Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Ken Campbell - The Great Caper

Last week’s book of the week on BBC radio 4 was Michael Coveney’s new biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper. It was engagingly read by Toby Jones, who managed a creditable impersonation of Ken, as well as bringing the voices of the likes of Bob Hoskins and Bill Nighy to life. Not exactly copycat impressions, but he captured something of their vocal mannerisms which made you realised automatically who they were. Happily, Ken himself was heard at various points via archive recordings, initially talking about what would happen to the universe if space was in fact infinite. It would go on expanding until it became very cold indeed, he explained, until the whole absurd enterprise simply ceased to be once more. This mixture of the sublime with the absurd neatly sums up what Ken was all about, although the word neat is probably not an appropriate one to use when summarising his chaotic and randomly curious approach to performance and life (there was probably little difference between the two in his mind). He once declared ‘I have a desire to be astounded’, and as a corollary to that wish, he endeavoured to convey some of that astonishment to his audience, or ‘seekers’ as he preferred to call them. Ken Campbel was at war with the ordinary, seeing dullness and mundanity as a sign that you just weren’t looking at things intently or perceptively enough. His delight in discovering new and strange perspectives on the world was perfectly conveyed by the nasal, flattened vowels of his Essex accent, which could be used to drawlingly elongate certain words or phrases, giving them an underlined significance.

The first programme began with a brief description of his funeral in 2008, the eccentric nature of which served to reflect the manner in which he had lived his life. He was drawn to his burial place in Epping Forest on a sled pulled by his three mongrel dogs. Coveney then proceeds to trace Campbell’s wayward path through the fringes of the theatrical world, always going against the grain and following his own ever-branching trains of thought, naturally attaining the status of ‘the outsider’s outsider’, as Mike Leigh put it. When he was a boy, he would spend hours playing in an imaginary world he had created from the patterns on the bathroom floor (the earthier equivalent of Alan Garner’s ceiling world), acting out the adventures of ‘the creatures of the lino’. Principal amongst these was his imaginary ‘mate’ called Jelp. Jelp seems to have been young Ken’s alter ego to a certain extent, and its impish character could be seen to have stayed with him into adulthood. It’s a somehow fitting name for the antic yet always curious performer that he would come to be.

Ken entered the world of the theatre in the 60s, when it was imbued with the radicalism and experimentation of the times. He worked with Peter Cheeseman’s theatre company in Stoke, and wrote a play called Jack Shephard, whose eponymous anti-hero was a piratical rogue in the Brecht/Weill manner. You can find a copy of this in Exeter library, although it has to be said that when Ken turned up for the first day of rehearsals with an armful of copies of the playscript for the cast, he announced ‘it’ll be a sorry day if we ever have to open these’. He showed his play to Lindsay Anderson, who was one of the principle directors at the Royal Court, the hub of radically-minded theatre. The two got on well, both outsiders in their own way, and Anderson helped Campbell to get a job directing Frank Norman’s prison-based play Inside Out. It was a valuable experience if only in that it showed him exactly what he didn’t want to do. Shortly thereafter, he was sent out onto the streets by the theatre he was working with to make people aware of their existence, and the shows they were putting on. This was a mistake. Ken was never likely to simply advertise something (although he did later do some car ads on the telly) and these promotional outings became attention-grabbing performances in their own right. He soon got the sack, but developed the spontaneous street shows into what became known as the Ken Campbell Road Show. This travelling vaudeville circus would set up in pubs and clubs, with the hat being passed around afterwards for contributions. It was, as Coveney describes it, ‘a type of superior busking’. Ken envisaged this as an escape from the conservative world of the theatres and a return to the days of the music hall, and variety shows. His troupe would be a new Fred Karno’s Army, with Bob Hoskins as a latter day Dan Leno. The shows involved physical comedy, inventive props and carefully choreographed slapstick which gave the impression of chaos and anarchy but was in fact extremely well-rehearsed. A later incarnation from 1979 can be seen in the Secret Policeman’s Ball film, in which Ken is joined by David Rappaport and Sylvester McCoy, who has a nail driven into his nasal cavity. When McCoy got the role of Doctor Who in 1987, much of the surrounding reportage questioned whether it was an appropriate part for a man more accustomed to shoving ferrets down his trousers. This was all Ken’s fault. The Road Show also used to perform a routine which went by the self-explanatory name of ‘the man who disappeared up his own asshole’, a title which conjures up visions of a strange marriage between William Burroughs and Buster Keaton (Buster Burroughs?) Ken addresses the Secret Policeman’s Ball crowd as ‘sensation seekers’, but for him the audience were simply ‘seekers’.

Such an appellation was never more appropriate than for his next great opus, The Illuminatus Trilogy, which he produced in 1976 for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool which he had set up just for that purpose. Coveney describes Robert Anton Wilson and Michael Shea’s ultimate conspiracy epic as combining elements of HP Lovecraft, Hermann Hesse, Robert A Heinlein, Carl Jung, Micky Spillane, William Burroughs and Terry Southern. Working on the principle that something was ‘only worth doing if it was impossible’, Ken invited Sean Connery, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Vanessa Redgrave to take part in what he described as ‘an enthusiast’s production’. He also sent a telegram to John Huston, suggesting a part which he throught would be perfect for him, adding ‘no money but great wheeze’. None of them replied (their loss) but he did manage to rope in Jim Broadbent, who said he would ‘do’ Connery, Bill Nighy and David Rappaport, the short fellow who would become the chief of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. The play became a sprawling 9 hour experience, first performed in a warehouse in Liverpool christened, with typical Campbellian grandiloquence, The Liverpool Theatre of Language, Music, Dream and Pun. Brian Aldiss, who became good friends with Ken, reviewed it for the Guardian, conveying something of his feelings of exhilaration, bewilderment and exhaustion. He described the way in which ‘Campbell performs miracles on a shoestring budget, inventing tiny beds and portable sets and singing dolphins and amorous female computers and alien jungles to support a plot which unravels like a paranoid octopus’. It opened the newly built Cottesloe stage at the National Theatre to great acclaim. It was later restaged at the Roundhouse in Camden, edited down to four hours. It didn’t work so well in this format, now feeling simply like an overlong play. As someone said, ‘it seemed longer when it was shorter’.

Illuminatus evidently wasn’t quite epic enough for Campbell, so he and the Science Fiction Theatre embarked upon The Warp, which lasted for 24 hours, give or take the odd break for food, drink and maybe forty winks. It is apparently the longest play I theatre history. Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy returned from Illuminatus, but were savvy enough in the ways of Ken to avoid the major roles. That poisoned chalice was handed to Russell Denton, who still seems a little dazed by his experience. He describes how his character in the final act is exhausted and worn down by what he has gone through, a state which Denton was able to convey with no need for acting whatsoever. The play was performed at the ICA I January 1979, starting at 10.45 in the morning and ending at 8AM the following day. It went on to the Edinburgh fringe, where it took place in the ruined hulk of the old Regent Cinema. When Ken became artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman in 1980, The Warp was the first production he put on, and he managed to blow the entire years grant on it. He evidently had a great love of science fiction and weird literature. I saw him in 1987 in a show he directed called Science Fiction Blues, in which he, Brian Aldiss and an actress called Petronilla Whitfield read various of Aldiss’ stories in a dramatic fashion. I still have the programme, which bears the very Campbellian subtitle ‘An Evening of Wonders’. Ken’s profile mentions some of the other productions which the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool put on; intriguing sounding titles such as Psychosis, Unclassified, the End is Nigh and the Lovecraft adaptation The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

I went to see Ken whenever one of his one man shows came to Exeter. In these, he would essentially expound upon whatever projects he’d been engaged in. It was a way of revealing the progress of his experimental ramblings in which he followed notions which had caught his interest in whatever directions they might lead. For these explorations, life was the stage, so the one man shows were a way of gathering the evidence together and reporting back. Subjects included the ‘ventriloquial arts’, the achievement of the transcendent state of finding the universe both hilariously funny and unutterably tragic at exactly the same moment (a state which he astonishingly managed to embody in his episodic story, pitched in autobiographical terms, of the adventures of one Nina Plauschwitz), weird cults and beliefs, quantum physics (which could be filed under the preceding), cargo cults based around Prince Phillip, jamais vu (the opposite of deja vu), animal funerals conducted by appropriate glove puppets, and animal art. The latter was produced by his parrot Doris. He managed to tell the tale of Doris’ art and his attempts at selling it (successful, as I recall) to a local gallery for some time before revealing her parrot nature. The ‘art’ basically consisted of Doris crapping onto a canvas, which Ken, when he felt it had reached a state of completion, would frame. Action art. Doris came into Ken’s life in one of those moments of random spontaneity which he liked to allow to direct him at various junctures. His daughter Daisy had persuaded him that he really needed a computer to connect him with the world. He dutifully went off to the nearest computer shop, but was distracted by the pet shop next door and went in that instead. He came back not with a computer, but with Doris the parrot. He was in the process of teaching her to narrate her own autobiography, starting with the sentence ‘I used to be an egg, then I hatched out, didn’t I?’ He remarked that, since parrot’s have very long lives, his voice would live on after he was dead. I wonder whether she still is alive, and if so, how much of her life story she managed to memorise.

Ken continued to work with younger performers, including his daughter Daisy, with whom he produced a series of Shakespeare plays translated into the pidgin language of the South Sea island of Vanuatu. He claimed that the limited number of words contained within this language (a matter of hundreds) concentrated the plays down to their essence and made them better as a result. He also got into the realm of improvised sonnet making. Members of his troupe would be encouraged to pick a lady or gent out of the audience who attracted their eye and use them as inspiration for an instant sonnet. One performer relates how he saw someone who he particularly liked, but felt shy about approaching her. ‘Go on, sonnet her’, Ken encouraged. They were later married. He also produced the ‘bald trilogy’ of what might be called confessional (not that these confessions can be thought of as in any way reliable) one man shows in the 80s, so named because the National Theatre was concurrently staging the ‘Hare’ trilogy of plays by David Hare. You can find the scripts of these shows in the Exeter Performing Arts library (see what we’ll miss if library services are cut!).

Ken had a way of being both hilarious and profound, the two qualities seeming to arise inextricably one from the other. His inquisitiveness was both mischievous and genuine, his antic nature a testing of boundaries. His attitude to the world, and to life, was that it could be both absurd and beautiful, and that beauty often resided in the apparently absurd. He was a great composer of aphorisms, nuggets of wisdom and truth contained in pithy and concisely worded phrases. My two favourites, which I find particular pertinent personally, are as follows: ‘I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books than you’, and ‘I don’t believe I can believe, but I suppose I can suppose’. Anyway, I shall continue to follow Ken’s example and attempt to fulfil the ‘desire to be astounded’.


Antonia Owen said...

Doris, Ken's parrot, is alive and well and living with our own plus a terrorised cat and huge but benign Tibetan mastiff in Hornsey, north London. She occasionally says in Ken's voice, 'I was in a shop for a while, and then Ken bought me', as well as, more spookily, 'I'm up here, and you're down there!' She's attending the Flatlake Festival in Ireland, June 2011, as Artist-in-Residence, as she's still producing distinctive works of art.

Jez Winship said...

Fantastic. I'm really glad she's found a good home. Thanks for letting me know. Good luck with the festival - I'm sure she'll be the star of the show.