Ken Campbell, who died suddenly on Sunday aged 66, was a theatrical maverick, an astounding catalyst and a genuine nutter in the very best and most laudable senses of the word. Wander down any of the more weird and wonderful byways of British drama over the past 40 years, and you could be confident Campbell had been there before you and left his curious mark.
After growing up in Ilford, Essex and training at RADA, his early career included a tour as stooge to comedian Dick Emery and a stint as director of the Bournemouth Aqua Shows (“the shallow-end acting bit,” he specified) before joining Colchester Rep as Warren Mitchell’s understudy. His association with Mitchell would continue for decades, with Campbell appearing as Alf Garnett (Mitchell)’s neighbour Fred Johnson in the TV series In Sickness And In Health in the mid-1980s and the pair of them joining John Fortune in one of the West End casts of Yasmina Reza’s play Art in the ’90s.
He began writing and directing plays in the late 1960s, with his Old King Cole becoming a children’s favourite. A stint at the Royal Court with Lindsay Anderson persuaded him that he was not cut out for a career in “straight” theatre; years later he reflected, “I can write a bit; I can direct, but I only really enjoy directing something that nobody else will, I don't want to join the who-can-do-The-Cherry-Orchard-best competition, because the answer is it wouldn’t be me.” So began a life of dramatic guerrilla activity, inspired by improvisational, event-centred companies such as The Living Theater and Theatre Machine.
The Ken Campbell Roadshow in the early 1970s combined storytelling with surreal stunts, and is remembered partly for the sequence in which Sylvester McCoy put a live ferret down his trousers. (McCoy, like Bob Hoskins, was a Roadshow-era Campbell discovery, and in 1987 would just beat Campbell to the role of Doctor Who.) By the middle of the decade he had founded the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, whose nine-hour (including intervals) stage adaptation of the Illuminatus! novel trilogy became the inaugural production in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe space in 1977; its cast included Jim Broadbent, co-adaptor Chris Langham and David Rappaport, with miniature sets designed by Bill Drummond, later of art-terrorists the KLF. In 1979-80 he topped this with a 22-hour-long production of Neil Oram’s play cycle The Warp, which played in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh and included Bill Nighy; Campbell and his daughter Daisy revived the cycle in various productions in 1997-2000.
Campbell’s talent for unearthing remarkable people, bringing them together and setting them on surprising new paths was a constant in his life. Actors John Alderton and Pauline Collins first met when rehearsing for one of his TV plays; later their daughter Kate would play in The Warp. Tom Conti’s actress daughter Nina was set by Campbell on the path to becoming one of the UK’s leading comedy ventriloquists. He himself popped up all over the place, from a brief but memorable appearance in Fawlty Towers ("Syb ill, Baz well!") to Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and shoving a rotting prawn down comedian Jim Davidson’s throat in Peter Greenaway’s A Zed And Two Noughts. He also perpetrated one of British theatre’s greatest hoaxes in the early 1980s, when he sent out letters which purported to be from Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn, claiming that, following the success of Nicholas Nickleby, the RSC was set to become the Royal Dickens Company and inviting various leading writers and directors to participate.
In the 1990s, he began a series of solo storytelling shows with Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt! and Jamais Vu, collectively known on their National Theatre appearance as “the Bald trilogy” to contrast with the (David) Hare trilogy then also playing. Subsequent shows included an unforgettable essay on the part of Angus in Macbeth (“Why does everyone ignore him? Has he committed some horrendous social gaffe? Do they not see him – is he a dwarf?”) and a collection whose title sums him up perfectly: I’m Not Mad – I’ve Just Read Different Books. He also presented a number of popular science mini-series for Channel 4 television including Reality On The Rocks and Brainspotting.
His enthusiasms during this period included the pidgin language of the South Pacific islands, in which he staged a production of Macbeth (or Makbed bilong Wilum Sekspia), ventriloquism, the screenwriting courses of Robert McKee, the films of Jackie Chan and an increasingly explicit fascination with improvisation, which had always been a major facet of his work. In recent years he began to encourage a group of performers now known as The School Of Night into long-form theatrical improvisation, with a 36-hour marathon in 2005 and a 50-hour Improvathon in early 2008. He was most recently seen onstage less than a fortnight ago as guest “director” and provocateur in the company’s Edinburgh Fringe production Showstopper! – The Improvised Musical, in which a number of critics (including myself) were invited to present reviews of imaginary musicals which the company would then turn into reality, egged on by Campbell, wearing on his trademark bald pate a teacosy topped off with a knitted duck.
His marriage to actress Prunella Gee ended in divorce but they remained good friends. He is survived by Daisy, two grandchildren, three dogs and Doris, an African grey parrot whom he had been training to squawk her own life story.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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