The remarkable force of nature that was Ken Campbell, who died of a heart attack on 31st August 2008, is celebrated in this excellent and immensely readable biography by Michael Coveney which is stuffed with remarkable and almost unbelievable antics and anecdotes about this mercurial figure. He is now widely recognised as the grandad of fringe theatre in Britain. He started dreaming up plays at an early age and, in a lifetime of controlled manic activity, transformed the lives of virtually every actor who came into his orbit. His legacy is not only a wealth of inspired and canny nonsense but also an approach to theatre that broke all the rules.
He is most famous for his remarkable productions of the Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Neil Oram’s The Warp, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest theatrical production ever staged (22 hours) but these are the tip of a very large iceberg of activity that spanned decades.
As an actor, his roles included everything from playing Long John Silver in an aquatic version of Treasure Island at Stoke-on-Trent (during which he shared a flat with two dwarves), to appearances in Fawlty Towers, the seminal Law and Order tv series by G.F.Newman, A Fish Called Wanda and Derek Jarman’s version of The Tempest.
But his greatest achievements and work was in his own mapcap productions, conjured out of his fecund mind and realised with zero budgets, featuring remarkable sets made from salvaged scraps. His sheer brio, manic energy and forceful comic manner somehow brought the impossible to life.
He was, by all accounts, a powerful challenging force of nature with tremendous discipline. A great believer in improvisation, he set out to create new kinds of theatre that were the complete antithesis of conventional establishment productions. He pushed his actors to reach out beyond the stereotyped and mannered performance to discover new uncharted territory.
I didn’t know that he was up for the Doctor Who role, the other contender being Sylvester McCoy, who got the job. McCoy was one of Campbell’s acolytes who rose to fame through working with Ken with an act that involved stuffing ferrets down his trousers – an activity that captured Britain’s imagination and was widely imitated.
The wonderfulness of the man comes over strongly from the fond memories of his friends, family, lovers and colleagues. He was obviously a handful, particularly in his alcoholic phases but he genuinely believed that the work he was doing was for the good of man and the collective soul of mankind.
Ken probably felt more at home in St John’s, Newfoundland than anywhere else on earth, a place which provided him with an endless fund of real-life weirdness as grist to his fertile mind.
His oddest production may have been a version of Macbeth, entitled ‘Makbed blong Willum Sekspia.’spoken entirely in the pidgin Englush of the Solomon Islands.
He hated the Arts Council and government subsidies for theatre, television, spin doctors, surveillance and celebrity cults. He loved Charles Fort, Phillip K. Dick, hoaxes, sheds, Ken Dodd, ventriloquism and dogs, which he tried to get into every production.
A Luddite and technophobe, he was finally persuaded to go out and buy a computer. He ended in the pet shop next door buying an African grey parrot instead, which he then began to teach to speak her own biography.
His one-man shows in the later part of his life were, Campbell insisted, not so much stand-up comedy but rather ‘sit-down tragedy in which he stood up a lot.’
Michael Covener, one of Campbell’s consistent champions as theatre critic of several national newspapers, says his shows ‘were mostly a celebration of his own interests, enthusiasms and delight in strangeness. ‘I have a desire to be astounded’ he once said…and that desire governed how he lived his life, as much as the work he achieved.’
His book does great service in drawing together Campbell’s remarkable range of achievements into a readable narrative that is both inspiring and hilarious. The historical background about the rise of fringe theatre which Campbell made such a major contribution to, is equally fascinating.
He writes: ‘It was always Ken Campbell’s supposition that our everyday lives would be much improved by knowing a bit more about what took us beyond them and might be bigger than us and beyond our comprehension.’
At his funeral, various speeches by Campbell himself were played, including one that reminded the assembled throng that ‘funeral’ was an anagram of ‘real fun’.
Hats off to a unique soul, sadly missed.