At last, the truth about the tangled relationship between Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams

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Stanley Baxter & Kenneth Williams
Stanley Baxter & Kenneth Williams

WHAT was the truth of the relationship between Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams? The comedy greats met in 1946 when they were both conscripted into the army.

And occasional references to the pair over the years suggested they were more than just friends. But was that the case? How close in fact were the Scots comedy legend and the Carry On favourite?

When asked about the affections for the Carry On star, who died in 1987, Stanley’s reply was something of a shock. “Oh, I hadn’t seen Kenny for a couple of years before he died. He was so difficult. He was very hard to be around, so we lost touch.”

It was a surprise statement to hear because it was patently untrue. Fake news. Williams’ Diaries revealed that he and his chum had met just weeks before, when Stanley drove his friend around North London looking at homes to rent or buy. Why had Stanley declared otherwise?

Theirs was certainly a complicated relationship, the curtain being opened one afternoon in Hogmanay, 1946. Corporal Baxter flew into Singapore, desperately hoping to be transferred into the Combined Services Entertainment unit (the Concert Party world featured in the BBC sitcom, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum) and avoid the “stupefying boredom” that post-war army life was offering up.

On route to Nee Soon, where the (life-changing) auditions would take place, Stanley heard there was a chance of a lift at the Victoria Theatre, where the CSE boys party were rehearsing a play. But his request fell on deaf ears. “Sorry, mate. We’re full,” said a sergeant on duty.

The refusal was barely out of the mouth when another voice crashed into the conversation. “Now, what’s going on here?” yelled the imperious voice of a grey-haired old man with a walrus moustache, who was wearing a trilby hat. The old man then asked Stanley his name and what seemed to be the problem.

On closer inspection, Stanley realised the old man was in fact a young man wearing a wig and a glued-on tache. “Of course, we’ll take him,” said the old/young man, overruling the sergeant. Stanley thanked him and the nasal whine of Kenneth Williams gushed, “Oh, don’t be silly!”

Stanley, thanks to Williams’ support, was successful in his audition and Kenneth fast became Stanley’s new best friend and Svengali. He helped the Scot into army accommodation, educated him into the ways of the concert party world, and alongside future film director John Schlessinger and playwright Peter Nichols, the quartet had the time of their lives.

Peter Nichols described the relationship between Stanley and Kenneth at the time. “They were clearly very close, and both very, very clever – and funny. But they were both great performers who loved attention, and often competed for whichever audience they could get.”

He laughed. “Very often there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room for both of them.”

Two men who were attention-seeking rivals, yet couldn’t be apart from each other? On return to Civvy Street, both admitted they ‘missed each other terribly.’ They met later in London, where Stanley encouraged Kenneth to make his career in acting.

The pair wrote to each other regularly. Williams travelled to Glasgow to stay with Stanley and his family. And when Stanley decided to marry Moira Robertson, Williams was the first person he told. “Kenny thought I was making a terrible mistake,” says Stanley. “And that he was losing a friend.”

Was Kenneth Williams jealous? In part. Was he speaking common sense? Absolutely. But he was wrong to worry about losing Stanley. Even though he found his bride “boring, like most women,” he would visit Stanley and Moira in Glasgow where Stanley was now appearing in variety theatre.

When Williams found major fame with Carry on Sergeant in 1958, the pair were as close as ever. And when Stanley and Moira moved to London in 1959, he and his friend saw each other as much as film and TV schedules would allow.

It was Stanley and Kenneth who enjoyed weekend breaks, holidaying, for example, in Amsterdam in 1964, although bickering arguments travelled with them. Stanley had booked the pair into a gay hotel, but Williams was upset by “the queens coming and going all night.” Stanley organised another (straight) hotel, but Williams’ strop continued, and he announced he was going home. Stanley was beyond upset. “I wanted to drown him in one of the canals,” he sighed.

Williams proved to be just as difficult over the years; erratic, duplicitous, bitter at times. But still clever. Still very funny. The pair would fall out almost on meeting, but not for very long. In 1966, Stanley, having been working in theatre in Australia for months, arranged to meet his friend in Beirut for a break. It revealed their closeness, although Williams’ ‘constant complaining’ meant another fall out.

And yet another, when Kenneth introduced Stanley to playwright Joe Orton one afternoon in Orton’s flat in London. Stanley was fascinated by Orton. “But I couldn’t get a word in. Kenny never shut up.”

Kenneth Williams took the huff when Stanley impersonated his friend in The Stanley Baxter Show, perhaps understandably. But their close relationship was still entirely evident in 1970 when Stanley left his wife and moved into a ‘single gay flat’ in London’s Judd Street. Kenneth moved into a flat in the same building.

Yet, Williams’ capacity for embellishment and trashing his friends often tested Stanley’s patience to the limit. On one occasion, Stanley, during the time of national power cuts, desperate for heat, tried to light the oven with a lit candle and was blown across the kitchen. Williams told dinner party friends that Stanley had been attempting suicide – and was now growing a Zapata moustache to conceal the burns. “He could be a little bastard,” says Stanley, grinning.

Stanley believes Elton John took a dislike to him, because Kenneth had thrown the pop star out of his dressing room once, for no good reason, and Stanley suffered by association.

Yet, lies and huffs apart, the dynamic remained powerful enough to hold them together. They took holidays in the gay-friendly Tangier. Williams once described Stanley as being the “ebullient sun to his languid moon.” The pair worked together in 1984, for the first time since the concert party, in an animation film called the Thief and the Cobbler. And over the years they would meet often, usually in their favourite West End Italian restaurant.

Then on April 15, 1988, Stanley was driving his car in London’s Regent Street when he heard a radio broadcast. Kenneth Williams was dead. Stanley admits he almost crashed his car. “I thought ‘Christ, he’s done it! He’s been threatening it for years and now he’s done it.’” Williams had often spoke of suicide.

But the pair hadn’t been estranged at the time. In fact, they’d always been close. So why claim he’d given up on Williams long ago?

Could it have been that Stanley Baxter was hiding the true nature of his relationship with Kenneth Williams? Did he miss deeply his friend of 40 years with whom he had so much in common? Did he crave the razor-sharp intellect, their sharp exchanges, the ability to spark off each other, and on many occasions, to infuriate the other?

Did he love his pal Kenny Williams, and chose to fake his feelings in order to cope?

“I guess that’s true,” says Stanley, when confronted with the evidence. “I guess I wanted to re-write history in my head because it was easier to believe we’d drifted apart. The reality was Kenny was difficult. And his illness didn’t help. But it never really got in the way of our relationship. Yes, I loved Kenny. We were never partners in a sexual sense, but I do miss him. I so wish he were alive today.”

They had shared so much over the years; the excitement of a future in acting, the disappointments, the showbiz tittle-tattle, the friends in common, the backstage bitching, and of course the secret of their sexuality.

And both liked gay men who looked straight. Not camp figures. Which perhaps explains why they were never more than friends. “Perhaps,” he says, smiling. “Who knows. But I guess, I was angry when Kenny died.”

His eyes moisten as he adds; “Angry, in truth, because my friend had left me.”

The Real Stanley Baxter is out now in paperback, Luath Press Ltd, £9.99

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