Ken Campbell: a tribute

Genius is an attribute thrown around like confetti in this very modern media age. Few individuals adhere to that particular molecular wonder, but the late Ken Campbell had genius burnt into his DNA. If ever I daydream about who would make up my ultimate fantasy dinner party or who be a great companion for a very long train journey, Ken would be at the top of the list. He was one of the most interesting human beings I had ever met.

When I first arrived in London bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was invited to a furtive gathering of philosophers, academics and iconoclasts in a garden flat in Notting Hill. I felt unworthy to be in a room with such glittering luminaries and yet was enthralled by the congregation. Fortean folk swapped notes on trepanning, teleportation and synchronicity and played with mischievous abandonment, positing notions that bewitched this kid from the sticks. The central topic of the discussion was how to create an event to disrupt the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare heritage trail. Ken took centre stage and hurled creative ideas into the room which bowled many of the company over with helpless laughter. I saw potential chaos for the slumbering tourist trap if the Anti-Shakespeare league had ever been given the wings of flight. Tourist coaches would have been hijacked and taken to a rented house to hear the supplications of actors portraying the real claimants to the works of the Bard.

That was the start of a long friendship with a man who had torrents of such unconventional, creative, inspiring ideas. He looked like the clichéd mad professor, gifted with a set of remarkable eyebrows, but I believe that God clearly felt he had to scar Ken with them as a hint to humanity that he had bestowed brilliance on the man.

Over the years, Ken developed an uncontrollable urge to communicate with me at the most surprising and often inconvenient times. Interventions from Ken came at any time of day or night, but most frequently in the belly of the night, with a fancy or fantastic thought that he believed might have some leverage with the media. I was never annoyed by Ken’s wake up calls because, no matter how insane his thought process was, a thread of common sense was always lurking in some dog-eared corner of the idea.

Ken’s professional work was erratic. His one man shows were things of beauty. He will be known for his commercial cameos on the TV, such as “Till Death Us Do Part” or “Fawlty Towers”, but the legacy of his live work will be the true measure of the man. In 1976, he and Chris Langham formed the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in order to stage “Illuminatus!”, an eight-and-a-half hour cycle of five plays, by Campbell, based on The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The Ken Campbell Roadshow that nurtured the likes of Bob Hoskins, Sylvester McCoy, Jim Carter and Marcel Steiner eclipses any of the more commercial live comedy available on draft today. It was really raw and those who were lucky enough to witness the bedlam were invariably touched or inspired by the glorious chaos.

When the late Marcel Steiner bought a cumbersome Russian motorcycle to go on tour, Ken took one look at the beast and said: “Cor, Marcel that thing is so big you should build a bloody theatre on it.” From that moment, the World’s Smallest Theatre was born. In between performing in the Roadshow and lying in the foyers of theatres as the human door mat, Marcel built the venue. The centrepiece was a stolen chandelier and a roll of flock wallpaper recycled from a bin outside a refurbished Indian restaurant.

Ken was fascinated by tall tales and curious stories and in the 80’s he created a series of lectures close to Avro arch; the Walthamstow marshes arches where Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe constructed his Avro triplane in 1909 – the first all-British aircraft flown by a British pilot. The audience brought chairs and, at dawn, as the mist rose, we encircled various philosophers-in-exile who enriched us with tales of Fortean wonder. Perhaps this cosmic search for enlightenment robbed us of the one true dark Time Lord. Ken unsuccessfully auditioned for the part of the Seventh Doctor in Doctor Who in 1987, ironically being beaten to the role by his old protégé Sylvester McCoy. The script editor of Doctor Who at the time, Andrew Cartmel, later said in an interview that Campbell’s interpretation was “too dark” to put on television.

A few years ago Ken insisted without any explanation that I boarded a tube train to Epping. He promised that at the journey’s conclusion I would discover something that would dumbfound and flabbergast. I was bundled into the back of his van and told that he had discovered an artist beyond the abilities of any of the YBA darlings, after being told that it was his errant dog, who was on probation for an attack on another pooch, provoked by whim of doggy psychosis, that had been instrumental in finding his current lodging, where we were headed now.

Getting back to the artist, it transpired that, in the forlorn hope of trying to get Ken into the digital age, his daughter had gifted him a sum of money to buy a computer. Unfortunately the computer shop Ken was sent to had a pet shop next door. So instead of leaving the PC emporium with a laptop, Ken was lured into the pet shop only to buy an African grey parrot called Doris. He took me to his bizarre Swiss chalet home in Epping, at the end of the 167 bus route, which he had turned into a giant aviary to accommodate Doris. The parrot’s art was astonishing and clearly influenced by the geopolitical events that were reshaping modern history.

Ken was also a propagandist for Bislama, a language spoken in the Republic of Vanuatu. He campaigned for its adoption as a world language. Campbell translated Macbeth into Bislama for the show, as well popularizing the Bislama for Prince Philip: “Nambawan Bigfala him blong Missus Queen” (Number one big fellow him belong Mrs Queen).

Ken fell in love with Jim Moran, one the publicists in my book, and we had agreed to create a show around the crazy life of the man – I think Ken could see the art in the stunster’s works and Moran’s stunts were echoed in Ken’s efforts to prick the pomposity of Trevor Nunn after the global acclaim for his infamous Nicholas Nickleby production. Ken had distributed a fake press release and brilliant letters to theatrical luminaries, stating that after the success of their production of Nicholas Nickleby they would be changing their name to the Royal Dickens Company. Ending each letter with a facsimile of Nunn’s signature, it spoofed the theatre world until Nunn outed the scam when he brought in the police.

Perhaps this stunt put Ken outside the commercial and subsidised twirl of luvviedom. Too few players in power in the theatrical establishment stood up for Ken or respected his efforts at the fringes of theatre. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that he was one of the most influential figures in contemporary performance and theatre in the last forty years and Ken’s eccentricity and inspiration was clearly something that frightened the establishment.

I hope that in his death a true appreciation of his genius is put into a proper context. I would hope that, on some cosmic plane, there is a giant welcoming party for a man whose earthly waywardness and simplicity will create interesting mayhem throughout the various celestial dimensions. I would also dearly love to see the show he creates for Aristotle, Pol Pot, Max Wall, Douglas Barder and Tallulah Bankhead.