In 1966, the twelfth movie in the Carry On series – Carry On Screaming! – was released; a spoof of the popular Hammer Horror films, it centred around the ghoulish experiments of ghastly sibling duo Dr. Orlando Watt and Valeria. Behind the scenes, however, it was a certain green-eyed monster which was to create a markedly different kind of havoc from that as seen on screen.
Screaming Queens! is the latest audio drama written by the comedy historian Robert Ross, following last year’s Jeepers Creepers, which was an adaptation of his stage play based on the life of writer, performer and director Marty Feldman and wife Lauretta. Starring Wink Taylor and Jessica Martin, with Barnaby Eaton-Jones wearing producer and director hats for Spiteful Puppet, the team – along with AUK Studios – have reunited here for a brand new piece, looking at another slice of British comedy history.
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This time around, the featured pairing is Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding, whose career paths were to cross on a number of occasions. Williams, of course, certainly requires no introduction. Besides her most famous turn as Valeria in Carry On Screaming!, Fielding is also notable for her voice work as the Village announcer in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, as well as providing the Blue Voice for The Magic Roundabout’s big screen spin-off feature, Dougal And The Blue Cat, with her career lasting nearly 70 years.
Like Jeepers Creepers, Screaming Queens! follows a three-act structure, presenting us with both characters at different points in their lives – if we were to measure this by Williams’ personal career trajectory, the first act sees him as the post-Hancock’s Half Hour doyen of the West End, before all of the infamy (“Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”) which came as part of the Carry On films had become fully established; the second act puts us smack bang in the middle of filming Carry On Screaming!; and the final act sees us very near the end of Williams’ life.
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The opening vignette is based during Williams and Fielding’s run in a 1959 musical comedy revue, Pieces Of Eight, which was written by a young Peter Cook, and included material by some other contributors, including Harold Pinter. Williams’ ego was bruised by his co-star getting a positive review, and his professional jealousy boiled over into acts of sabotage of Fielding’s performance and standing, as well as reducing her to a flood of tears at one point with vicious invective and his scathing attitude towards her.
Williams was notoriously truculent and mercurial, with his vicious sniping restricted not just to his diaries, but also in person to anyone unlucky enough to have somehow ended up crossing him through some imagined slight against his person. Ross’ characterisation of Williams captures this side of his personality, but manages to also give a more nuanced portrait of him, showing not just his insecurities, but also his turns of charm and bonhomie when he feels he has found an ally, or at the very least some common ground he shares with someone.
A major difficulty when doing something biographical about somebody famous who has their own troubled past or inner turmoil is the temptation to focus only on that part of them, making it all feel very one-note and flat; BBC Four’s biopic in 2006 – Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! – felt a singularly joyless affair, with the script working against the talent and skill of Michael Sheen in bringing Williams to life; that film’s main thrust seemed to be honing in on the misery which was felt by Williams due to the conflict which he had over his own sexuality.
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Here, Ross’ depiction of Williams feels far more rounded and real, presenting the rougher sides of his personality with the smooth, and not serving up a pre-judged, one-sided version of the man, instead allowing listeners to make up their own minds about him. Capturing Williams can also be somewhat problematic not merely in terms of crafting him on the page, but also in the performance: some attempts to embody him veer more towards caricature, with the wildly flared nostrils, and the exaggerated thespian histrionics, lacking real depth of understanding, and seeming one-dimensional.
Thank goodness, then, that Screaming Queens! fortunately has Wink Taylor to do Williams justice. Having brought us an uncanny Marty Feldman in Jeepers Creepers, Taylor does it yet again here, and offers us the perfect Kenneth Williams. Being purely an audio drama, Taylor does not have to worry about the physicality of Williams, and has to let his voice do all of the hard work; he captures every single vocal inflection and nuance seemingly with ease, to the point that you could easily forget at times this is not the genuine article, which is testament to Taylor’s brilliance.
While all of Williams’ voices – from his ‘Snide’ character, to Rambling Syd Rumpo from Round The Horne, and all points in between – are so well known, bringing Fenella Fielding to life is a challenge, as many people would probably think she only ever sounded like she did in Carry On Screaming!; that, in fact, was an exaggerated version of her normal speaking voice, and Jessica Martin plays her with such great subtlety, while still managing to turn on the smoky, sultry, seductive tones when required. Taylor and Martin do work beautifully together, and are a truly outstanding partnership.
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Ross’ script also gives both of them plenty of meat, as they have to virtually turn on a dime at times, going from near-screaming vitriol, to bonding through casual bitchiness and gossip, and into far more melancholy territory as they open up to each other about their fears and secrets, particularly in the final act, where Williams is plagued by his failing health, and seems to realise that his love-hate relationship with the Carry Ons (loved the money, hated the films) need not have been that way, as the series had actually ensured him a place in posterity.
Screaming Queens! is a sheer delight, managing to reward its audience with each subsequent listen bringing out more detail which may have been missed previously, so densely-packed as it is with details and references. It also manages to wrap things up with the perfectly logical and fitting ending it deserves, having taken you on a whirlwind of emotions in its 74 minutes. Everyone involved with this should feel rightly proud of what they have achieved here, and hopefully there will be more to come, as this is a series of audios which truly deserves to carry on.