Ken Campbell: my much-missed madcap friend

With his jokes, quizzes, stunts and sci-fi, Ken Campbell turned theatre on it's head

When I worked with Ken Campbell at the Nottingham Playhouse in the 1970s, he used to stay with his dog Werner in a Dormobile parked next to my house. His ferrets stayed in the garden. It was like having a great actor-manager and his ensemble as lodgers. Late at night, Ken would stand in my kitchen and talk tirelessly, with a vast sense of wonder, of the ridiculousness of the ordinary and the commonness of the bizarre until I had to plead to be allowed to go to bed.

The ferrets were veteran performers, having been stuffed down Sylvester McCoy's trousers on countless occasions in The Ken Campbell Roadshow, which consisted of far-fetched bar-room tales and urban myths, jokes, quizzes, escapology and stunts. The ferret-legging contest was one of the few things in any theatre guaranteed to make the audience roll in the aisles with laughter. It was a challenge both to the po-faced mainstream theatre and to the equally po-faced radicals. The acting style encouraged by Ken was a mix of panic, hectoring and genius: "Oh, you mean real acting!" said a notorious Irish ham before proceeding to let rip as never before.

Bill Nighy and the 22-hour show

Like many of Campbell's most successful projects (or "capers" as he called them), he'd take someone else's idea and turn it into something inimitably his own. Most of the capers looked as if they were going to be follies, yet turned out to be inspired gestures of showmanship. The Roadshow eventually became a part of theatrical folklore.

In 1976, Ken started the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool; his production there of Illuminatus! transferred to London the next year, to open the Cottesloe auditorium at the National theatre. The play ranged with nearly random abandon over mythology, current events, conspiracy theories and fragments of gnostic knowledge. It lasted nine hours, and I would rank it beside The Wars of the Roses, The Mahabharata and The Hare trilogy as great days spent in the theatre. I was offered a job in it. "Peter Hall's turned it down," said Ken. "It's the part of the man who wants to run the world. It's not bad, and you're only on for three minutes."

Longer still, and even more ambitious, was The Warp – a cocktail of science fiction, sex, stories and adventure that lasted 22 hours, and starred Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent. The play began with a leather tanner in 15th-century Bavaria having his tongue cut out and being fastened to a water wheel. It progressed, via a search for sexual identity, to its conclusion at a flying-saucer conference in 1968. A contemporary critic observed that "the world may soon divide into those who have been through The Warp and those who have not". Those who have not are the poorer for it.

Ken's work always appealed to the child in me: anarchic, naughty, irreverent, silly even. When I started as artistic director at Nottingham, it was more or less mandatory to pay homage to the local history of your "community". I had little taste for a dramatised documentary about lace-workers, and even less for a revisionist version of the Robin Hood story. But I had heard about a little-known local hero called Bendigo, a boxer who was once champion of England. I asked Ken, who conscripted his friends Dave Hill and Andy Andrews, to dramatise his life.

Ken was intrigued by his training methods. Bendigo used to go into pubs and spit in people's beer to annoy them, which would, unsurprisingly, provoke a fight. He once did it to a dancer, who pranced about so much that Bendigo couldn't hit him; this inspired the fighter's own distinctive, prancing style. In Ken's show Bendigo: The Little Known Facts, his inspiration to become a boxer came from his mother, who, taunted beyond endurance by his indolence, flattened him with a rolling pin. He responded by thumping her with a powerful straight left. "Ah son," she said, "'tis a metaphor surely of your life to be."

I thought this show one of the most enjoyable things I'd ever directed, and maybe that I had ever seen in a theatre. So did many of the audience, but not the man who Ken overheard in an ­ interval say to his wife: "I can't imagine the sort of person who would enjoy this stuff." This man would not have returned the following year, when we staged another item of little-known local history based on the folk myth of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham, where the villagers discovered, sometime in the middle ages, that if they were declared insane they were exempt from the poll tax. Prescience indeed.

The show was called Walking Like Geoffrey and involved the villagers being taught to act silly by the village half-wit, Geoffrey, and a plot that went backwards in time, whose complexity would have done credit to Tolkien. The evening reached its climax in a mass demonstration of eccentric walking from the school of Max Wall for the benefit of the Tax Man, who was showered with a pyramid of bird droppings and an inflatable elephant, which was then bounced round the auditorium as he fled from the village into insanity. Shortly before he defected to an academic job in Canada, the excellent Ronald Bryden, then critic of the Observer, wrote of Walking Like Geoffrey: "If there's a future for British theatre, it must lie here."

There was another review of the show that was less generous. The critic objected to almost everything about it, and in particular to the intrusive laughter of what he took to be friends of the authors. Ken was outraged. "What does he mean 'friends'? We are the bloody authors!"

Years later, Ken decided to perform a sketch from that show at an Amnesty International concert at Drury Lane. Somewhat against my will, I agreed to direct the piece again. It involved the death of an Elizabethan nobleman trying to cheat his destiny by breaking through the "warp and weft of time" to "pang himself to other worlds". So he set up a situation in which he ran from nubile be-smocked wenches (time passing quickly) to hideous nagging wife (time passing slowly), but sadly failed to break through the space-time continuum and died through a surfeit of blank verse. Or as Ken said: "Death by Rada breathing." In the Drury Lane performance, Ken decided that there had to be an extra ingredient to lard the nightmare: live pigs. This was not a success. Pigs aren't happy in theatres and have the most disturbing ways of showing their unhappiness: they scream like scalded babies.

His 1am calls weren't always a joy

My favourite of Ken's work, and I think his masterpiece, was the trilogy of one-man plays – Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu – that we put on at the National theatre in 1992 (Ken christened them The Bald trilogy to avoid confusion with The Hare trilogy, which was running simultaneously in another auditorium). The topics included sci-fi, synchronicity, psychoanalysis, trepanning, teleportation, and pidgin English. It was a wild and glorious ramble through his private universe.

And the best play I have ever seen for children (and consenting adults) was his adaptation of a German play called School for Clowns. Set in a classroom, the play ended in total, glorious, unqualified anarchy as the clowns took over the class and, with the assistance of the audience, evicted their teacher. In performance in Nottingham, several hundred schoolchildren bayed for the expulsion of the Professor, played by Ken. He would straighten his wig (a plastic dome with carrot-coloured Mao-style hair stuck to its sides), dust off the chalk from his academic gown, step down into the auditorium with the words, "Clowns, I am unable to continue in the circumstances" and make a dignified exit through the rioting schoolchildren, into the foyer, past the box office and on to the street, shuffling, broken but still proud, towards the stage door. I interrupted his journey one day, after a morning performance. "How did it go, Ken?" I said. Professor Molereasons stared back at me with eyes misted by tears: "I was unable to continue in the circumstances . . ."

I feel desperately sad that Ken has been unable to continue in the circumstances. He enriched all our lives. I've never known anyone as consistently original, inventive and funny. He made me think, see and hear the world differently. There are few days that I don't think of his notion of "panging" to other worlds, or fail to remember him hurling an actor against a wall and screaming in his all too imitable voice, like a whining exhaust pipe with a broken silencer, "Act proper!" Or recall his description of a certain kind of hyper-realistic performance as "tie acting". Or ponder his indictment of much of what happens in our theatres as "brochure theatre".

It wasn't always a joy to be woken by Ken on the phone at one o'clock in the morning to share his latest enthusiasm, but when the calls stopped I felt a loss. And I feel that loss now. I have never known anyone who seized the moment with quite so much enthusiasm – and who was quite so relentless in wanting to share it with others. His evangelism for Gerry Webb of Space Consultancy and Interplanetary Travel, EST, Max Wall, Spike Jones, Ian Dury, Charles Fort (the visionary not the hotelier), Robert McKee the script doctor, the Royal Dickens theatre, the Bournemouth Aqua show, the underwater play in the Liverpool swimming pool, the office on Walthamstow marshes, Werner the dog, the School of Night . . .

Ken once graphically displayed to me the two sides of his character, holding a hand in front of each half of his face in turn: the pirate and the char. The pirate was wild, sometimes savage, sometimes bullying, ambitious, brazen, loud and brilliant. The char was mournful and melancholic, and sometimes, though not very often, quite tender.

In 1900, in Paris, there was an award called the Guzman prize: 100,000 francs for anyone who could communicate with an extraterrestrial being on another planet. (Mars was excluded on the grounds that it was too easy to communicate with Martians.) I think Ken should, belatedly, be offered this prize. He once told me of an encounter he'd had with the Venusian consul in London. I suspect he was talking about himself: he was on a mission here to shake up our ideas about theatre. I told him that I didn't think I knew any Venusians. "That's because you're always staring in the gutter looking for sixpences. Look up and you'll see them all the time." I'm looking up now and I hope he's looking back.


Richard Eyre

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bill Drummond: the five lessons I learned from Ken Campbell
How do you get Tammy Wynette to sing on your record? How do you stop the Teardrop Explodes from imploding? And what’s the wildest thing you can do with £1m? Bill Drummond of the KLF on the strange wisdom of theatre maverick Ken Campbell

Bill Drummond

18, Nov, 2014 @5:32 PM

Obituary letter: Ken Campbell

Keith Flett writes: Ken Campbell (obituary, September 2) was an ambassador for all things London

05, Sep, 2008 @11:02 PM

Article image
Obituary: Ken Campbell

Obituary: Experimental writer, theatre director and improviser, he was one of the strangest people in Britain

Michael Coveney

01, Sep, 2008 @12:15 PM

Article image
Improv king Ken Campbell dies

Actor, writer and man of experimental theatre Ken Campbell has died, just days after his Edinburgh festival performance

Natalie Hanman

01, Sep, 2008 @10:50 AM

Article image
The Scarlet Pimpernel review – madcap fun with a guillotine
French poodles face a dastardly end unless our swashbuckling heroes come to the rescue in this high-energy kids’ version of the classic adventure story

Chris Wiegand

20, Dec, 2018 @12:25 PM

Article image
It's derriere you! A French critic gives her take on three madcap pantos
Do you have to be British to get panto? We sent a French critic to three shows full of cross-dressing dames and adults playing cows. Will she ever forget the experience? Oh no she won’t!

Laura Cappelle

18, Dec, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Another view: Jean Broke-Smith, grooming expert, on The Boy Friend

What did a grooming expert think of Sandy Wilson's play?

Jean Broke-Smith

26, Jul, 2006 @10:42 AM

Brainwaves: The Improvathon

Concept A 36-hour improvised play

Creator Ken Campbell

Interview by Paul Arendt

15, Dec, 2005 @11:11 AM

Article image
The Cat in the Hat review – Dr Seuss's rascal reborn as a madcap circus star
Storytelling is secondary to spectacle in this chaotic retelling that features cakes, wigs and a fraught balancing act

Miriam Gillinson

17, Dec, 2018 @12:05 PM

Article image
York Mystery Plays: God and his friend the devil

The York Mystery Plays are back – in a production boasting 500 actors, one ark, a choir, a brass band, 1,200 volunteers, and a very surprising bromance, finds Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

07, Aug, 2012 @5:10 PM