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What Kind of Fool Was Ken?

By • West End
Well, hello, it's April Fool's Day. What a beautiful day, missus, what a beautiful day, as Ken Dodd would say, for shoving a cucumber in the vicar's letter-box and shouting, "The Martians have landed!"

Or, alternatively, for bringing out a book about the other great Ken, Ken Campbell, and telling the publisher, Nick Hern, that you meant every word of it. And I did. There's no going back, folks. I'm not as stupid as I look. A colleague at the theatre told me last night that she'd actually seen somebody on the tube reading a copy of Ken Campbell: The Great Caper. She could hardly believe it. So it must be real.  

The fact is, everyone's fallen for the big Ken Campbell con. The book, and himself, will be celebrated with a (virtually sold out) public event at the Royal Court next Friday - featuring Richard Eyre, Nina Conti, Daisy Campbell, Jim Broadbent and John Sessions - and with a reading each day next week by Toby Jones on BBC Radio 4's early morning and late night Book of the Week slot.

Not to be outdone, The Times chose it as their Book of the Week, too: Benedict Nightingale, bless him, has given the tome a full-page rave review and wouldn't be shaken from his genuine delight in having read it even when I rang him up to tell him that his fiver was in the post.

So, what kind of fool was Ken? The best kind, in that he didn't care for status, the honours system, brochure theatre, most of what the Arts Council subsidises and most of what goes on in the West End.

His own West End experience was strictly limited. His first London job was as an understudy to Warren Mitchell in a play called Everybody Loves Opal at the Vaudeville in 1964. It turned out that nobody loved Opal, and it closed in two weeks, leaving Mitchell free to direct Ken's first play, Events of an Average Bath Night, later in the same year.

And his last West End gig was in Art at the Wyndham's in 2000, when he appeared in the 17th takeover cast with Mitchell - who had adopted Ken as his best pal and protege all those years earlier - and John Fortune.

He was a true maverick and a total outsider. Mike Leigh, no mean outsider himself, once described him to me as "the outsider's outsider" which is the best place for any artist and, I believe, any critic, to be.

At his funeral in Epping Forest in September 2008, the producer Roger Chapman told me I should write a book about Ken, but I wasn't in the groove. A few weeks later, his ex-wife and lifelong friend Prunella Gee, and their daughter, Daisy, asked me directly to go ahead.

Ken had apparently been on the verge of writing his autobiography and had been warning friends and relatives to watch what they said, or they'd be "in it." Well, many of them are right "in it" now, and I'm grateful to everyone who took time and trouble to speak to me about the man who once described himself as the Peter Brook of the Colchester Rep.

Not that anyone minded. You could hardly shut some of them up once they'd started. When I asked Bill Nighy if he'd speak to me for an hour about Ken, he refused point blank: "I'll speak to you for ten hours about Ken," he bridled.

They all warned me I had better not make a balls-up, or there would be a thunderbolt heading this way with my name on it. The wrath of Ken was a mighty and magnificent thing: you hadn't really lived unless you'd been on the end of one of his rants. He finally gave up drinking to prove to himself that he could rant away without the added stimulus. And he could: even more magnificently!

When I got going I realised why Roger, and then Prue and Daisy, had asked me write it. Not only had I grown up on the same damp patch of Essex suburb - Ilford - as Campbell, and indeed knew of him as a former member of the Renegades Theatre Company in the town where I wrote my first reviews; I had seen more or less everything he'd done since 1970, starting with the Road Show at the Royal Court's watershed "Come Together" Festival, curated by artistic director William Gaskill.     

Most importantly, I had attended the first-ever complete cycle performances of both the nine-hour Illuminatus! in Liverpool in 1976 and of the 22-hour The Warp at the ICA three years later. And not many other critics had seen his creative capers for Richard Eyre at the Nottingham Playhouse or indeed his first-ever monologue performance in a downstairs Chalk Farm bookshop in 1988.

I wanted to chart his life, creative and personal, but also to unravel the sources of his wonderful artistic hooliganism in the context of the rapidly changing theatre of the day. It's interesting, I think, that in the past year, Nick Hern has published three books that for the first time give a really vivid history of the alternative theatre from its earliest days: Simon Callow's collection of journalism and other writing, My Life in Pieces; Mike Bradwell's hilarious The Reluctant Escapologist; and now, I hope, Ken Campbell: The Great Caper.

Even having lived with him for two years, Ken still cheers me up (and frightens me a little) when I think about him. I finished the first draft over a year ago, but we decided against an autumn publication last year to give the old bugger a better chance than in the October rush, when 75 per cent of all books published appear. February this year was another option. But April Fool's Day was finally irresistible. Hope I get away with it...

   


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