Kenneth Williams goes rambling
The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo
Starline SRS 5034
There’s probably not much I can say about Kenneth Williams that hasn’t been said many hundreds of times already. The details of his life have been picked over and analysed by many noted writers and scholars, and the results displayed in various books, biographies, dramas and documentaries. Chief among those analysts is Kenneth Williams himself, a meticulous and obsessive chronicler of his own life who compiled an immense diary that included every minute detail of his life and thoughts for over forty years. Yet despite all that huge wealth of material, despite all the many attempts to scrutinise Kenneth Williams’ life, more material still keeps appearing year after year. So just what is the fascination with Kenneth Williams?
Kenneth Williams was a consummate comic actor, he had few equals in his profession and he brought joy and pleasure to millions of adoring fans. It wasn’t those remarkable talents that ensured Williams’ enduring fame though, his work was astounding by anyone’s standards but it was not enough to perpetuate the intrigue and interest in him. Instead, what fascinates people to this day and provides inspiration for writers and dramatists, are the strange contradictions and dichotomies that surround Kenneth Williams and the unique and peculiar personal world that he constructed.
Kenneth Williams was an incredibly skilled actor who could turn his hand to anything, and yet he refused all overtures to work in America. He was a relatively uneducated cockney who through self-study became an incredibly knowledgeable and pedantic scholar. He felt contempt for much of his work, professing to love the theatre above all other media, but he soon become bored and tired when performing on stage. He desperately craved attention and yet was privately tortured by being recognised in public places. He revelled in the company of others and yet he spent his entire life painfully alone. He projected an outrageously camp homosexual persona in much of his work and yet he remained introverted in reality, unable to form a meaningful relationship with another person, perpetually tortured and sexually frustrated until his death.
And so all those complex riddles and enigmas power the myth and legend, and the Kenneth Williams industry rolls ever on, producing more material each year in an attempt somehow to move closer to unlocking the complex conundrum that was his life. Will anyone ever satiate the public’s continuing desire for titillation and information in relation to Kenneth Williams? I doubt whether any writer will ever definitively prove or solve anything either way. In fact I wonder after all this time just what it is they are still trying to prove. What will undoubtedly remain for posterity is Kenneth Williams’ remarkable body of comic work. Kenneth Williams excelled in whatever he did; in the theatre, on television, in films and, via his radio work, also on vinyl.
The character of Rambling Syd Rumpo first appeared in the radio series Round the Horne. This popular show ran from 1965 until 1968, evolving from the earlier series Beyond Our Ken. Both shows were built around the talents of Kenneth Horne, a sober authoritarian figure who presided over the camp madness of Kenneth Williams and the rest of the cast. Horne revelled in playing the pivotal role of an avuncular uncle somehow aloof from all the surreal comedy surrounding him, and was the perfect droll comic foil for Williams. The series ended abruptly after Horne’s death, evolving once again to become the Kenneth Williams fronted Stop Messing About. Round the Horne was a tough act to follow though, the series missed Horne’s tremendous talents and was quietly cancelled after just two series.
Rambling Syd was a crazed yokel folk artist who mangled many familiar folk standards with his own brand of ludicrous innuendo. Bizarre nonsense words were liberally sprinkled throughout his songs thanks to the writing talents of Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Words such as ‘nadger’, ‘grunger’, ‘splod’ and ‘artefact’ were used to infer who knows what. As can be heard on the various recordings Kenneth Williams made as Rambling Syd, audiences enjoyed drawing their own conclusions and found each subtly inferred innuendo hilarious in the extreme.
The track below is taken from the 1970 album The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo on the EMI imprint Starline. Given the major label backing and the popularity of the Round the Horne radio series, it’s quite a shoddy affair. The cover image of Williams (for some reason not portrayed in character as Rambling Syd) is shot in black and white and printed on what feels like quite cheap card. In fact there is no colour anywhere on the sleeve and the whole effort feels like a major cash-in on Williams’ talents. What is great though is the content, don’t judge a record by its cover as someone probably said once upon a time. Williams is on top form as is his regular guitarist Terry Walsh. The audience hang on Kenneth’s every ludicrous word and relish every single tortured West Country vowel. They bray at every innuendo and howl with raucous regularity at every slight insinuation of the merest remote possibility of an innuendo.
Kenneth would return to the character of Rambling Syd throughout his career with great affection. It was a characterisation that brought him and his adoring public a lot of joy. So to play us out, here’s Syd with that traditional West London lament, The Black Grunger of Hounslow.
Further such Carryings On at:
The Whippit Inn