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Donald Campbell - An Obituary


Donald Campbell – Playwright, poet, theatre historian

Born 1940; died March 8 2019

Donald Campbell, who has died aged 79, was a major poet and playwright, whose work tapped into some of Scotland’s hidden histories with a muscular relish for language, an immaculate sense of structure and a rough-hewn empathy for the common man on his own doorstep. While his profile may not be as high as some of his 1970s contemporaries in the new wave of Scots dramatic poets writing vigorously in their own tongue, Campbell was a key figure in Scottish play-writing and a huge influence on the generations that followed.

Fellow playwright David Greig described Campbell as ‘a man of theatre’ and ‘one of the rocks on which the 1980s renaissance in Scottish playwriting was built.’ These are fitting words from the current artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, where Campbell was resident Playwright from 1981-83 and about which he wrote a vivid history, A Brighter Sunshine, published at the end of his tenure there.

Campbell wrote his first play, The Jesuit, in 1973, though it wasn’t produced until 1976. The play told the story of Catholic priest John Ogilvie, who was executed in 1615 following his refusal to acknowledge the Crown’s spiritual authority. This was shown through the relationship between Ogilvie, his protestant inquisitor Archbishop John Spottiswoode and, crucially, the ordinary men who were Ogilvie’s prison guards and torturers. These spoke in contemporary street-slang, with their squabbles marking them out as the foot-soldiers of religious divides to come.

While most theatres recognised the play’s worth, economic concerns regarding its historical and religious subject matter meant no existing company would take a risk on it. Two years after it was written, Campbell had a chance encounter with actor/director Sandy Neilson, who completely committed himself to the play, which was eventually produced in May 1976 at the Traverse by The Heretics Theatre Company. Neilson even stepped in to play Spottiswoode after fellow actor Henry Stamper had to drop out of a production which critic Allen Wright described in The Scottish Historical Review as ‘one of the most important works to have been written for the Scottish stage in recent times.’ 

The Jesuit’s belated arrival onstage chimed somewhat fortuitously with Ogilvy being canonised by the Catholic Church in Scotland, with the Pope declaring him a saint later the same year. The lord, it seemed, moved in mysterious ways, whichever side you were on.

Campbell was born in Caithness, and several years later moved with his to Edinburgh, where he attended Boroughmuir High School before taking up a banking apprenticeship in London. He and Jean were married in 1966, during a period when Edinburgh was a hotbed of a thriving Scottish folk revival that looked to Scotland’s own cultural roots as much as the contemporary.

Artistically, Campbell was influenced by music hall and popular traditions as well as playwright Robert McLellan, who had a profound influence on him from an early age. In a 1986 special Scottish Theatre edition of Joy Hendry’s seminal Chapman magazine, Campbell wrote of how, in 1956, aged sixteen, he went with his parents to the Lyceum to watch Duncan Macrae play the title role in McLellan’s play, Jamie The Saxt.

Campbell described Macrae’s performance  being ‘of such theatrical power that it remains in my imagination thirty years later’. Of the play itself, Campbell recalled how ‘from beginning to end, frissons of excitement sped through the auditorium perpetually, creating a marvellous feeling of release which everyone seemed to share. Entertaining as it was, Jamie the Saxt gave us something more than mere entertainment – it gave us liberation.’  

It was perhaps a similar sense of liberation that Campbell was looking for when, in 1970, he became one of the founder members of The Heretics, a cultural collective formed to promote the poetry and music of Scotland’s living tradition in a relaxed and convivial setting. Early bills featured the likes of Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty’s folk band, The Humblebums, fiddler Aly Bain, folklorist Hamish Henderson and poet Norman MacCaig.

Campbell published his first collection of poems in 1971, followed a year later by a second collection, Rhymes ‘n’ Reasons. He started writing full time in 1974, when he became Writer in residence for Lothian schools, a post he held until 1977, and which took him into the heart of local communities in a way he relished, and which his own work thrived on in works such as Somerville the Soldier, The Widows of Clyth (1979) and Blackfriars Wynd (1980).  

These were followed by Till All the Seas Gang Dry (1981), Howard’s Revenge (1985),   and Victorian Values, a community play for 7:84 performed in Springwell House in Gorgie (1986). Later stage work included The Fisher Boy and the Honest Lass (1990), The Ould Fella (1993), Nancy Sleekit (1994) and his football play, Glorious Hearts (1999).

The best of his first six poetry collections was gathered together in Selected Poems: 1970-1990 (Galliard, 1990). Other work included  six television plays, fifty radio programmes, three short films and two volumes of theatre history; A Brighter Sunshine (Polygon, 1983) and Playing for Scotland (Mercat Press, 1996) . He also wrote a cultural history of Edinburgh, published in the Cities of the Imagination series from Signal Books of Oxford (2001).

Campbell was a fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee (l987-89), William Soutar Fellow in Perth (1991-93) and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Napier University (2000-01). His plays won numerous awards, and his radio work received international awards on three continents; A Clydebuilt Man (New York, 1983), The Miller's Reel (Sydney, 1987) and The Year of The Bonnie Prince (Monte Carlo, 1996).

As a director, Campbell oversaw a 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of John McGrath’s early short play, Plugged into History. He went on to direct a revival of his own Blackfriars Wynd, two adaptations of Sir Walter Scott novels, The Heart of Midlothian (Edinburgh Old Town Festival, 1988) and St. Ronan's Well (Border Festival, 1989). This was followed by a touring revival of Tom Wright's There Was a Man (Capstride Theatre, 1994) and the first English language version of Malin Lagerlof's The Lighthouse Prisoner (Northlands Festival, 1996).
Campbell was a natural for radio, and his poetry too was rooted in an oral Scots tradition that put the language centre stage in a way that had been neglected prior to his generation of writers reclaiming it during the 1970s.

Several of Campbell’s plays were revived in the 1990s by Fifth Estate, the grassroots Edinburgh theatre company set up by Sandy Neilson and Allan Sharpe to focus on the sort of `Scottish plays they felt were being neglected by major theatres. This included a revival of The Jesuit in 1992, and productions of The Ould Fella and a double bill of Howard’s Revenge and Nancy Sleekit.

Artistic director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and TRACS festival Donald Smith described Campbell as “an all-round theatre maker. He never lost that sense of engaging with a wide audience which took him into community and music theatre as well as the accomplished literary dramas which made his reputation. He loved the work of actors, musicians and designers, always being part of rehearsal process. His approach was highly professional- rewrites punctually delivered  etc, but also very personal and passionate. He hated snobbery and pretension and wanted a classless theatre. He could be forthright and argumentative if he disagreed with something, but was also incredibly collegiate and supportive.”

In his later years Campbell suffered from ill health, and returned to poetry and translation. Homage to Rob Donn was published in 2007, Fugitives in 2015, and getting back among the common men and women he so identified with, Heard in the Cougait was a pamphlet of new works inspired by the Victorian engravings of Walter Geikle, and published in 2017. It’s appearance marked the final bookend of a literary life in which Campbell wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and which, onstage and in verse, was steeped in a poetry not just for the people it was about, but which was set down by someone who was very much one of their own.

Campbell is survived by his wife Jean, his son Gavin, daughter-in-law Margaret and his grandchildren, Lewis and Andrew.

The Herald, March 15th 2019

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