Sweden Meets Britain: Ingrid Bergman On Stage with Kenneth Williams

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Seven months later, I’m back on Three Enchanting Ladies (I really must try to write more on this blog). It is a quite special occasion since it’s for the 5th Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon that I’m hosting on my main blog The Wonderful World of Cinema. Not only it marks the fifth edition of the online event, but it is also being hosted in honour of Ingrid’s 105th birthday (she was born on August 29, 1915). Sadly, it also marks her 38th death anniversary. Nevertheless, the reasons to honour Ingrid’s memory are more than numerous. As you might have noticed from a few past blogathon editions (being the Ingrid Bergman Blogathon but also the Grace Kelly Blogathon), I always like to present topics that are unusual or less talked about. Don’t get me wrong: it’s perfectly fine and interesting if you write a review of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), but, as a host, I always feel like it’s my responsibility to think a bit outside of the box and therefore give creative ideas to others for future articles.

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With that being said, I’ve decided, this year, to include a piece concerning a longtime favourite of mine, Ingrid, and someone who is relatively new to my list of people-I’m-obsessed-with. I name the one and only Kenneth Williams! For those who might not be familiar with the genius that Kenneth Williams was, he was a British comedy actor who distinguished himself with his unique voice and eccentric manners. He was what we could call “larger than life” and a legend in the British art industry. Kenneth Williams was sadly a tormented man, one of those “sad clowns”, but, here, I’m more willing to focus on his career than his personal life. The British actor had a prolific acting career on stage, on the radio and, of course, on the screen. Most people will remember him from the Carry On franchise as he was in 27 of the 31 Carry On films. And it’s with those films that I was introduced to Kenny. As some of you might know, last Fall, I did a blog series on my main blog where I reviewed all the Carry On films.

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Now you might wonder, “when does Ingrid Bergman arrive in all that”? I was around watching Carry On Cleo (Gerald Thomas, 1964) when I coincidentally came across pictures of Ingrid Bergman and Kenneth Williams. At this point, I had seen enough of Kenneth Williams to say that he was a favourite (actually, one film would have been enough for me), so to see him and Ingrid Bergman in photos together amazed me a lot. Not only because I love them both, but also because it seemed like a most unlikely pairing. But the fact that Ingrid Bergman was able to adapt herself to all kind of people and situations makes it not that surprising after all.

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The context to these pictures was the fact that Ingrid and Kenneth played on stage together in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. That happened in London in 1971. The fact that Bergman and Williams were not estranged to the stage world and that the play was staged in London also increased their chances to work together. At this point, they were both highly established actors and certainly deserved audiences’ respect.

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The play by the notorious Irish playwright premiered in 1900 and was part of the 1901 collection Three Plays of Puritans along with Ceasar and Cleopatra and The Devil’s Disciple (1). The story introduces Lady Ciceley (Bergman) who is to explore Morocco with Sir Howard. The expedition is led by Captain Brassbound who warns sir Howard about the way the justice rules in the country. Williams played the role of Drinkwater.

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S.1167-1994 Poster Poster advertising Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Cambridge Theatre, 1971 Echo Press Loughborough 1971

In 1971, this was not the first time for Kenneth Williams to appear in a Shaw’s play. He indeed was part of the  1948’s production of Candida with The Dolphin Players as well as in the 1954’s production of Saint Joan at the Arts Theatre and New Theatre in London (2). As for Ingrid, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion was her first and last introduction to the world of Shaw. That was also the first time she was playing in London since 1965 when she had appeared in Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. (3)

The Swedish actress and the British actor, despite their different cultural backgrounds, were two people with a great sense of humour, had a love for the stage and were queen and king of the performing arts in their respective way. In interviews, you can hear that they liked to talk about their experiences with acting, being on the stage or in films. They were both great raconteurs with very distinctive accents! So, to pair them together was most likely be a winning combination. Moreover, in some of the out-of-the set pictures, you can see that there was beautiful complicity between them.

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Sadly, there aren’t so many information about the time Ingrid and Kenneth played on stage together (mostly photos). I dug as much as I could to give you an as informative as possible article!

The photos, luckily, aren’t only of Bergman and Williams acting on stage, but also shots were taken at a press conference and a cocktail party. By 1971, Ingrid Bergman and Kenneth Williams had a considerable career between them. However, Bergman was perhaps a bit more widely known internationally, for having worked in several countries: Sweden, Germany, United States, France, Italy and the UK. As for Kenneth Williams, his background and himself were very much British.

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Bergman talks a lot about her stage career in her autobiography. However, I could not remember if she discussed her work with Williams. I must admit, when I read it, I hadn’t really heard of him, so, it’s probably a detail that I overlooked. Some helpful members of my Ingrid Bergman group on Facebook who had the book in their possession checked for me, and it seems that she only mentions him as being part of the cast but nothing more.

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What, of course, makes us more curious concerning this pairing is how the two got along with each other. Well, from what I could find, it was a rather friendly relationship sparkled with mutual respect. Indeed, Kenneth Williams said of Ingrid Bergman “I adore this woman and will forgive everything from someone who has her sweetness, radiance and generosity of spirit”. (4) I think Williams seized some of the best of Ingrid Bergman here! In the book Kenneth Williams: Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams, author Christopher Stevens explains that, due to anxiety, Williams would make mistakes, such as coming at the wrong cue, which resulted in Ingrid rebuking him. However, that didn’t make him angry since he liked Bergman very much. (5)

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Ingrid also respected Williams and even left a card in his dressing room in which she wrote “Be my next director! Feed out of your hand I would”. (6) Well, it’s too bad Ingrid’s project idea never happened! Always as explained by Stevens, Williams’s trust in Bergman was encouraged by the fact that she was able to make him feel like her equal (being the bigger star of the twos), treated him like a true friend and didn’t act like a diva towards him. Well, Ingrid Bergman had, after all, much more the attitude of a warm human being than a cold superstar (even tho she was one). (7) So, Williams probably felt good around her. If Bergman entered in the world of Williams’s British theatre, she, one evening, shared a bit of her culture when she invited him with British producer Binkie Beaumont and Clive Dennis for a supper of Swedish meatballs and vodka (Swedish vodka we assume)! (8) That is a scene I would have liked to witness!

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And Williams did keep a good memory of Ingrid Bergman when he discussed his experience with a friend. He first met this friend in question, coincidentally, in front of the Swedish Embassy in London. He and his Swedish travelling companion were arriving from Sweden after a hard trip and had not much money left. They arrived at the embassy to seek help, but  this one was closed. Coincidentally, Williams happened to pass by at this moment and saw the poor helpless lads. Pitying them, he decided to start a conversation which led him to talk about his professional experience with Ingrid Bergman. Later, the young man sent a thank you note to Williams, which led to letter correspondence of many years. (9) Williams was brilliant of talking about Ingrid to make the Swedish traveller feel more at home. The generosity of Williams had also led him to pay them a hotel and arrange for them to have a financially smooth trip. (10) What a great guy!

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Funny enough, I just discovered that I had already briefly mentioned Bergman’s work in Shaw’s play on this blog when I wrote about the time she met Grace Kelly. Indeed, as I’ve explained, Kelly, then Princess of Monaco, met her favourite actress when she visited her backstage during a representation of the play in London in 1971. So, another of the three enchanting ladies might have met Kenneth Williams as well! At least she saw him!

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The Bergman-Williams version of Shaw’s play began in London on February 1st 1971 and ran through July 31st 1971. It was short-lasting and engaged mixed reviews but broke the records of London theatre box office. (11) After all, this occasion was not one that would repeat itself so often. Ingrid Bergman pursued the role of Lady Cicely Waynflete the following year in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center. (12) It goes without saying that Ingrid Bergman and Kenneth Williams were both hugely talented actors in their own way. Their acting and mannerism were quite different, but this is how they could brilliantly complete each other. Bergman and Williams both passed away when they were still relatively young, in their 60s. Ingrid passed away in 1982 at the age of 67 after a hard battle with breast cancer, and Kenneth Williams passed away in 1988 at 62 from an overdose of barbiturates. It was not established if it was accidental or intentional. (13)

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Their collaboration was a small one, and their friendship is perhaps not as known as Ingrid Bergman friendship with Cary Grant or Kenneth Williams’s friendship with his Carry On co-star Barbara Windsor. Nevertheless, it’s the history of a partnership that must not be overlooked!

Long life to their memory!

To read to other entries, please check here.


Notes

(1) “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion,” Wikipedia,  accessed August 12, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Brassbound%27s_Conversion.

(2) “Kenneth Williams,” Wikipedia, accessed August 12, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Williams.

(3) “Ingrid Bergman déplore le déshabillage au cinéma,” La Presse 87, no 5 (winter/January 1971): A 10. BANQ numérique.

(4) Kenneth Williams cited in Christopher Stevens, Kenneth Williams: Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams (UK: John Murray Press, 2010). Google Book Sample.

(5) Stevens, Kenneth Williams.

(6) Ingrid Bergman cited in Stevens.

(7) Stevens, Kenneth Williams

(8) Ibid.

(9) “Musings on Richard Burton, the Miner Strikes, and Mental Health: The Unpublished Letters of Kenneth Williams,” Bloomsbury Auctions, accessed August 12, 2020, https://www.dreweatts.com/news-insights/musings-on-richard-burton-the-miners-strike-and-mental-health-the-unpublished-letters-of-kenneth-williams/.

(10) “Kenneth Williams, Just Williams: an autobiography with a small archive of his personal correspondance to a friend [London, 1985 & October 1983- May 1985],” Lot Search, accessed August 12, 2020, https://www.lotsearch.net/lot/kenneth-williams-just-williams-an-autobiography-with-a-small-archive-of-47870359.

(11) “Go on Kenny, show us your diction,” Tumblr, accessed August 12, 2020, https://kenneth-williams-diaries.tumblr.com/post/624062524448440321/ingrid-bergman-and-kenneth-williams-arrive-at-the.

(12) “Ingrid Bergman performances,” Wikipedia, accessed August 12, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingrid_Bergman_performances.

(13) “Open verdict recorded on Williams,” The Guardian (Spring/June 1988)

20 thoughts on “Sweden Meets Britain: Ingrid Bergman On Stage with Kenneth Williams

  1. Pingback: The 5th Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon Is Here! – The Wonderful World of Cinema

  2. Pingback: Many Thanks to the Participants of the 5th Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon! – The Wonderful World of Cinema

  3. What an interesting post! Thank you for thinking outside of the box and bringing us such a good research, even if there were limited sources. Kenneth must have been an adorable person by the anedocte about the Swedish tourist and by the way he talked about this time working with Bergman.
    Thanks for another fun blogathon!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

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