Monday, September 01, 2008

Laef emi sado blong wokabaot


And so an underinspired but agreeable day suddenly lurches inexpressibly crapward with the announcement of the death of Ken Campbell. The web is already filling up with ad hoc tributes, all of which speak to the affection with which he was regarded and the esteem in which he was held, and I can't add much of value to that; but I won't feel ok until I've tried to say something.

I wouldn't be working in theatre if it weren't for Ken Campbell. Which is not to say that I'm anything like his biggest fan. Having stumbled across him in the early 90s -- I'm not quite sure which came first: discovering [The Recollections of a] Furtive Nudist, the first (and best) instalment of his Bald Trilogy monodramas, or seeing video footage of The Ken Campbell Roadshow in their prime -- "Ladies and gentlemen: David Rappaport - not the shortest man in the world, but fucking close!" -- but in fact I only ever saw one of his live shows, Theatre Stories at the Cottesloe in '97. After Violin Time, the scripts from his solos stopped being published and I sort of lost track, he'd pop up all over the place, the Drill Hall maybe or BAC, and it always seemed one could afford to miss the current show because the next would be along in a fortnight or so. But apart from a more close-up encounter, or series of encounters, in 1999, which I can only imagine I'll relate below, I can't say I stayed as engaged as I should have done with what he was actually doing.

Odd then to think of him as having been such a huge influence on me, but he was. And in a way that lazy and inattentive pattern I fell into kind of testifies to it. The specifics of Ken Campbell were mercurial, ungraspable, and always somewhat overshadowed or bountifully exceeded by the idea of Ken Campbell. In that way I suppose he resembles another "eccentric" hero of mine, Vivian Stanshall, whose example remains a sort of floating ideal quite detached from and impervious to the fact that so much of his work is actually a bit half-baked. I wouldn't say the same for Campbell -- well, how would I know, anyway? -- but it was always possible for the idea of him to be as proximal and immediate as his particular 'capers' became, to me, remote and indistinct. It was obvious to anyone who met him or conceived even the slightest appreciation for his work that to an extent -- and I'm careful to say that because I don't in any way want to denigrate Campbell's immense skill and old-school craft as a storyteller, communicator and showman -- all of the solo pieces, at least, whether on stage or in conversation or in the little clutch of science documentaries he made for Channel 4, were simply looping, intermeshing excerpts from a performance that was epic in scale and duration even for him, viz., Being Ken Campbell.

None of this would account for Campbell's importance to me (and indeed to a whole raft of British theatremakers of all stripes) were it not for the particular qualities of the ideas that he embodied. The best encapsulation of it, at least in its surface thrills, comes in Furtive Nudist, when he's discussing one of his own heroes, the supernaturalist writer Charles Fort (in whose honour the Fortean Times is named), and mentions Fort's characteristic heavy use of the hyphen to punctuate his prose: "It's Fort's opinion that everything in the Universe is linked with everything else -- so a Full Stop is a Lie -- Or a Hyphen coming straight at you." I've seduced people by quoting that line. (And by "people" there, I very obviously mean "one person".)

This somewhat hypomanic notion of universal interlinkage, of cosmic hyphenation, obviously induces a sublime rush: but Campbell seems to have lived, and certainly to have worked, according not only to its dilative sensationalism but also to its deeper, more robust implications. And this is where some of the obits now appearing seem already to be underestimating Campbell, suggesting a larksome but essentially trivial practice. What I learned from Campbell is profound, and nobody else has ever conveyed it quite so compellingly: the idea that theatre is important as a medium because it can -- and even should -- include all of this. All of what? All of everything, all of all of it. This is why it frustrates me that we still struggle to include science and philosophy and fifty-seven varieties of non-fiction in our theatrical composition; that we tend erroneously to suppose, even to insist, that entertainment and experimentation are contrary impulses; and that the pressure increases more and more to create on the smallest possible scale in terms of cast size and running time. Though these last practical considerations are, in the end, not the whole ballgame: Campbell's ambitiousness was actually incredibly consistent, whether we think of the 22-[plus]-hour cast-of-dozens The Warp (scripted in fact by Neil Oram) or one of the monodramas like Violin Time: the scope of the work is always larger even than the events or ideas it describes, and at its just-discernible outskirts is a pure theatricality beyond content, beyond performance, beyond what can be realized or even conceived. Ken Campbell's work has no perimeters, only horizons. Quite often in my work I find myself talking to co-devisors and other colleagues about the moment where "the roof has to come off": Jamie and Lucy lying on her bed looking up at the stars in Homemade; the culminating dream of skypointing in We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg!; the blinding white light silhouetting Herman at the end of Longwave; the closing sequence in The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (you'll have to wait and see)... And I'm certain that that desire in me became articulable only because Ken Campbell made it so. I suppose because I never actually saw it on stage, I don't generally include Furtive Nudist in the Desert Island list of theatre works that have most influenced me, but I should.

It's probably news to almost everyone that I once-upon-a-time worked with Ken, but the circumstances were at best odd and marginal and at worst slightly shameful. This was back in 1999, while I was working on the first Signal to Noise show, The Consolations, and holding down what was, to be fair, the most interesting day-job I ever had. I was employed by the brand consultancy arm of the advertising company Leo Burnett; my official job title -- please remember this was Camden in the late 90s -- was "idea stimulator", and part of my role was to devise interesting experiences that would help brand and marketing managers in large companies to look in a fresh and imaginative way at their brands. Much of the time this amounted to not much more than creating mood boards and wacky props for the walls of meeting rooms in dreary hotels (I spent one of the longest days of my life watching a roomful of high-ups agonising over whether to rebrand Yellow Pages as BT Yellow Pages), or introducing a fifteen-minute juggling workshop somewhere into the process of rewriting some bluechip company's mission statement.

Anyway, I'd decided that a good way of messing with the heads of a score of marketing folks from Procter & Gamble, plus assorted LB people working on the P&G account, would be to give them a 'time machine' experience where they spent a day working from the past (which if I recall was a lecture about some historical aspect of sanitation), through the present (an art workshop creating paintings and sculptures out of P&G products -- presumably massively demeaning, though very genially led by the lovely Grace Adam), to the future. For the future section I convened a panel of people variously concerned with considering the ways in which our daily lives might change over the coming decades, from (the late) Nicholas Albery of the Institute for Social Inventions (which spawned the largely worthwhile Global Ideas Bank), to a young futurologist and stand-up comic called Nick Bostrom, who these days is directing the imposingly-named Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. But who could I possibly get to chair such a panel?

My head still spins when I recall how much Ken Campbell wanted to be paid for what amounted to four or five hours' work -- I figured out he was making my weekly pay-packet every twenty minutes -- but I'm sure in his place I'd have asked the same, and anyway, we agreed to it, and I can't honestly say it wasn't worth every cent. Not that he was jovial, exactly -- mutual friends agree that he could be slightly sour sometimes and a bit short of temper -- but expansive, certainly. After our preparatory meeting he diligently took away his briefing notes and I began to feel reassured that our maverick anchorman wasn't going to get me into trouble.

On the day of the event, he was warm and funny and his radical unpredictability seemed to have been largely stemmed by his wearing of clothes pegs attached to each of his gigantically unkempt eyebrows. As he sat behind the desk amiably interviewing the other speakers I really thought we were going to get away with it; alarm bells didn't start ringing until he was quite a long way into a story of having been invited to go into a classroom to talk to a bunch of teenagers (about what, I can't remember). His voice rose in volume and pitch and expanded in timbre as he explained how shocked he was by how untroublesome these teens were, how inert they seemed, and how his frustration at their docility eventually got the better of him. "I threw open the window," booms Campbell climactically, "and I shouted in the direction of the headmaster's office: 'All of these children are fucking dead!'" Titters and general frisson in the auditorium, and then Ken turns on the assembled delegates with a furious stare: "And it was your advertising that killed them!"

Ouch. Brilliant, but ouch. But brilliant.

Actually the punchline that I particularly cherish from that period, the sentence that I always bring to mind if I'm going to make an ill-advised attempt at an impression of Campbell's distinctive speaking style, was a much more joyous utterance, made at that first meeting at the consultancy, and referring I presume to the infamous episode where the cast of Derek Jarman's Tempest (Campbell played Gonzalo, breezily but pretty wonderfully) was temporarily snowed-in while on location. As I ran through the list of other speakers on the futurology panel, I mentioned Nicholas Albery, and asked if Ken had ever met him. (Suddenly I realise this story is probably libellous, but we'll press on.) Ken beamed with pleasure on hearing the name. "Ah, Nicholas! Yes, of course I know Nicholas!", he exclaimed. "The last time I saw Nicholas, he was getting sucked off in the lav by Mrs Heathcote Williams."

If nothing else, Campbell deserves to be remembered for his incredible ability to speak in italics when the story demanded it.

There's not much good Campbell stuff at YouTube to point you towards, but here are a couple of audio clips. Firstly, the opening of his CD Wol Wantok from 2000, the high-point of his campaign to teach everybody Bislama, the creole of Vanuatu ("wol wantok" -- world one-talk -- the Bislama rendering of 'global language'); the extract begins with a translation of the soliloquy "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow", from Macbeth -- which became, in the end, a fully-fledged Campbell production, Makbed: a project on whose earlyish stages my friend and colleague Tom Lyall worked. (The title of this post is the phrase "Life's but a walking shadow" in Bislama, as you may have figured out.)

The second clip is a transcendentally perverse one-minute condensation of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool's production of The Warp, created for Morgan Fisher's brilliant 1980 compilation album Miniatures. (Seek it out if you don't already have it -- treats there gathered include R.D. Laing playing "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" on the piano, George Melly doing a bit of the Ursonate, Neil Innes and his infant son covering "Cum On Feel the Noize", and David Bedford's one-minute a capella version of the Ring Cycle. Awesome.) Even these tiny fragmented glimpses of the play seem to convey something of the excitement of The Warp: though I hope and trust there'll be a real, full staging of the play again before too long: as Ian Shuttleworth says, in his indispensible Warp tribute pages, "WATCH THIS SPACE!" (I don't mean this space in particular. At least I don't think I do.)

Anyway, here are the audio clips if you want them.


Ken Campbell

Or, better still, be your own audio clip: throw open the window this instant, orient yourself in roughly the direction of the Headmaster's office, and declaim into the wind and rain the closing lines of Furtive Nudist -- to be spoken, as they are written, in ALL CAPS. How can one speak of it any less full-throatedly? Ken Campbell is fucking dead. Thankfully, theatre is far more expansive than life and death (a suspicious looking binary if ever I saw one), and every full stop is just a hyphen coming straight at you. Thus: all together now:

YOU'VE GOT TO GET HOLD OF THE THREAD OF MARCHING TIME AND PULL THE FUCK THING DOWN AND GET ON IT AND PANG YOURSELF TO THE INFINITUDE OF ABSOLUTE MIND.

7 comments:

mary epworth said...

What an amazing post. I was so sad to hear he had died, somehow reading what you wrote reminds me how insanely full of life he was, and makes it feel much more likely that he just went through a wall to another, stranger place.

Noel Shaw said...

Ken's Final Caper.
As far as we know . . .

Tuesday 9 September 2008
10:00 Tea and Coffee.
11:00 Curtain up!

Epping Forest Burial Park
Kiln Road,
North Weald,
Epping
CM16 6AD.

Directions:
http://tinyurl.com/5ca8wr

Directions if coming by tube:
http://tinyurl.com/64hy5t

Bring picnic to share.
Conjuring tricks welcome
As well as anomalous pnenomena.

morganf said...

Thanks for the brilliant obit, which brings back Ken's inimitable spirit beautifully. Also thanks for the kind words re my one-minute version of The Warp, which I made with the riproaring advice of Neil Oram -sadly I never met Ken. (BTW the Miniatures album was just reissued by Cherry Red Records). RIP Ken, or should I say let RIP, or RIProar, wherever ye may be.

Morgan Fisher

Anonymous said...

L.A.-based producer Sheridan MacMillan-Thayer wrote me today via YouTube:

“I’m the producer/director of the Ken Campbell documentary, ‘Antic Visionary’. I screened the docu three times, in London, and made many efforts to distribute but sadly, no one was interested at the time. It would indeed be a great tribute to Ken to get it out there. Maybe that can still happen… [ . . . ]
Ken was a dear friend and will be missed. He was one of a kind. [ . . . ] Let’s hope… If word gets out there that there is a film on his life, maybe someone will be interested in it. As far as I know, there is no other film or TV show about Ken that tracks his work from the Roadshow days to his one man shows. ”

Well, here’s hoping. And the TV broadcast of “School For Clowns” would make a nice DVD extra.

Aliki said...

During rehearsals for the 1999 Warp, as no doubt on other occasions, Ken would declare some piece of advice a principle of stagecraft. "Good!", he said, when he saw me writing them down. Here are the ones I caught, in my own words and no particular order:

Never cross upstage of someone.

Victory exits upstage left.

Comedy is loud.

Hit the last words of speeches hard.

For emphasis, echo the last word of your cue. make it a response.

Play actions, not reactions.

Violence needs a big mouth and big nostrils. hit the words that really hurt.

Never throw away any line.

Find reasons to look away from the other actor.

The straight man is to the left and slightly downstage of the comic.

Action goes before the words that describe it.

Never talk on the move. Speak, move to where you want to go, speak again.

Never take out on the line. Speak, take out, come back in, speak again.

Never pause just for the hell of it. All pauses are for decisions.

A long speech is long because the first line didn't work.

gus said...

When I got back from the burial last night I felt, for the first time in years, really angry and lonely.

Having shoveled earth on the coffin, was finally forced to accept Campbell really was dead after all.

And coming across this, written & read by Alan Moore, had me sobbing, not just for the dead Wilsons but for KC:
http://tinyurl.com/64sfjp

Wolynski said...

Great stuff. I have some photos of Ken and memories on my blog.

Thank you for writing this.