Here is a rare and rather wonderful piece of Kenneth Williams’ archive: his brilliant interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s farcical short story Diary of a Madman .
In 1963, Kenneth Williams agreed to narrate an animated version of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for film-maker Richard Williams. The pair had previously worked together on the short cartoon Love Me Love Me. According to the splendid biography Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens:
Gogol’s story gave lunatic scope to [Kenneth] Williams’s voices. It told of a lonely clerk, who is driven out of his wits by unrequited love until he succumbs to delusions that, as the uncrowned king of Spain, he is spied upon by talking dogs.
In a recording session that stretched for more than six hours without a break, Williams read from the clerk’s diary in a halting voice, like a man on a window-ledge who cannot will himself to suicide. Other personalities pierced the reading - the sadism of the office supervisor, the contempt of the boss’s daughter, the shrill proclamations of King Ferdinand VIII. ‘I was pretty hard on him, and made him read passages again and again to get the right effect. It freaked him out,’ Richard Williams recalled. ‘At one point he walked out of the studio and I had to run after him. It was a block and a half before I caught up and persuaded him to come back.’ Full of repetition and bitter nonsense, the piece is almost nauseating as the clerk slops and flounders towards insanity. While no recordings exist of Williams in his most unsettling stage roles, Diary of a Madman is proof of his merciless gift for sustained, upsetting performance.
Sadly the animation was never completed, but this incredible recording was later re-edited by the BBC and broadcast on Radio 4 in 1991.
Dramatization by James Burke
Music by Peter Shade
Directed by Richard Williams
Produced by Ned Chaillet
Re-mixed for radio by John Whitehall
Kenneth Williams reads one of Richmal Compton’s classic Just William stories: “William Goes Shopping”
Previously on Dangerous Minds