BEYINI UR KEN
KEN CAMPBELL crops up in the most unexpected places, from all-day psychedelic epics to bit parts in Brookside. Mark Fisher meets the man and his shopping trolley to experience an early case of Jamais Vu.
hen Ken Campbell trundles on stage behind a zimmer—frame shopping-trolley, you assume it’s part of the act, just like that ﬂoppy felt hat or the sink plunger suctioned to his head. There’s no certainty with Campbell, but I’m starting to think the shopping-trolley’s for real. Certainly he still has it by his side when I meet him in the Traverse cafe after I’ve watched him deliver his ‘Comedy Masterclass’, very funny and nothing, of course, to do with comic education. As he’s talking - and this man can talk - he repeatedly dives into his trusty bag to dig out some object or other to illustrate his current theme. From its depths he draws out a copy of Pigspurt, the soon-to-be-published text of his last monologue, a successor to The Recollections Of A Furtive Nudist and precursor to the forthcoming Jamais Vu. Look closely at his face on the front cover and you see that in place of a nose, there is the back of a naked woman. Flick the bottom right comer of the book and watch a cartoon display of how she got there. After a spell with Campbell, even a nose is not quite what it seems. ‘A full stop,’ he points out, ‘could well be a hyphen coming straight at you.’
After a career that has spanned the anarchic Ken Campbell Roadshow in the 60s (ferret- down-trousers comedy featuring Sylvester McCoy), the record-breaking 22-hour comic epic The Warp, an adaptation of The llluminatus books which opened the Cottesloe at the National Theatre, a handful of children’s plays and roles including Alf Gamett’s neighbour in
In Sickness and in Health, the 52— year-old Campbell is developing the art of the monologue like no other. ‘A lot of it is sort of like luvvies’ tales,’ he says, giving a most innacurate impression of his trilogy which grew out of an informal performance in a 30-seater Camden theatre. ‘Going back and remembering — I couldn’t have done that twenty years ago because I didn’t have enough distance to look back.’
Campbell’s tales are full ofunlikely encounters with even more unlikely people, all strung together with what seems like a typically 605 taste for the curious, although he points out that The Illuminatus and The Warp were both 705 shows, so it’s wrong to link his name with the earlier decade. ‘The reason I did them with such love was because I missed the 605,’ he says. ‘I left RADA in I960 as a fully-trained comic actor but nobody really wanted me, because people like Ned Sherrin were in charge and they were only looking for comedians who had a university education it seemed. It wasn’t enough to have read newspapers, you had to have read newspapers at Cambridge.
‘80 not having much work, I decided to go along to the Gants Hill Library and get myself an education. There was a bunch of us who were allowed into the basement where they kept the books that weren’t read or that there’d been complaints about. I thought that if I read the books that nobody else is reading, I’ll gain some sort of ascendency in the herd. This is an error.
‘A full stop,’ he points out, ‘could well be a
hyphen coming straight at you.’
When you’re young you should have a directed reading-list. It doesn’t matter that you’re going to exhume masterpieces, things of ’way more alarm and humour than people know about — they don’t want to know about that, you’ll be excluded. People sometimes say I’m mad, I’m not mad, it’s just that I’ve read different books.’
Thirty years on from the Gants Hill basement and Campbell is making cameo appearances in Brookside as Oscar Dean, the man least likely to launch a take-over bid of La Luz. the soap’s less-than-swinging hotspot. With his cardigan, checked hat and a penchant for gardening, Oscar arrived from nowhere, too good to be true, like a deus ex machina releasing Barry Grant from prison and charming Jimmy Corkhill into working with his arch-enemy. On screen Corkhill gapes at Oscar with a look of bewilderment that suggests there’s more than just acting going on here. Oscar Dean equals Ken Campbell equals strange. ‘I hate watching anything I’m in,’ says Campbell, ‘because it seems like it’s all going quite well and then I come on. While I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “I can’t think this is going to convince anyone,” and then when I watch it, that’s what it looks like.’
What Campbell doesn’t realise is that this is what makes his Brookside appearances so special. For those familiar with his off-screen persona, he brings with him the same kind of hyper-realism as those episodes where they took
10 The List 24 September—7 October I993