BOOTLEG FILES 696: “Stop Messin’ About! – The Very Best of Kenneth Williams” (1996 documentary on the British funnyman).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Due to its lack of availability in the U.S.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
One of the joys of the long-running British film series of Carry On comedies was the brilliance of its ensemble – this was the rare series where every member of the cast enjoyed a wealth of laugh-out-loud dialogue and sight gags. But if there was a first among equals in the Carry On crew, it would have to be the immortal Kenneth Williams.
With his flaring nostrils, a wide mouth that formed a circular gasp and produced a brilliantly nasal voice, and an astonished gaze that emoted shock or lascivious thoughts, Williams was usually found as the vaguely villainous authority figure who inevitably got tripped up by his own outward pretensions and barely concealed erotic peccadilloes. Even when the Carry On material grew weak and smutty later in the series’ run, Williams managed to perform comic alchemy and spin fine wisps of comic gold from material that would be leaden if other actors were given the role.
But who was Kenneth Williams? He never performed in the U.S. and most Americans only know him from the Carry On imports. In goofing about YouTube one afternoon, I chanced upon an unauthorized posting of a 1996 documentary called “Stop Messin’ About! – The Very Best of Kenneth Williams,” and I was under the impression that I could learn about the man behind the peerless farcical comedies. Alas, I came away from the documentary possessing barely more knowledge on the subject than I carried before the viewing process began.
“Stop Messin’ About! – The Very Best of Kenneth Williams” starts with an adult Kenneth Williams at the dawn of his stardom. There is nothing about his youth or family life, nor does it mention his early stage roles in prestigious West End productions of “Saint Joan” (as the Dauphin) or Orson Welles’ “Moby Dick – Rehearsed” (as Elijah). The film finds Williams gaining his first prominence in the radio and television series “Hancock’s Half Hour,” where he showed a gift for funny voices. “Stop messin’ about!” became a catchphrase for Williams, and the documentary offers a very rare clip of Williams in a skit with star Tony Hancock. (Considering that most of 1950s’ British television is considered lost, the preservation of this clip is quite a treasure.) There is passing reference of Williams’ work in other radio shows, but no clips are provided.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the documentary concentrates on the Carry On films that made Williams a household name in Britain. A running gag in the films was having the scrawny Williams pursued by chubby oversexed women – there are a surplus amount of clips with Joan Sims, Patsy Rowland and (most memorably) Hattie Jacques trying to arouse the carnal appetite of Williams, who mostly reacted to these entreaties with either contempt or dismay. On a few occasions, Williams is the sexual predator, most notably when he tries to convince the skeptical Jacques of his intentions by comparing premarital sex to shopping for wallpaper. (I’m not even going to try to run the quote – it has to be heard in Williams’ voice to have the full comic effect.)
Williams also had a Carry On foil in the lovely blonde Barbara Windsor, who had a knack of putting Williams in embarrassing situations – most notably in “Carry On Camping” when her energetic calisthenics cause her bra to snap loose and fly into Williams’ face.
However, you would only know that scene from “Carry On Camping” if you already saw it. Anyone who is new to Williams’ work will be baffled watching “Stop Messin’ About!” because almost none of the films are identified on screen. A few will be immediately recognizable, particularly “Carry On Cleo” with Williams’ Julius Caesar uttering the single funniest line in British film history. (Again, I am not quoting it – the line is meaningless without Williams’ deathless delivery.)
The documentary tiptoes around Williams’ private life, ignoring his wretched relationship with his abusive father and briefly acknowledging the solid and loving bond he had with his mother. Writer and comic Barry Took claims Williams was envious of openly gay Carry On co-star Charles Hawtrey’s ability to pick up sailors in the pubs, while Patsy Rowland and Barbara Windsor state that Williams tried to arrange for marriages with women on the condition there would be no sex.
The documentary has praise for Williams’ wit and generosity as a performer, but the film barely acknowledges any of Williams’ work outside of the Carry On films – he was a popular presence on radio comedy series and on television quiz shows, as well as a generous raconteur on talk shows. Despite his wit and charm, Williams’ off-stage life was hardly a cheerful romp – his death in 1988 at the age of 62 from a barbiturates overdose and the final entry in his diary of “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” points to a harsher depth of emotional pain than this film is willing to acknowledge.
“Stop Messin’ About” was created as part of a series of British documentaries on that nation’s comedy stars. I am unaware of the film being broadcast on U.S. television or being released in the U.S. home entertainment market. Perhaps it is for the best – this is hardly a worthwhile tribute to a marvelous comedy talent and an elusively complex man.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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