Golden Boy

The Life of Kenneth Tynan

by Kathleen Tynan
Morrow, 597 pp., $22.95

“Aesthetic, tall, appealing. I was riveted, because you didn’t see people like that in Birmingham.” That figure was Kenneth Tynan, the speaker one of his many generously minded female admirers. Birmingham, England’s second city, no less, center of the hardware trade, is generally acknowledged to be its most ugly, unappealing, and charmless.

Its whining accent is the most disagreeable sound to be heard from all the regions in England, being the inspiration for the Australian insult, “whining poms.” Between the wars, “Made in Birmingham” was the recognized trademark for shoddy mass-produced goods. The most distinguished men of the century sprung from this satanic “cemetery without walls” are Neville (“Peace in our Time”) Chamberlain, two comic geniuses, Sid Field and Tony Hancock, and Kenneth Peacock Tynan, born April 2, 1927, who said of it, “I have no more connection with my early life and Birmingham than I have with Timbuctoo.”

His repudiation’s course was swift, natural, and painless. “In any real sense of the word I was born at Oxford.” It was this patrician forgetfulness that characterized a lifetime of erratic, searchlight enthusiasms, trekking for fixed stars of certainty in theory, ideas, and art, and what he announced as “High Definition” in performance.

Birmingham’s only institutions of distinction, King Edward’s Grammar School and the Repertory Theatre, gawped and glowed uneasily as they previewed Tynan’s capering, mock epicene juvenile debut on their stages. He was an astonishing schoolboy, arguing against the debating society motion that “this House thinks the Present Generation has lost the Ability to Entertain Itself,” by praising the joys of masturbation. “He had to take your breath away,” a friend recalled. “And it went right through his life.” In the school magazine he was writing on Orson Welles: “He reproduces life as it sometimes seems in winged dreams.” The loveless Black Country midden was no launch pad for winged dreams, either for cock comics or the screech and strut of a lusty young peacock.

The sight and sound of this tantalizing flashbulb creature, ubiquitous, alarming, sometimes absurd and endearing, vexed and delighted a generation, many of them bystanders otherwise occupied in very different galaxies. The nondescript and common diminutive “Ken” became as instantly identifiable as those of his glittering idols: Orson, Larry, Noel. It was fame without honor on the whole, respected, distrusted, admired, envied; it inspired, above all, puzzlement. The elusiveness of the headlong, self-parodying exotic in what already seems, thirty years on, a decrepit and deserted landscape, looms throughout the pages of his widow’s biography, The Life of Kenneth Tynan.

Mrs. Tynan, understandably, often appears as baffled by her subject as those who did not share the experience of sixteen years within the private and most public cage of marriage. Often she seems to be appealing to outsiders for corroboration or insight (“The closest observer of our life together was our secretary”). By her own rather hapless admission, she confesses to being a poor witness either to his motives or inner life. This may be that…

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