Ken Campbell - The Great Caper
By Michael Coveney
Nick Hern Books £14.99
Dateline: 5th April, 2011
The fact that Ken Campbell was obliged to declare "I'm not mad,
I've just read different books" is indication that he could easily
be perceived as, to say the least, unusual.
Ken Campbell is one of those unorthodox figures whose life reads like
a fantasy novel and, in this book by Michael Coveney, its reliving proves
to be richly entertaining in the strangest ways.
Campbell was a performer, director and playwright who did not understand
the normal bounds of either theatre or society. As such, he produced
eccentric live performances and plays that were truly unique and the
like of which will never be seen again now that he has passed from us.
The early years could not have been more normal, spent as an only child
in suburban Essex causing few traumas, if any, to his devoted father
Colin. It was only after the youngster decided against going up to Cambridge
in favour of a spell at RADA that there was the slightest whiff of an
interest in an artistic career.
Campbell was never really somebody to fit in anywhere once he reached
adulthood and fell upon performance art practically before it existed.
He also discovered a very wide range of intoxicants that helped to fuel
an already fervent imagination.
His career divided into a number of reasonably distinct periods. After
an apprenticeship on the borders between theatre, circus and vaudeville,
he set up the Ken Campbell Roadshow taking performances around the country.
As well as drama, his dedicated performers were as likely to present
pieces more normally seen in a freak show than anywhere else. Oddly,
several of his collaborators from around this period became famous in
later life including Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent and the artist eventually
called Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy.
In fact, this knack of discovering and developing talent was one that
would follow Campbell through his life, since he also helped other performers
such as Bill Nighy and Nina Conti in their early days, although at times
he was probably closer to finishing the former's career than starting
The next phase featured what can only be described as epic performances,
first The Illuminatus and then the even more expansive, day and
night long The Warp. These strings of short plays put together
appealed to those already high on drink and drugs in what Coveney describes
as Campbell's hippie period.
They took their toll on the actors, since several struggled to recover,
including the woman that would eventually become Mrs Campbell, the beautiful
Prunella Gee, as well as Russell Denton, who starred in The Warp
and put so much of himself into it that he effectively dropped out of
society for ever after.
These two figures demonstrate different facets of Campbell's personality.
He loved women although he struggled to relate to them and could have
something of a split personality, being both incredibly charming and
viciously driven to the extent of rudeness or worse. The consequence
was that his acolytes like Denton would follow him through metaphorical
brick walls but hurt themselves deeply on the way.
The marriage to Prunella Gee lasted only five years, which was long
for a Campbell relationship, but, as with so many others in his life,
even after the pair split up, they remained on very good terms, meeting
regularly and sharing duties in bringing up their daughter Daisy.
Following the epics, Campbell tried to go straight to becoming the
artistic director of the Everyman in Liverpool, a position to which
he was clearly totally unsuited.
His final overlapping experiments were both exceedingly successful.
With his old friend and collaborator Richard Eyre he created a series
of highly personalised monologues to be delivered looking silly with
a degree of earnestness underlying the humour.
Almost at the same time, Campbell became a TV star in the Patrick Moore
mould presenting science documentaries, having already cut his teeth
appearing in such shows as Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who.
It is worth noting that, had he not struck a producer as potentially
unstable, Ken Campbell might have been a massively eye-browed Doctor
instead of his old friend and colleague, Sylvester McCoy.
This brief overview misses out so many more facts about someone who
constantly sought new challenges but might quickly lose interest in
any of them and head for something else.
Ken Campbell was not a man about whom one could feel indifferent. From
one viewpoint, he was a dangerous maniac who wrecked people's lives,
from another he was a unique artistic hero whose like may never be seen
It does not come as surprise to learn that Michael Coveney falls firmly
into the latter worshipping category and as a result this well-written,
authorised biography does its subject proud.
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