and thinner.

None of us had the stomach for another series.

Broadcast DateName
14-7-71Curious Yellow
21-7-71Brief Encounter
28-7-71Harem Nights
4-8-71The Great Exhibition
11-8-71Funeral In East Berlin
18-8-71The Wooden Horse
25-8-71A Terribly Strange Bed
1-9-71The Black Widow

Broadcast DateName
3-4-73The Menace of Bra
10-4-73The Light That Failed
17-4-73The Bloody Tower
24-4-73The Terror of Grymsdyke Priory
1-5-73The Chamber of Horrors
8-5-73The Return of Frankenstein
15-5-73Jungles Drums
22-5-73Treachery In High Places
29-5-73The Mummy's Curse
5-5-73Those Tingles Down My Spine
12-5-73The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
19-5-73The Phantom Train of Loch McDoom
26-6-75Fives Graves To Westminster