Ken Campbell, theatrical trickster, memorialised in Fringe show 'Ken'

This article is from 2018

Ken Campbell, theatrical trickster, is memorialised in a Fringe production

Ken Campbell

The man who put ferrets down the trousers of a future Dr Who is at the centre of a co-production between Showstoppers and Pleasance

Ken Campbell, the late mischievous firebrand of British theatre, once referred to his many projects as 'capers'. His stories are the stuff of legend – bizarre, yet all true. He once put ferrets down the trousers of future Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy, left his puppets to ventriloquist Nina Conti, staged a 22-hour play cycle – an adaptation of Neil Oram's The Warp, putting him in the Guinness Book of World Records – and, rather wonderfully, gave eulogies for pet funerals in Ilford.

The very epitome of eccentric, his legacy can still be felt today, whenever shows are staged in unusual settings or take an iconoclastic approach. Any shows which raise eyebrows and take a lowbrow approach to high-minded subjects are reminiscent of his forward-thinking ethos. It is as though his impish ghost stalks the Edinburgh Festival, barking out instructions to 'act less'. Now Ken, a co-production between the Showstoppers and the Pleasance, is at the festival, examining his extraordinary life and career.

Terry Johnson, who wrote and stars in Ken, says that the time was right for the play. 'It's ten years since Ken's death, and I'm shunting into the mortal time when your knee doesn't heal, and you look around the living room full of eccentric mementoes of the past and you realise there's quite a lot of that unresolved. So you ponder your own inspiration, and up he comes.'

Campbell's own approach is threaded throughout the play. 'He became obsessed with the glorious fairground of storytelling and how to do it well,' he adds.'I unashamedly plundered his seemingly free-wheeling but precise structuring. And his turn of phrase. Ken thought differently, and if you hung around him enough, so did you'.

Adam Meggido, performer and member of the Showstoppers, whose work is fuelled by improv energy, says Ken Campbell was simply one of the finest in theatre. 'Like many others, I owe him not just my career, but the rediscovery of joy in my work. He understood the actor-audience dynamic and knew how to work a crowd like a great vaudevillian. He brought theatre to pubs, market places and working men's clubs with his famous Roadshow. For Ken, theatre was everywhere. He would probably make queueing part of the show.' And Campbell is still a mentor, too. 'I always think about how I can be bolder. I go closer towards that which I fear', says Meggido. 'I am not afraid to fail. There is no such thing as a mistake.'

Looking back at Campbell's epic play cycles, fellow Showstopper Kate Alderton says: 'People often say they "went through" The Warp rather than worked on it. It was like running away with a cosmic circus, a crash course in life, the universe and everything and a reminder that great theatre can be made with a mix of professionals and non-professionals, furniture from skips, sleep deprivation and synchronicity. Ken completely changed my perception of what theatre was, who it was for and how you could make that happen. My mum and dad (actors Pauline Collins and John Alderton) also met in one of his plays, so he used to cackle with glee that he might be responsible for my very existence.'

Nick Tigg, of experimental theatre company The People Show (staging The Last Straw at this year's Fringe), worked with Campbell on The Warp and muses on his influence. 'Like The People Show, Ken was, at his best, an enabler', he says. 'He cajoled, encouraged, forced people to do things they would never normally have done, to take risks, to be a "seeker", as he would have said, in search of the unexpected and unusual. He undoubtedly helped me become a more interesting performer and maybe more importantly, for me, he encouraged me to believe that what I had to say as an artist, as a maker of work, was interesting, and that theatre was the right arena in which to say it. To me, the theatre landscape seems very risk averse, much more so than in the past. Could a Ken Campbell figure emerge now? I'm not so sure.'

Lucy Trodd, also of the Showstoppers, celebrates his unorthodox approach. 'Ken is an important figure for me, as Showstopper! grew out of our work with him (so did my marriage!). He was a champion of the strange and the impossible', she says. 'He wanted you to be the best you could be and would get annoyed with you if you weren't brilliant immediately. He also introduced me to improvisation in a unique way. It was life changing and all-consuming and it was different. There were no levels of organised courses, but more a sense of ensemble and remembering how to play and stagecraft. He put me on a stage improvising an opera song before I'd had a chance to think. He was my call to adventure. I would miss him very much, but I can't get away from him! I've tried'.

Ken, Pleasance Dome, until 27 Aug (not 13, 20) 3.20 pm £11–£14.50 (£10–£13.50).
Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, Pleasance Courtyard, 26 Aug (not 14), 6pm, £13–£17 (£11–£15).
The Last Straw, Summerhall, until 26 Aug (not 13, 20) 3pm, £12 (£10).

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