Michael Sheen has gained a reputation for doing uncanny performances as real-life personalities, most famously Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen (and its prequel The Deal and sequel The Special Relationship), but also playing David Frost in Frost/Nixon and (though relatively unknown to American audiences) the famous soccer coach Brian Clough of Leeds United, in the terrific The Damned United -- directed by Tom Hooper right before he made The King's Speech. (Even without knowing a thing about Brian Clough, I found Sheen's performance riveting. If memory serves, they have footage of Clough during the end credits, confirming how impressive the performance was.)
But there's a fourth "real-life" portrayal by Sheen that might be his most remarkable, and most unknown to Americans, since it wasn't made for theaters, but rather BBC television, and therefore has never been seen on this part of the ocean. It's Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!
Kenneth Williams was a hugely popular comic actor in England for film, stage, TV and albums -- acerbic, highly mannered (with pursed lips and a wide-ranging voice), and fairly tortured in his hidden personal life. He might be slightly known to some Americans, in large part because he starred in 24 Carry On films. Even into his mature life, he often was popular for playing a juvenile, something which caused him a sort of additional love-hate relationship with his performing.
The movie is based on Kenneth Williams' diaries, published posthumously which were controversial for being deeply caustic about many of his fellow-performers. There is a lingering question whether he committed suicide or if it was an accidental overdose, doubling his pain medication without checking with his doctor, in part because of debilitating ulcers that plagued him much of his life, along with other personal angsts. (The final entry in his diary is "Oh -- what's the bloody point?") And also controversial is the question of whether he poisoned his father -- the film tends to suggest otherwise.
In an interview with The Independent, when the TV movie was aired, Michael Sheen quoted from Williams' diary and put some perspective on the production, answering the reporter's question about why Kenneth Williams couldn't take comfort from his great public acclaim. "There is this haunting entry in his diary, where Kenneth writes: 'How can anyone know how much I wanted love? But I was afraid of it, so I laughed at it or was cruel or spurned it.' That's terribly sad, isn't it? It's that plea for love that we're dramatising in Fantabulosa." (The article notes that title comes from "the word that Williams would use in rare moments of joy - usually when in the spotlight").
Even without knowing Kenneth Williams, it's easy to seriously admire Michael Sheen's remarkable performance. He won the Royal Television Society award for Best Male Actor, and received a BAFTA nomination. The Times called the performance, "a diamond that is so dazzling as a result of the expertise deployed in its cutting that you can’t fully focus on the underlying shape of the stone, which is what actually enables it to glitter so spectacularly."
See? It's not just me. Like I said, this might be his more impressive real-life portrayal.
(Remarkable, too, is that Sheen -- not a large man to begin with -- lost 30 pounds for the role. He made this TV movie the same year that he filmed The Queen and because of some overlaps in scheduling, there are some well-hidden scenes in The Queen where the very thin Sheen appears before having put his weight back on. By the way, if you think it's impressive that he made these two movies the same year -- consider that in 2006, the year both were released, Michael Sheen had eight films released! And that includes one, H.G..Wells: War of the Worlds, in which he played yet another real-life person, H.G. Wells.)
But the way to best appreciate Michael Sheen's performance as Kenneth Williams is to see a little of Williams himself. Here he is in a two-minute clip on Michael Parkinson's TV show, telling a story about the famous actress, Dame Edith Evans.
And at last, here is the first part (of eight short YouTube segments) of Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! If you don't want to watch the entire movie, at least spend some time with this 10-minute clip -- which begins after a brief commercial interruption.
Rather than post all the remaining seven segments here and make this all unwieldy, if you do want to watch more after this first part, just click here which will take you to Part 2 of 8. After each segment ends, you'll see the next one pop up in the scroll area on the right.
(Normally I wouldn't embed a full movie here, but there are exceptions. First, of course, is that this isn't the whole movie. But more to the point is that the film simply isn't available to American audiences.)
Williams' mother Lou, who lives across the hall, is wonderfully played by Cheryl Campell, the acclaimed actress who won the Olivier Award for A Doll's House, and is probably most known to U.S. audiences from Dennis Potter's TV series aired on PBS, Pennies from Heaven, starring opposite Bob Hoskins.
By the way, there's a minor but interesting cameo performance in this first segment below. One of Williams' close friends was the acclaimed playwright Joe Orton (who appears as a character in the film). One of Orton's well-known works, Loot, was made into a film. A major character in that was played by the actor, Roy Holder. And Holder has that brief cameo as a construction crew worker, coming in around the 4:15 mark.
And with all that out of the way, here is Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams in Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa. If you don't know Sheen's work well, especially his portrayals of "real-life" personalities, be prepared to be seriously impressed. And if you're already impressed by Sheen, be prepared to be awed.
And no, I'm not over-exaggerating. The London Times and I are in agreement...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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