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Strange Days: Obituaries

 

Ken Campbell

FT laments the passing - and celebrates the fortean fecundity - of a great showman

Last August, Ken Campbell was a guest “director” and provocateur in the Edinburgh Fringe production Showstopper! – The Improvised Musical, in which critics were invited to present reviews of imaginary musicals that the company (The School of Night) would then turn into reality, egged on by Ken wearing a tea cosy topped with a knitted duck. His death on 31 August, two days after leaving Edinburgh, was a great shock to his legions of friends and fans. It was unexpected, like most things he did. He was “one of the most original and unclassifiable talents in the British theatre of the past half century,” wrote Michael Coveney, “a genius at both producing shows on a shoestring and inculcating the improvisational capabilities of the actors who were brave enough to work with him.”

Kenneth Victor Campbell was born in Ilford in 1941, the son of Colin Campbell, a Liverpudlian Irishman who worked for the cable company ITT, and his wife Elsie, née Handley (who died when Ken was 12). He staged his first performances in the bathroom. “I was three years old and helped by my invisible friend, Peter Jelp, I put on shows for the characters in the linoleum.” He was educated in Essex – at Chigwell School and Gant’s Hill Public Library – before progressing to Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in the late Fifties. Dick Emery hired him as his stooge on tour and tipped a pot of coffee into his lap for daring to gain an unscripted laugh. “I’m the comedian around here,” growled an incensed Emery. In 1964, Ken was understudying Warren Mitchell in Everybody Loves Opal and showed him a script of a play for children called Events of an Average Bathnight. Mitchell loved it and directed a production with ex-students of Rada. This started Ken off as a playwright, and his comic strip pantomime Old King Cole (1967) at Stoke proved a children’s classic.

A chance meeting with Lindsay Anderson on a train led to Ken directing a couple of plays at the Royal Court in 1969, but he didn’t enjoy the traditional methods of casting and regimentation and decided to change tack completely. Inspired by American improvisat­ional groups like Living Theatre and Theatre Machine, he set up the Ken Campbell Roadshow (1969–73), in which a company including Bob Hoskins, Jane Wood, Andy Andrews, Dave Hill, and Percy James Kent Smith (aka Sylvester McCoy) toured pubs and clubs enacting bar room tales and true stories of sexual and psychic mayhem, with McCoy (“The Human Bomb”) banging nails up his nose and stuffing ferrets down his trousers.

In 1974, at the Station Hotel in Newcastle upon Tyne, Ken encount­ered a science fiction convention, where he was converted to a “science-fictional” way of seeing the world – replacing “believing” with “supposing”. He was already an avid fan of Fort’s books, and used the first few pages of Lo! as dramatic exercises for his players, which resulted in him knowing them by heart. (I can hear him now, declaiming in his Ilford twang: “A naked man in a city street – the track of a horse in volcanic mud – the mystery of reindeer’s ears – a huge, black form, like a whale, in the sky, and it drips red drops as if attacked by celestial swordfishes – an appalling cherub appears in the sea – Confusions.”) Ken thought that Fort’s view of the interconnectedness of all phenomena led to his fondness for the dash in punctuation: “A full stop is either a mistake or a dash heading straight at you.”

In 1974, too, he co-wrote The Great Caper with Ion Alexis Will, his old chum from Chigwell School, and it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre that October. Ken, who already subscribed to The News (as Fortean Times was then called), invited Bob Rickard down from Birmingham to see it. Thus Bob came to meet Ion Will, a signifi­cant catalyst in the early days of Fortean Times, who subsidised a trip to Washington for Fortfest 75, besides introducing me to Bob and the joys of clipping forteana from old papers. “Truth in Trash” as he put it.

The Great Caper concerns the adventures of a fortean and his companion, who decide that a bewildered young man they find immobilised by shock is carrying “a sperm of mind-blowing significance”, and set out to find him the perfect woman. Bob wrote that “most of the fortean stuff is brought into their constant chattering and asides: curious meteors; plagues of fleas; Adamski’s UFOs and UFO kidnappings; a Lost Tribe of Israel; the Tarot; a descendant of the Benjamin Bathurst who ‘walked around the horses’; aerial sounds and strange clouds.” [FT6:2, Sept 1974]. Warren Mitchell played the role of Ion Will. Critic Ronald Bryden dubbed the Caper’s irrepressibly investigative duo the Phileas Fogg and Passepartout of the counterculture.

That same year, Ken directed Heathcote Williams’s Remember The Truth Dentist at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs; and at Nottingham Playhouse, Richard Eyre commissioned two plays by Ken – Bendigo (1974), a portrait of a 19th-century prize-fighter, and Walking Like Geoffrey (1975), about an entire village that feigned madness to avoid taxation.

In 1976, Ken – or ‘King Gamble, the roman candle man’, as Doc Shiels called him – established The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, for which he co-wrote (with Chris Langham) Illuminatus! a smörgåsbord of conspiracy theor­ies based on Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s popular tri­logy of the same name. Langham, Jim Broadbent, David Rappaport and Prunella Gee were among the cast – and the sets were designed by Bill Drummond, later of art-terror­ists KLF. The play lasted eight hours with intervals (“The intervals were a big hit in Liverpool”). In March 1977, a slightly shorter Illuminatus! was staged as the first production in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium on the South Bank, with a prologue spoken by John Gielgud. Around this time, Ken marr­ied Prunella Gee and set up home in Haverstock Hill, north London, where their daughter Daisy was born. Though they divorced when Daisy was five, they remained friends.

Illuminatus! was followed by The Warp, a picar­esque by poet and psychonaut Neil Oram, which Ken abridged and staged as a 10-part, 22-hour marathon at the ICA in January 1979. This, the longest play in theatrical history, recreated Oram’s dérive through alternative culture from the late Fifties onwards, memorably charact­erised as “a sort of acid Archers” (though Richard Eyre compared it favourably with Wagner’s Ring Cycle). I described it at the time as “a highly enjoyable circus of anecdotes, UFOs, conspiracy theor­ies, sermons, melodrama, farce, music, and bawdiness.” [FT28:31]. The numerous cast included Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent. The Warp was subsequently staged in Liverpool and Edinburgh and revived in 1997–2000.

Later in 1979, Ken brought The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the stage, and in 1980, following the success of Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby, he caused the director some embarrassment by sending out a series of spoof lett­ers (signed “love, Trev”) announcing that the Royal Shakespeare Company would be changing its name to the Royal Dickens Company, and inviting leading writers and directors to participate.

On television, Ken appeared in an episode of Fawlty Towers; as a bent lawyer in GF Newman’s Law and Order series (1978); as Krauss in Private Schultz; as Oscar Dean in Brookside; and as Fred Johnson, the neighbour of Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) in the sitcom In Sickness and in Health (1985–92). He boasted he had out-Garnetted Garnett with the line: “If there’s been a murder, it’s better to hang the wrong person than nobody.” He also wrote and directed Unfair Exchanges (1985), a BBC2 play about telepathic telephones, in which he appeared (alongside Julie Walters) as Tim Ricketts, editor of Fortean Times [FT43:26]. He presented various documentary series for Channel 4, including Reality on the Rocks (1995), which explored the wilder shores of modern cosmo­logy; Brainspotting (1996), for which he interviewed many of the English-speaking world’s most eminent philo­sophers; and Six Experiments That Changed The World (1999), in which he re-enacted turning points in science. With his bald pate, glittering eye and bushy eyebrows that had outgrown even Dennis Healey’s, Ken popped up in lots of movies, including The Tempest (1979), A Letter to Brezhnev (1985), A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), and A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

By the end of the 1980s, Ken’s fortean interests led him to do a series of one-man shows, packed with arcane information and wild speculations about the nature of reality, beginning with Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu at the National Theatre in 1993. These were subtitled “The Bald Trilogy” because The Hare Tri­logy (David Hare’s plays about contemporary Britain) was playing next door in the larger Olivier auditorium. Then came Mystery Bruises (1994), Violin Time (1996), and History of Comedy Part 1: Ventriloquism (2000). Ken became Professor of Ventriloquism at Rada.

About this time, he staged a vers­ion of Macbeth (or Makbed bilong Wilum Sekspia) in the pidgin English of Vanuatu. In 2005, he was gloriously on form again in I’m Not Mad – I’ve Just Read Different Books, which encompassed the time-travelling cave-dwellers of Damanhur [FT116:26–30], Jeremy Beadle’s library, his career as a speaker at pet funerals in Ilford, and a demon­stration of real “gastro­mantic” acting. It was said of Ken’s mono­dramas that being in the audience was just like sitting in his kitchen, but without having to say “mm” every now and then.

“Like Peter Sellers,” wrote David Gale in 1994, “Ken seems to have either half a dozen normal voices or none at all. On stage, the condit­ion is even more advanced; he will mutter nasally, roar hoarsely, whine confidentially and produce a menagerie of vocal effects that, harnessed to his labyrinthine anecdotes, enforce a sense of chaos being channelled, only just, through one man’s gristled throat.” Gale asked Ken about certainty. Did he need it? Or was he just certain that things are uncertain? “Yeah, well, some things seem pretty certain,” he said. “I mean, when I was with Pro­fessor Roger Penrose, he told me that there’s no such thing as time. And then he said, ‘Blimey, it’s half-past-six – I’ve got to run!’”

In June 1994 at the University of London Union, Ken inaugurated the UnConvention, the first conference organised by Fortean Times, and enlivened the proceedings at several subsequent UnConventions. He was an enthusiastic fan of the works of Philip K Dick (particularly Valis) and the films of Jackie Chan, who he insisted was the greatest living actor.

Latterly, “British theatre’s antic visionary” (as critic Michael Billing­ton called him) lived in a Swiss chalet on the edge of Epping Forest, where he kept three dogs – Max, Gertie, and Bear – and Doris, an African grey parrot that he had bought when his daughter Daisy gave him some money to buy a computer (there had been a pet shop next door to the computer showroom). He was training Doris to squawk her life story and made artwork from her random droppings.

Kenneth Victor Campbell, writer, direct­or, monologist, born Ilford, Essex 10 Dec 1941; died Epping Forest, Essex 31 Aug 2008, aged 66.

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