Ken Campbell – director, writer, actor, performer, boffin
Born December 10 1941
Died August 31 2008
Ken Campbell, who died suddenly at his Epping Forest home last weekend, was the embodiment of the surreal end of British fringe theatre. Still in the prime of an anti career that had cast him as a kind of court jester to the South Bank institutions he occasionally worked in but remained resolutely outside of, he remained pop-eyed and full of mischief till the end. This was demonstrated during this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe when he oversaw improvised productions of reviews written by theatre critics for imaginary musicals.
This final set of off-the-cuff productions turned theatrical conventions on their head in a manner Campbell had patented when he left London’s Royal Court Theatre to tour pubs and clubs with The Ken Campbell Roadshow. He later founded The Science Fiction Theatre Of Liverpool to stage an anarchic version of Robert Anton Wilson’s cult conspiracy opus, Illuminatus!, followed a few years later by a 22 hour version of Neil Oram’s The Warp. In the early 1990s Campbell performed what became known as his ‘Bald’ Trilogy of solo works at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre prior to their transfer to London’s National Theatre.
A life-long fascination with science fact and fiction led to appearances at Edinburgh Science Festival and a parallel career as a TV boffin that ran alongside more mainstream bread-winners as a foil for Warren Mitchell’s revived Alf Garnett character in In Sickness And In Health, and a typically subversive turn in Channel Four’s Scouse soap, Brookside. Take in an exploration of ventriloquism that led to the mentoring of Nina Conti for her act and a fearless engagement with improvisation, and it’s not hard to see why Campbell never fitted in with the mainstream.
But beyond the seemingly eccentric buffoonery was a restless mind and real depth. Not for nothing was he knocked back for the role of Dr Who in 1987 on the grounds that his audition was simply too dark for comfort. It’s interesting to note too Campbell’s influence on a new wave of theatre-makers rooted in a much looser skill-set a million miles away from any notion of well-made plays. In this respect Campbell can be seen as one of the founding fathers of what used to be called alternative theatre, a wave founded on populist anarchy but, in Campbell’s case at least, led by a restless curiosity.
Kenneth Victor Campbell was born in Ilford, Essex, the son of Elsie and Anthony. He was precocious from the start, putting on plays in the family bath-room aged three. He won a scholarship to the fee-paying Chigwell School, leaving at 17 to go to RADA. After two years he left for rep in Colchester, and spent a time as straight man to Dick Emery. After getting one laugh too many for himself, Campbell became director of the Bournemouth Aqua, a popular low-rent home for stunt divers and would-be mermaids, a tenure that presaged his willingness to wade into unknown creative waters.
While under-studying Warren Mitchell, Campbell showed the actor a script, Events Of An Average Bath Night, which he liked enough to put on at RADA. Campbell wrote Old King Cole for Leeds Playhouse, and was invited by Lindsay Anderson to join the Royal Court as a junior director. Campbell was more of a fan of Keith Johnstone, whose book, Impro, was an influence on Campbell’s generation of theatre-makers. Around this time too Campbell visited counter-cultural crucible The Roundhouse to see the New York based free-form troupe, The Living Theatre. After that, he said in a 2006 interview with The Herald, “life began.”
Campbell jumped ship from The Royal Court in 1971 to form The Ken Campbell Roadshow, based at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, and featuring actors such as Bob Hoskins and Sylvester McCoy in the company’s ranks. Sometime in 1975, Campbell and co-conspirator Chris Langham fell under the spell of Scouse mystic and founder of the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, Peter O'Hallaghan. Taking Jung's notion that the city was 'the pool of life' seriously, the pair set up the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in O'Hallaghan's tatty Matthew Street warehouse.
It was here that Illuminatus! switched on a cast that included Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Prunella Gee, who Campbell married in 1978, a band that included future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie, and a set designer by the name of Bill Drummond, to a world of synchronicity and possibility. A 22-hour version of Neil Oram's The Warp, which ran in weekly episodes at The Everyman Theatre, followed, as did the first stage production of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Campbell premiered his trilogy of solo shows, Recollections Of A Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu at The Traverse Theatre, before they too transferred to The National, and more recently were performed by Campbell on radio station, Resonance FM.
As a prankster, Campbell caught everyone napping when, following the success of Trevor Nunn’s epic staging of Nicholas Nickleby, a fake press release signed ‘Love, Trev,’ announced that the Royal Shakespeare Company would be changing its name to the Royal Dickens Company. Nunn brought in the police, and Campbell confessed all.
Campbell walked a tightrope between the mainstream and the underground, and was championed by Richard Eyre and eventually Nunn himself. On TV he gave an edge to roles in In Sickness And In Health and Fawlty Towers, and in film appeared in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest, Peter Greenaway’s A Zed And Two Noughts and in A Fish Called Wanda. Campbell hosted six series of popular science programmes, and in one interviewed Stephen Hawking. More recently Campbell became professor of ventriloquism at RADA, and was championed by the Royal National Theatre’s Tom Morris, whose previous tenure at Battersea Arts Centre was heavily influenced by Campbell.
Campbell and Gee, who had a daughter, Daisy, divorced but remained friendly. At the time of his death, Campbell was shacked up with three dogs and an African grey parrot.
The Herald, September 2008