An experimental British writer and theatre director, his frequent visits to Newfoundland made him a significant influence and inspiration for local artists—most notably Andy Jones.
by Dave Sullivan
On August 31st, 2008 Newfoundland and Labrador lost one of the wildest adopted sons a former British Dominion could ask for. Ken Campbell was a writer, director, actor and comedian—often referred to as “a one-man dynamo of British Theatre.”
Best known to us in Newfoundland for his series of wonderful one-man shows notorious for their off-the-wall but intelligent ideas, as well as his strides in science fiction theatre (adapting the first stage production of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.)
He was one of the most original talents in the British theatre of the past half-century. The Guardian proclaimed him “a genius at producing shows on a shoestring and honing the improvisational capabilities of the actors who were brave enough to work with him.”
One of those actors was our own Andy Jones.
“I remember when he handed me the script,” recalls Jones. “I remember reading it on the edge of the stage, and falling over laughing.”
This was in Toronto, at Theatre Passe Muraille, in November, 1972. Campbell was auditioning people to perform in his show entitled Pilk’s Madhouse.
Long story short, Jones was hired for the gig, and it enjoyed a very successful run at the theatre, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the end of the road for Ken, Andy, or Henry Pilk.
“One day in rehearsal Ken announces that his company in England had broken up and that they were booked to perform Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at Sloane Square, London,” says Jones. (The place The Rocky Horror Show premiered in 1973.)
“So, he invited us to come, and of course, we were too stunned to know that we shouldn’t have gone.”
The Canadian portion of the cast, which included Andy, a TV puppeteer, a jazz musician, and a buxom blonde boarded a plane to London, England.
But Campbell had left out one important detail:
“He didn’t tell us that this was the show’s third year, and that it had been an unbelievable hit at Theatre Upstairs. Samuel Beckett was downstairs watching over Albert Finney perform Krapp’s Last Tape,” says Jones.
“Ken hadn’t told us any of this, or the fact that some of the sketches we were performing had already been done in previous shows by some pretty experienced British comedians, including Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Pink Floyd The Wall) and Sylvester McCoy (Dr. Who).”
Regardless, the cast—made up of the four Canadians, three Irish actors, and British comedian Marcel Steiner—rehearsed night and day until they opened the doors for a dress rehearsal.
“And of course all the former Ken Campbell roadshow actors, like Bob Hoskins and those guys, came and they watched the dress rehearsal. And you can imagine. They were on the floor laughing.”
“Then of course, the next day the public came in, and I think the term ‘to hear a pin drop’ was invented that night.”
According to Andy, Ken’s only response was “looks like you’re going to get a bit of a drubbing in the paper tomorrow, lads.”
Bad reviews can shake even the most veteran stage actors, writers, and directors, but Campbell was fearless. There were no obstacles to him, just opportunities.
“It was his fearless attitude towards taking on any project that deeply affected me,” says Jones. “I think it was Ken’s voice that was playing in my head when I said ‘oh, we can take over the LSPU Hall, let’s do that.’ And the same for Faustus Bidgood, ‘okay, fuck it, let’s make a feature film,’” says Jones.
(Jones is referring to an artist-run revolution in 1979 to take over the LSPU Hall. Dissatisfied by the direction the building was moving in, Andy led the charge to try and get back to where most local theatre artists felt the theatre facility belonged. The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood was the very first feature film ever produced in the province by a Newfoundland cast and crew.)
Campbell was a bit of a maverick.
Never was this more evidently when he went to live with the native people of the Republic of Vanuatu. For months, Campbell studied their movements, culture, and the language. In the end, he did what most of us would have done… he adapted William Shakespeare’s MacBeth to the language of the region, Bislama.
And where did he go first to look for a cast for this new-age MacBeth? England? Ireland? Vanuatu?
He came to St. John’s. He rallied up a few of our more bohemian residents, taught them the language, and then he disappeared to London to perform the show in the famous west-end theatre district.
Ken Campbell had an obsession with the mind. In 1996 he hosted a documentary series entitled Brainspotting which examines the nature of consciousness. The series includes interviews with some of the world’s greatest thinkers including Susan Greenfield, Derek Parfit and Richard Dawkins.
“He was an extremely unique guy, with an extremely original brain,” says Jones. “I remember thinking that for days after I heard he died. ‘My God, that brain is gone from the world… that very, very specific and brilliant brain!’”