KEN CAMPBELL – FURTIVE NUDIST
YOU’VE GOT TO GET HOLD OF THE THREAD OF MARCHING TIME
AND PANG YOURSELF TO THE INFINITUDE OF ABSOLUTE MIND
Ken Campbell (1941-2008) was an enthusiast of the writings of Charles Fort (after whom The Fortean Times, is named) and an extraordinarily intelligent, funny and perceptive commentator on the weirdness of human experience. He can be seen playing a policeman in the film Saving Grace, a barrister’s assistant in A Fish Called Wanda, and Mr Johnson, Alf Garnett’s neighbour, in Johnny Speight’s In Sickness and in Health. He also appeared as the irritating Roger in The Anniversary, a classic episode from John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers (BBC), and presented the Channel 4 science shows Reality On the Rocks, Brainspotting, and Six Experiments that Changed the World. Michael Coveney’s official biography of Ken Campbell, The Great Caper, was published in April 2011 and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Book of the Week. What follows is an interview Ken Campbell gave to James Nye way back in 1991. . .
‘What? Look, who is this?’
Suddenly I’m not too sure myself. The voice on the phone sounds alarmingly like the surly Devil who, on the telly, emerged from a lift a dozen times a day to share a Kit Kat with Quentin Crisp’s Angel. ‘I don’t get many adverts,’ Ken tells me later. ‘You see, any association between me and a product seems to have a negative effect – even if I’m the guy who uses ordinary washing powder.’ Thinks: Somehow in my imagination he is always a rather manic character with veins throbbing in his temples. ‘That’s all I can do,’ he says, resignedly.
‘I’d like to write an article on you,’ I tell him. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘So long as it’s all lies.’
Ken’s show Recollections of a Furtive Nudist is a network of sychronicitous events and disturbing thoughts that leaves the mind in unassailable (but joyful) knots. It’s an amazing yarn; I found myself believing in it’s surreality, totally immersed in a temporary psychosis, such is his commitment to, and involvement in, the performance. It’s a powerful effect. So how did Nudist come about?
KC: It’s basically autobiographical, but I had no worries about putting things in the wrong order. It’s irrelevant whether it’s true or not. It’s just whether it adds up in the story sense. The way it goes whacking off in various directions is just for a sensational story – the dictates of what you set up seem to demand something of that order.
JN: I got an overwhelming sense of dèjá vu as it unfolded . . .
KC: That might be because it’s so constructed, like a piece of music. Patterns please an audience. When the symbols come back, you really get a reaction from the audience, even if it’s slightly obscure. The more I repeat it, the more positive reaction I get from it. But I have many more synchronicities than in life. I’ve left out all the months when things aren’t linking. I look back over fifty years, leave out everything that doesn’t link, and then things get interesting because the story’s got an over-balance of links.
….The voice had spoken to me, reminding me of the place to which Horselover Fat had gone. As we had been told, originally, long ago, to do; I kept my commission…….Philip K. Dick, VALIS
……..What have I been put here to do on this Earth so terrestrial and terrible? Have I tasks I must perform? Am I to accomplish a mission – a commission? Have I been sent to amuse myself? To distract myself a little? To forget the miseries I no longer remember?…………Erik Satie, Écrits, No 332
JN: How important is Philip K. Dick to the story?
KC: He used to be mentioned much more. It’s a very Dickish or Phildickian story. I got the phrase about commissions from Dick’s novel VALIS. He uses it there quite a lot. It was quite a long time until I got the ending right. I used to end it by reading a bit of Dick in my best voice. I thought that was the best I could do. A sort of consolation ending. But it seemed to me you ought to have some sort of great epiphany. I couldn’t think of anything until I came across the phrase THE INFINITUDE OF ABSOLUTE MIND, and I thought if I could end it with that, I’d probably done it.
….In Fort’s opinion everything in the Universe is linked with everything else – so a full stop is a lie – or a Hyphen coming straight at you….
JN: How did you become an actor?
KC: When I was 15 I went hitch-hiking in Germany to improve my German. My father didn’t think it was a very good idea because he still thought of the Germans as the enemy. I told him that my going over there would help contribute to a lasting peace. He said, “I doubt whether that’s true, actually.” Anyway, I went. And it seemed to me that I ought to entertain the drivers. They’d ask me what I did at school, and then what I was going to do when I left. I had no idea really, but I enjoyed doing school plays and was in the Renegades Theatre Company in Ilford, so I used to say “I shall become an actor.” And this really passed the time because all German drivers thought this was an absolutely RIDICULOUS idea. Miles would go by as they tried to dissuade me. I learnt lots of vocabulary and got really good at “being an actor”. Then I got bored with it and decided to be a writer. And when I was doing quite well with that, I decided to become a director too. I’d have my own theatre and a kind of Molière/Brecht business. And now I could get from Munich to Vienna and keep the driver well entertained with my plans for the future. It was a useful trip: I’d learnt German and got my whole life mapped out. I had to translate it though, because I’d planned it all in German.
..Saunton Sands – one is reminded of the Moon – I was stripping off – down to my underpants. And the Voice said: “Why’ve you got your underpants on?”…..
KC: So I went straight from school to RADA. We did voice, movement, fencing and mime. When I look back on it all, I was singularly fuck-awful at all of them. Voice was quite a thing there, because training was towards the classical stage. There were these extraordinary exercises, and once you’d developed this voice (does deep, resonant, Simon Callow-type RADA voice) you were encouraged to uses it at all times – on the bus, in the pub and so on. I’d made some good mates it seemed, but once they all started talking like that – well I found it all really freaky. I thought, I can’t do that! and I got called in to see the governor. He was quite understanding and said, “You’re a comedian really – we don’t do enough for comedians here.” And he gave me a couple of books on comedy and said I was doing well with my voice, and that I should just think of it as one from my repertoire of funny voices. “And you don’t have to do it on the bus.”
……I took down my underpants literally CIRCUMSPECTLY – making sure, round 360 degrees, that I was unobserved – And I took pains to MEMORIZE THAT BUSH………
KC: Then I joined the Colchester Rep and understudied Warren Mitchell before answering an ad which said: ACTORS WHO CAN SWIM WANTED FOR AQUATIC VERSION OF TREASURE ISLAND. You see, I was very conscious of what I’d promised the German drivers, and it gave me the chance to act Long John Silver, and direct and script the shallow-end acting bits. It was a brilliant two summers in Bournemouth. We did Gulliver’s Travels the second year. I shared a flat with two dwarfs. It was great.
…We got through a whole bottle of whiskey – EACH – Once I was in the corridor I knew it was medically advisable to CRAWL – And the Voice said: “Well you know what to do!” – So – I took my clothes off….
KC: After that I found it very difficult to get a job. People always asked what I’d done last. I’d say, “Well, I was in charge of the shallow-end acting bits at Bournemouth.” I didn’t know if they believed me or not, but they certainly felt I wasn’t the sort of person they’d want. After some months, Peter Cheeseman asked me to act in a one act play, write another, and direct another at the Victoria, Stoke-on-Trent. Then I wrote a play about the great escape artist Jack Shepherd, from 1723. He did some sensational escapes – hadn’t done any enormous crimes, but they used to hang you for anything in those days. Or chop your ears off. . . No, they’d just hang you. Anyway! I’d finished the script and I thought it was pathetic. I tried to convince the director not to do it, but ended up having to direct it myself. I went in with a fortnight to go, put the scripts on the piano, and said, “It’ll be a sad day when we have to open these.”
Lindsay Anderson had told me about Brecht. I hadn’t seen a production that had thrilled me – far from it – but it sounded wonderful, so I thought I’d do one! So I attempted to get them to improvise. But they couldn’t. They were hopeless at it. So what I had to do was to actually write what I thought they would have said if they’d been able to improvise! It was better than the original, anyway. It had quite a run. Lindsay Anderson said it wasn’t quite what he’d meant, but it was terrific – and he asked me to direct it at the Royal Court. But I couldn’t stand the leading man, and Lindsay ended up taking over the production. The result was rather good and had my name on it. But I found it rather humiliating. In fact, I thought, Fuck it, I don’t really want to do this sort of thing any more if it’s all like this. So I put a lot of energy into my next effort; there was a need to bounce back or give up.
….The Voice says to Hans: ‘Move the stones’ – The stone tells him where it wants to go – The Fat Important Man asked Hans this: ‘Have you a commission?’ – Hans didn’t know – but he answered: ‘Yes’ …..
KC: The Bolton Octagon had been given a small amount of money for a touring group which would go to working men’s clubs, women’s knitting circles – anything really, and spread the good news of the Bolton Octagon. I’d seen ‘Living Theatre’ at the Roundhouse – quite an extraordinary business – so I asked if I could do it. And that was the genesis of the Ken Campbell Roadshow.
..Invisibility is merely a matter of being able to hide in front of things…..
KC: I was into modern mythology and urban myths around 1969. The Roadshow was based on things like FOAFs (friend of a friend stories) like the vanishing hitch-hiker and so on that get reported in the Fortean Times. “My brother, well no, a friend of his at work. Well anyway, his cousin. Well not him, but a friend of his went on a camping holiday. And they’d taken their grandmother with them, and she died, and they were miles from anywhere in Spain. So they stuck the corpse in the back with the kids. But the kids got very upset by it. So they wrapped her in the tent and stuck her on the roof-rack. They got to a little town, put the kids in the cafe to have a lemonade, and found a policeman. But no one could speak English, so they had to mime what had happened. And when he seemed to understand, they went out to show him the stiff, but somebody had stolen the car.”
….I do not believe anything I have ever written. – Charles Hoy Fort
KC: So that’s the sort of thing I did as a show. I dramatized large numbers of these things. Bob Hoskins was the leading man. And we became so arrogant and successful that we wondered whether we really ought to be attached to the awful Bolton Octagon, spreading its “good name”. It was a bit of an embarrasssment that they’d be hugely entertained by our modern mythology show, and then truck off to see some feeble offering at the Octagon. So the bloke slung us out. And so, to be annoying, we kept going as the Ken Campbell Roadshow.
….I could find no clothes to suit my mood so I put none on…
JN: How did the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool come about?
KC: It began with Brian Aldiss turning up at one of the Roadshows – he was at an SF convention at the time. I didn’t know him – he didn’t half look like a miner! I hadn’t read much SF, but I went to a convention after this merry evening with Aldiss. I’d written a play that I thought might be science fiction, and the convention was really a good lark. I chatted to Brian Aldiss in the bar, and he talked of the “bifurcation of British Literature” which he said happened in 1939.
JN: Did he know the exact date? It wasn’t July 23rd or something?
KC: It might be. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But according to his researches, SF had detached itself from the mainstream in 1939. Before that, H. G. Wells etc could write anything. After that it was no longer allowed. The lines were drawn. I thought that was really interesting, because all theatre had completely followed the mainstream apart from a couple of years with the Absurd. So I thought, I’ll invent a science fiction theatre!
JN: It’s funny that you weren’t sure whether your play was SF or not. Flann O’Brien wondered the same about some of his books. And Gulliver’s Travels and so on read like SF in parts. Maybe SF is just a name for a genre which allows you to talk in a mythological allegorical way, and er . . .
KC: Well, I just rather enjoyed drinking with these guys actually! I didn’t found the theatre for any High Reason. I wanted an excuse to fanny around with them. Cos they were much more fun than playwrights. Actually. Much more. I mean, times about ten, really.
….. A naked man in a city street … -the mystery of reindeers’ ears . . . -showers of frogs and blizzards of snails- and why, if I am going to tell of hundreds of these, is the ordinary so regarded? – Charles Fort, Lo!
KC: We did it in Liverpool because Peter O’Hallaghan had come across a dream in Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. The dream changed Jung’s life, persuaded him to buckle down to the Unconscious for the rest of his life. Anyway, on page 223 he says something like: I was in a dark and grimy city. It was clearly Liverpool. It goes on . . . And this began to obsess Peter who was a proud Liverpoolophile. He found no records of Jung ever having been there, but he did discover that Hitler had been to visit his aunty in the Crosby area when he was 17 or 18.
JN: I wonder whether there are any Hitlers around there now?
KC: You think he might have spawned some while he was staying at his aunty’s?
JN: I wondered whether his aunty’s name was Hitler. I supposed she’d have changed it . . .
KC: Aunty Gladys Hitler? . . I used to have the same agent as Hitler. I think Curtis Brown is still Hitler’s agent. He’s not out of copyright yet, and there’s sales of Mein Kampf and Whatnot – something has to be done with the royalties. Probably goes to young Fritz Hitler or something . . . Anyway, Peter scoured Liverpool, and even though Jung had never been there, Peter declared he’d found the site of the dream to be a conjunction of warehouse roads – one of which is Matthew St where the old Cavern was. He got hold of a derelict warehouse there and called it the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun.
And I was in Liverpool drinking about my idea of the SF theatre with him, and later he asked me if I’d call it the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and do it on his premises.
I went down to Compendium in Camden and bought a whole pile of books. But right by the till was the first volume of Illuminatus! by Wilson and Shea. It had just come in, and it had a yellow submarine on the cover – which fitted Liverpool nicely – and they make a lot of the number 23, and Jung’s dream had been on page 223. Peter was into synchronicity because of his Jung readings.
…It may be that occult transportations of human beings do occur, and that, because of their selectiveness, clothes are sometimes not included ………… Charles Hoy Fort
KC: Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea were sub-editors at Playboy, so they had a lot of access to research staff. And so under the guise that it would be helpful writing articles for Playboy (I don’t think it was really) they got into the Illuminati. Wilson would bung these memos to Shea as material came in from the researchers – like the memos in the book. When they got to memo 23, Shea said, “If we imagine a New York cop came across these memos, I think we’ve got the basis for a fine thriller!” So the next one Wilson wrote was episode one of the thriller. Shea replied with episode two. They were playing a game really. Like, I bet you can’t continue this! The answer is, “No I can’t, so we’ll continue with this!”
In 1976, when asked what he thought of Campbell and Langham’s production of Illuminatus!, Robert Anton Wilson said: “I was thunderstruck at what a magnificent job they did in capturing the exact tone and mixture of fantasy and reality in the book. I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t literature. It’s too late in the day for literature. This is magic! The most overwhelmingly powerful moment is when Saul Goodman realises his guilt in sending people to the electric chair. And the way they play it- it happened by accident. The Xerox machine made two copies of one page and the actors found themselves going through the scene twice. And Ken said, “Wait – that’s good!” They do the scene once without emotion, then with emotion. I think it’s tremendously powerful. (Every time something chaotic happens, we Discordians say: ‘Hail Eris!’) . . . That scene made me cry. I’ve always been against capital punishment, and that was one of the most deeply felt scenes in the book . . . . Since my daughter was murdered, people frequently ask me, ‘Are you still against capital punishment?’ And the answer is . . absolutley.”
“It’s not true unless it makes you laugh, but you don’t understand it unless it makes you weep.” – Illuminatus! page 291
Ken Campbell and Robert Anton Wilson in London, 1991.
Image copyright (c) James Nye, 1991.
KC: We did 5 shows – 4 and a half really. The fifth was really scrappy. Robert Anton Wilson came over to see us at the National Theatre and took part in the witches’ sabbat scene. It was the opening production of the Cottesloe Theatre. They’re fuckers actually, because in the RNT brochures they never mention it – it’s like it never happened. It was good – Chris Langham was a dream of a performer as George Dorn, Jim Broadbent was Jim Cartwright, David Rappaport was Markoff Chaney and Prunella Gee (with whom Campbell later produced daughter Daisy) was Eris.
After that The Warp by Beat poet Neil Oram was our biggest production. It was about a man who had made sure his life was memorable because he was “cursed with memory”. He’d been at the forefront of everything – otherwise he was doomed to remember the exact configuration of washing-up. He was one of the first to be Scientologically audited, he was over there with the Beats, he was in and out of drugs, communes, God and Flying Saucers – I mean he’d covered the entire business. At the moment he lives in a teepee on the banks of Loch Ness with three wives.
ENORMOUS SWIMMING BATH – VEGETATION AND FOLIAGE IN IT – I found it! – THE SITE OF THAT DREAM!……..
JN: How did you set about doing Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman?
KC: I decided not to have any Irish people in the cast. I felt a bit tired, and I knew they would all know more about it than I did – and I just didn’t think I could cope with that. So I used my regular team. Then I heard there was excitement about the production in Dublin and that two chars-a-bancs loads of Who-Knows-Most-About-Flann-O’Brien Competition were being sent over to see it. So I thought Fuck, I better do something about all the accents – cause they were all over the place. Not Irish at all.
There’s a lot of talk about teeth in the book, so I got a dentist to make false teeth that go over your own. And the whole business of trying to keep your teeth in unified the accents. And also the fact of seeing your colleague looking like some sort of cousin of himself . . . It quite radically changes people, teeth. Gave the whole thing a kind of brightness – because they never quite got over the look of each other . . . I can’t imagine putting it on without the teeth now . . . The SF and Everyman things were enthusiast pieces really. No one made any money from them. After that I ceased to be an innovator at all.
JN: You appeared in Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts on a bicycle . .
KC: Yeah, only just. I was going to have a bigger part, but I couldn’t get to Rotterdam on the day of my major scene.
JN: Is it you that stuffs a rotting shrimp down Jim Davidson’s neck? I’ve always wanted to do that . .
KC: Oh fuck knows. I was in it, but I don’t really know what was going on, to be honest. He’s a rather good bloke though, Peter Greenaway. He’s a really good weird fellow.
…Real or unreal, originating within the percept-system . . .the unshared world which we call “hallucinatory” is destructive: alientation, isolation, a sense of everything being strange, of things altering and bonding – all this is the logical result, until the individual, formerly a part of human culture, becomes an organic “windowless monad.” One doesn’t have to depend on hallucinations; one can unhinge oneself by many other roads. – Philip K. Dick
JN: Can you explain your Janus Theory?
KC: It’s based on the fact that people’s faces aren’t symmetrical. They have different personalities on both sides of the face. For instance, you might be a clown and a nun. I used to do this with actors, and get them to act according to which side of the face they were showing. It was suggested that others might benefit – that it could improve people’s lives. So we took a bunch off for a weekend. They fixed us up with a video so they could fuse two sides together so that you could see yourself as a clown or nun or whatever. (Listen, don’t think I’ve just analyzed you and that’s who you are!) There’s quite a queue of people wanting to do another weekend so I’m hoping to make some money out of it!
JN: The next thing is to write a book like Dianetics or something. Give a scientific ring to it. You could be the next L. Ron Hubbard!
KC:You think so? No, I think Fuck it! I don’t think I’ll bother. I only do it as a caper. But it’s quite good to run a growth weekend which is actually a laugh, that people get off on the idea without any ‘loving care’ and all that stuff.
. .Schwupps! Mein Gott, sie ist verschunden! . . . . .
JN: What about your latest mondrama, Pigspurt?
KC: Pigspurt is a malevolent demon which possibly infested Philip K. Dick. Dick was bathed in pink light or living information in 1974. At times he thought it was St Thomas, sometimes St Sophia the gnostic gnoddess, and all other times he posited it was this malevolent daemonic spirit Pigspurt.
If you analyse my face, on one side I’m an inept housewife, and on the other side I’m a spanking squire. And it was by contemplating the notion of Pigspurt that I let in this daemonic infestation into my left side which had been the spanking squire.
I’ve decide to call it Phrenological Pphorming – or two-faced acting. Dick found in himself a malevolent force that “filled him with fear and a craven attitude toward governmental authority” and it was this combined with the Jungian definition of Enantiodromia – the sudden transformation into an opposite side form or tendency – like Jekyll and Hyde – that partly inspired Pigspurt. Is this getting too technical? Anyway, this has echoes of my two-faced acting theory, which has nothing to do with Stansilavsky, Method, or motivation. Or Brecht. You’ll be jiggered to hear that, no doubt.
All unidentified quotations are taken from Recollections of a Furtive Nudist by Ken Campbell, published as part of The Bald Trilogy by Methuen in 1995.© Ken Campbell.
Interview Copyright © James Nye/IncanDestiny Press 1992, 2002 & 2009.
First published in Gneurosis, Issue 1.
Ken Campbell (1941-2008) was an actor, writer and director whose many one man comedy shows entertained theatre audiences worldwide. The above interview was condensed from hours of recordings I made over the course of a couple of days. In early 1991 I’d written Ken a fan letter, having seen him perform the first of his major one-man shows, Recollections of a Furtive Nudist. He’d liked my letter – particularly the bits I’d written about deja vu – and immediately replied by postcard, inviting me to get in touch again and meet him. I thought it would be best to have a pretext for such an encounter, and asked him if he’d grant an interview. After much editing, it was first published in a short-lived surrealist magazine, Gneurosis.
Ken had liked the way I’d put the piece together (which was essentially to let him ramble on, much in the way he liked to anyway!) and invited me to work with him as a researcher for his next one-man shows. I transcribed for publication several of his shows from tape, wrote music for others, and acted as a kind of test audience for his stories and jokes. I researched, read and summarized books and articles he didn’t have time for himself, and spent many happy and hilarious weeks with him over the course of the next 17 years in what became one of the most important and rewarding friendships of my life.
Ken admired my encyclopaedic interests in the peculiar corners of life, science and art (which mirrored his own) and was always enthusiastic about my own work and interests (‘Keep you genius warm!’ he’d often say as he saw me off to the train). He was understanding when I was struck by depression, and much entertained by my occasional bouts of hypomania. He could be very difficult and shouty, particularly before he gave up alcohol, but I was very rarely the recipient of his fury, more often the shocked and embarrassed witness of someone else’s verbal demolition and humiliation.
Early on in our friendship, when I’d moved back to the Isle of Wight from a brief period in London, Ken gave me a key to his house by the River Lea near Stamford Hill, and invited me to come and go as I pleased. Over the years, I spent many happy weeks mooching about there, meeting visitors like his ex-wife (actress Prunella Gee), his daughter (actress, playwright and director Daisy Eris Campbell), his many friends and admirers, and walking with him and the dogs. I gave moral support when he was giving live performances, and helped him assemble the threads of his shows from the extraordinary profusion of ideas that came to him. Occasionally I’d get promised a fiver if I managed to contribute a one-liner that tickled him.
Later, the misbehaviour of one of his dogs necessitated a move from his house at Watermint Quay, and, after an idyllic walk with the dogs through Epping Forest, it was I who pointed out Swiss Cottage, the wooden chalet house in Loughton that became his final home. He’d already put in an offer on another house, but it looked far too ordinary, I thought. Swiss Cottage, on the other hand was perfect for Ken: an eccentrically extended, idiosyncratic place in which he could build chicken-wire tunnels for his artistically inclined parrot, Doris, and bed down on his sofas with his dogs Gertie and Max. He wanted it immediately, and we got the details from the estate agent. It was going to be difficult to raise the full amount, and Ken invited me to sell my house to buy a part-share of the Cottage. There was much that appealed about the idea, but in the end, perhaps wisely, I declined. I visited him often though, and made a film there of his penultimate show, Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life. It was at Swiss Cottage in Loughton that he died suddenly in 2008 from a heart attack. I still miss him terribly. [James Nye, 2009]