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Ken Campbell, legend, dies at 66

Angie Sammons remembers the theatre maverick, his love affair with Liverpool, and the impact he made on all who he met

Written by . Published on May 22nd 2009.

Ken Campbell, legend, dies at 66

Actually published on Sept 3, 2008

IT seems fairly astonishing that someone with the sheer nerve and verve of Ken Campbell should bow out of the physical world without warning, without a final act or curtain call.

If you ever saw him perform or got caught up in his madness, as, down the years, countless people did, hereabouts, you might have heard the small news item that he had died, and be then left wondering: “How did that happen?” Or “That wasn't in the script!”

On Sunday, for once, Campbell's timing was rubbish.

Campbell's world was joyously off-kilter with perceived wisdom. So he would have liked
the fact that his final performance in the city,
in 2007, was on that very same November 23

Some of you may not know the name immediately, most will know Ken Campbell from various telly voice-overs, as the neighbour in Till Death Us Do Part, or as the cynical chum of the Fawltys, delivering the memorable line “Sib?”, sneering, “Sib-Ill”, in the Anniversary episode.

But Campbell, Essex boy, small, round and loud, was so much more than that. So much more. He was one of the true founding fathers of culture, proper, in Liverpool, which might explain why he wasn't here this year.

Ironic, given that Campbell was one of a small number of artists who couldn't tear himself away from the place. He claimed a can't-live-with-it, can't-live-without-it affair with the city, the sort that other non-native artists have described as “stomach-churning”, and it began in 1976, in Mathew Street, then a collection of really ramshackle warehouses.

There, with Chris Langham, he formed the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, after stumbling across Peter O'Halligan and O'Halligan's Parlour above a market-stall place called Aunt Twackies (now Flanagan's Apple).

They staged the Illuminatus! Trilogy, which, very sweepingly, was all about conspiracy theories, magic and drugs, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and the 23 Enigma.

People like Terry Canning and Ian Broudie were in the band, Bill Drummond designed the sets for the strong acting ensemble which was meant to include Bill Nighy, but didn't at first. Making a great deal of the 23 numbers game, one of the bees in Campbell's bonnet, it opened to huge critical acclaim on November 23, 1976, before transferring to the National Theatre and making his name.

Campbell's world was joyously off-kilter with perceived wisdom. So he would have liked the fact that his final performance in the city, in 2007, was on that very same November 23.

That freezing night he appeared before old diehards and a whole new young audience at Mello Mello, Slater Street, doing his monologue on the many universes of the mulitverse. The place was packed. People were loud and drinking. Campbell had no stage, just a floor space in the middle of the room and a crap mike.

“Shut the fuck up!” he bellowed, throwing the microphone down, before launching into a marvellous, acoustic 30-minute volley before a rapt and delighted audience. Doctor Who could have learned a lot about parallel worlds from it. (Campbell nearly was the Seventh Doctor, but his portrayal at audition was deemed “too dark” for BBC softies, and the pleasure of acting opposite Bonnie Langford went to his pal Sylvester McCoy).

Campbell, king of amazing science on Channel Four shows, had a brain the size of an outer solar system planet. In 1980, he brought The Warp to the Everyman, his opening salvo as artistic director. Ten episodes of mayhem, one a week, starring people like Jim Broadbent, the aforementioned Bill Nighy and Neil Cunningham.

I was in the Everyman Youth Theatre at the time and watched in amazement as, on the first night, the mayor of Liverpool and his family got up and walked out, prompted by the nudity and simulated sex scenes amid jugglers, acrobats and pop, on several stages built right around the auditorium (they had taken the seating out).

In fact, I always just watched in amazement.

Ken gave us all jobs as extras on a tenner a night, five nights a week, cash in hand. There were also stints available babysitting Daisy, his three year-old daughter (mum was the actress Prunella Gee) in the Green Room. I was in the middle of my mock O levels but even I knew this was a “happening”, I just didn't know the word for it, and there was no way I was staying home.

It was probably the only time I've witnessed the worlds of theatre and rock and roll truly merge, warp even, as people from the city's rocking music scene piled in after their own gigs and became part of the show.

They all, it seems, “got it”. Campbell was electric.

He kickstarted so many careers during his tenure at the Everyman. Taxi driver Carl Chase as Hank Williams in The Show He Never Gave, “Downtown” Julie Brown as Disco Queen, and student Mark McGann as Lennon.

He was also verbally without peer. It was the arm waving, the sheer insistence. I remember a huge pile of us all in a Liverpool Chinatown restaurant several years ago where Campbell was holding court.

It was 3am, way after licensing hours, and there was white wine being served from one teapot and red from another.

He had just come back from the South American jungles and was claiming he had proof positive that zombies did exist. He had seen them, and furthermore he had evidence that they were dragging people from villages into the jungle, turning them into zombies and sending their victims back to walk among the tribal people.

It might have ended there with a humouring nod, but for a friend of mine who decided to take his theory on. The ensuing, heated debate somehow carried on in my house and ended around 9am that morning, with the friend finally conceding defeat and tea being served from a teapot.

Ken Campbell truly turned Liverpool on its head, artistically, for a time and he was the most fun the Everyman has ever had by a mile. That he first turned up without being appointed to any role, on any salary, by any board of officials, was perhaps why it worked. He just found the people and they found him.

He was all about risk, about breaking the rules without even stopping to consciously consider what the rules might be. And yet he was always fantastically witty and kind, had time for absolutely anyone who shook his hand and yet remained as sharp as a tack.

It's difficult to believe that a mind like Ken Campbell's can suddenly be no more. That the stars have gone out.

I prefer to think that he is in one of his parallel universes. Actually, make that drinking tea in the next room.

Ken Campbell, actor, director, maverick. December 10 1941-August 31 2008

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18 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

John Lennon AirportSeptember 3rd 2008.

Good on yer Bill.

Joe McGannSeptember 3rd 2008.

I agree- Ken really kicked the theatre and Arts scene in Liverpool up the arse and away from the posturing and cliques he hated-" the clashing of cheek bones can be heard down the street" he once said. I was working for Sean and Peter, painting the outside of the building when I first met him around the time of War of the Newts. His reign at the Everyman was pivotal in bringing a sense of validity to young scousers like myself who had previously thought there was no place in Theatre for the likes of us. The Roadshow remains in my memory for its sheer inventiveness and lunacy. There are a great many people out there who owe a lot to Ken's energy and inspiration.I like to think of him wandering around on some other plane, gloriously dishevelled, bending someone's ear with the famous opening line- ''Ere, this'll interest you...."A true great.

Jeff MerrifieldSeptember 3rd 2008.

I'd rather not had the sad news that my mentor and bessy friend Ken Campbell had died, but I'm a bit glad I was in Liverpool when I did. I was here because we had just done performances at the Kazimier of a show about Ian Dury I had written. Only a week before Ken had seen our show in Edinburgh and we had made plans for him to visit me in Shetland when I got back. Little did I know that would be the last time I would see him. I was about to set off back home to Shetland on Sunday when I got the call from Pru, Ken's former wife, with the sad news. Being here in Liverpool, with so many people who knew and genuinely loved him has been the best solace and comfort. To say he was a legend in this city is an understatement. There has been much said about doing Illuminatus! again, or reviving The Warp, and there has been a lot of enthusiasm for such ideas. But a new idea is germinating, one that the spirit of Ken Campbell will no doubt inhabit. A new show (of Illuminatus! and Warp-like proportions) is being conceived based on the Metafex initiative that starts in the city in November. In about a year's time watch out for Metafex: the Performance, an odyssey, journey, right of passage experience. You heard it first here and it will be a show that is wedded firmly into the Ken Campbell tradition and an embodiment of his inspiration.

Andy MeliaSeptember 3rd 2008.

And he had much better eyebrows than Dennis Heally!

Jonangus MackaySeptember 3rd 2008.

When I got back from the burial last night I felt, for the first time in years, really angry and lonely. Having shoveled earth on the coffin, was finally forced to accept Campbell really was dead after all.And coming across this, written & read by Alan Moore, had me sobbing, not just for the dead Wilsons but KC:http://tinyurl.com/64sfjp

RodrigoSeptember 3rd 2008.

The many moving tributes and anecdotes about Ken have made wonderful reading. I last saw him perform in Liverpool in November 2007 at Mello Mello with my old mate Angie, our lovely editor where he enthralled one and all with a mischievous glint in his eye and his razor sharp wit. In Liverpool, Ken will always be remembered with smiles and fondness.

AndySeptember 3rd 2008.

A true celebrity from the days when 'celebrity' meant you had to be good at something. There won't be anyone like him again.

Garry GannicliffeSeptember 3rd 2008.

I've been thinking about him a lot in the past few weeks, having not managed to get a ticket to Latitude were he did a show earlier this summer. Randomly bumped into another friend of his at Mathew St Fest so he remained in my thoughts. So, so sad. Marvellous man and a loyal friend. Maybe I'll write again when the shock subsides.

SiobhanSeptember 3rd 2008.

I only met Ken Campbell a few times he was always very personable. I can only imagine the loss those with a personal relationship with him must be experiencing and my sympathies are with them.I was always struck that he had such a knowledge of the traditions and technique of stagecraft and performance, yet he used them to be innovative, creative and entertaining. What a loss to the profession!

Ros kayeSeptember 3rd 2008.

By chance Leon and I popped into Cafe Rouge, Loughton one day, lo and behold to our surprise there was Ken in the back garden smoking his cigar. I only met him this once but he made an everlasting impression on me, he kept us entertained with his amazing stories and the hour flew by, seemed like 5 minutes. A truly charismatic person who will be sadly missed. My condolences to his family. Nice to see Peter O'Halligan mentioned, charming man.

albert dockSeptember 3rd 2008.

i was one of the lucky ones who saw all of "the warp". it was, and still is, the most wonderful piece of theatre. i have waited forever too see something as insane and exhilirating since!i met ken fleetingly some years later whilst walking through town with an actor friend of mine. richie spotted ken lurking in a doorway in richmond st. "look there's ken campbell lurking in that doorway" said he "struth" said i, whereupon ken leapt out of said doorway shouting "richie aaaagh how are you" a very amusing conversation ensued until ken suddenly shouted "must fly" shook our hands and flew.i, like so many touched by the great man, will miss him dearly. as pointed out earlier he was a TRUE celebrity

Steve O'TooleSeptember 3rd 2008.

My old drama teacher interviewed Ken for his M.A. He asked him what method he used with the actors. Ken replied that he used 'The Sun' method. "I roll up a copy of the sun very carefully", he explained. "Then I wack the actor on the head with it and shout 'Learn yer bloody lines!'(This was pre-Hillsborough. I'm sure he moved on to 'The Mirror' method afterwards).

Chris BernardSeptember 3rd 2008.

Larry's post brought back many memories of Illuminatus! I was a founder member of the Science Fiction Theatre (the company & stage manager)and it was a big show! Ken was utterly tireless, I have truly never met anyone in the business with his energy. I remember Ken (whilst being in total 'control') was a great collaborator and his ability to make everyone feel that they were an essential part of the show created such a phenomenal sense of belonging - we all felt we were part of something very special. On the opening night at the Cottesloe (32 years ago!)my nerves were well and truly gone, I had to try and control the monstrous regiment that was the S F Theatre of Liverpool. We hadn't had time to do a tech run, the theatre was being used for the very first time - an hour before the opening they were still putting in carpets. It was chaotic - I was stuck on the book - (Illuminatus! had 999 lighting & sound cues). Ken appeared at my side, I freaked and pleaded with him 'we weren't ready'. Ken wrote on my book something like "do what thou wilt" and left me to it. And the ****ing goat! One performance we ended up with a Llama! (Ken and animals!) Every imaginable **** up happened - one of many was when I cued Bill Nighy, he was nowhere to be found. I was forced to call an unscheduled interval. Bill had fallen asleep behind the set. Ken seemed completely unfazed - in fact he seemed delighted. What I guess I'm trying to say is that so much of the work in theatre, TV and the arts always seems to be so stressful. The conditions the S F theatre worked in were tough, to say the least - working with Ken, being part of his gang was never stressful (apart from my momentary lapse). Ken was also a gentle and kind man, travelling back to UK, from the Amsterdam run of Illuminatus!, On the cross channel ferry, I was as sick as a dog, Ken came to my cabin with a bucket and started to talk about his 'notion' of doing a musical on a cross channel ferry! I was so engrossed I stopped vomitting. I was always amazed he wasn't a household name (he'd probably hate that) but the response to his death has been astounding. So many incredible anecdotes and fond memories. His influece and inspiration (on so many people as evidenced by the many posts across the net) in my humble opinion he's in the same league as Orson Welles, Dali or Cocteau etc. The end of the Discordian anthem says "We Discordians Must stick apart!" All hail Eris! All hail Ken Campbell!

AnonymousSeptember 3rd 2008.

A lovely piece and, judging by this account, a lovely man. It made me cry, partly for the beautiful delivery, partly for the regret that I've missed my chance to meet him.

Lisa LovebucketSeptember 3rd 2008.

Hey all,I spoke to Daisy last night. She is mostly keeping her chin up and certainly keeping busy with all the necessary arrangements for a farewell which will take place in Epping Forest.As a small contribution to the proceedings, Daisy has asked us to provide a show-reel of photos of Ken and a montage of audio clips. We have some material already but could do with a lot more preferably spanning Ken’s whole career.If anyone has any photos of Ken can you please email them to me at montage@whollychao.com preferably as a JPEG but any picture format will do. If you haven’t got access to a scanner let me know. If anyone has any digital audio can you please send it to the same address. MP3s would be best but we can work with WAVs or whatever digital format you have. Short, appropriate extracts would be preferable to entire pieces but we do have editing facilities. If you have non-digital audio please let me know.We will also be printing out and displaying all the messages from this group so please keep them coming. Thanks for all you’ve said so far. There will also be a book of condolences on the day.LLBxx xxx

Ros kayeSeptember 3rd 2008.

By chance Leon and I popped into Cafe Rouge, Loughton one day, lo and behold to our surprise there was Ken in the back garden smoking his cigar. I only met him this once but he made an everlasting impression on me, he kept us entertained with his amazing stories and the hour flew by, seemed like 5 minutes. A truly charismatic person who will be sadly missed. My condolences to his family. Nice to see Peter O'Halligan mentioned, charming man.

Mitch PooleSeptember 3rd 2008.

What a lovely tribute to Ken who was a marvellous man. Completely larger than life and once met never forgotten. I only met him once - a very surreal day in 1979 - spent on a coach to a Beatles convention in Sheffield with Allan Williams and Bob Wooler all competing to see who could get most drunk.

leon kaySeptember 3rd 2008.

I met Ken in the spring of this year in Loughton and we had a coffee together in Cafe Rouge and he related a funny story about how he came to be living in Loughton because his dog bit this woman. A very funny and long story.He was a funny man and very clever .Liverpool Confidential gave a very fitting tribute ,he will be sadly missed ..a true mad eccentric englishman .

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