Kenneth, Frankie and me by David Benson
Two of the nation’s favourite funnymen, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, are brought back to life in David Benson’s one-man shows. But the actor tells Karen Price how elements are about him
DAVID Benson was working in a bookshop in Edinburgh when a theatre director walked in and invited him to be a part of his show.
For someone who had an ambition to act but had shunned drama school in order to gain more “life experiences” it was the perfect case of serendipity.
The show, Glad, which also featured homeless people, became the surprise hit of the 1990 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Benson’s dreams of being an actor finally became reality.
Since then, he has penned his own one-man shows and two of them – about funnymen Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd – are now being brought to Wales.
While the two plays are about the characters of Williams and Howerd, they also weave in extracts of Benson’s own traumatic upbringing in Birmingham with a schizophrenic mother.
“I retreated into a fantasy world,” says the 46-year-old of his teenage years. “Spike Milligan and the Goon Show and the Marx Brothers saved me. I was obsessed with them. All of my school work was covered in Spike Milligan-type jokes.”
Despite taking an academic course in theatre studies, he then found himself taking on different jobs before ending up in the bookshop and being “discovered”.
“I deliberately avoided going to drama school as I was worried about being turned into a product,” he says. “I felt it would be more important to get experience of life and learn about my character that way. Once you learn about yourself, you can figure out how other people work.”
In 1996, after the success of Glad, Benson decided the time was right to fulfil his ambition and launch a one-man show.
He had been watching a South Bank Show special about the late Carry On actor Kenneth Williams and he felt he would be the perfect subject.
“I could already do his voice – I had started doing it for the amusement of myself and my friends so I thought I may as well get paid for doing it. I started to look into his life and read his diaries and found them a great inspiration.”
While it’s a character study of Williams, elements of Benson’s childhood are introduced.
“When I was 13, in 1975, I wrote a story for a Jackanory story-writing competition in Milligan style. It was one of the winners and Kenneth Williams actually read it out on Jackanory so that is my way into talking a bit about my life in the show.”
When it comes to adopting Williams’s distinctive voice, Benson says he has to “warm up”. “If I have not done it for a week or so I have to find the Kenneth Williamsness in my voice again. I usually get a sore throat after the first performance.”
So what did Benson make of Welsh actor Michael Sheen’s critically acclaimed portrayal of Williams in the BBC4 drama Fantabulosa!?
“I think Michael Sheen did a very good job but I didn’t like the script,” he says diplomatically.
After the Williams show – the full title of which is Think No Evil Of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams – Benson wrote another play, Mourning Glory, which was inspired by Princess Diana’s funeral.
After that he says he “lost my way” and ended up working in the offices of a financial recruitment consultancy.
“I was working with people who were not at all impressed that I had been on the West End stage. It was good for the ego as it kept me grounded.”
During this time, the seed for his next show about Frankie Howerd was born.
“People had been saying to me for years, ‘Why don’t you do a show about Frankie Howerd?’ as if I intended to spend my life impersonating dead camp comics. I didn’t.”
The show, David Benson – To Be Frank, touches on Benson’s time in the office.
“That’s the link with Frankie Howerd as his career was a rollercoaster – from tremendous successes to suddenly finding himself unemployable. I was interested in what happens to a performer who’s very successful and values himself on being able to make an audience laugh and what happens then when the audience is taken away.”
Benson is now interested in basing a play on 18th century writer Dr Samuel Johnson, particularly as this year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth.
But before that he’s singing the songs of Noel Coward at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – where he started out.
Despite the revivals of the Williams and Howerd plays, Benson says he’s reluctant to produce any more “biographical” shows in the future.
“I don’t want to become a cliche.”
Think No Evil Of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, tonight & tomorrow and David Benson – To Be Frank is at the venue on March 28 & 29