He was found dead in his home in Epping Forest, Essex, where he recently returned at the end of a holiday after performing at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe festival in the new improvised musical comedy Showstopper!, created anew each night based on reviews. The cause of death is currently unknown, but Campbell had not reportedly been ill.
Born on 10 December 1941 in Ilford, Essex, Campbell trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and got his first break understudying Warren Mitchell – with whom, years later, he appeared in the TV sitcom In Sickness and in Health (playing Alf Garnett’s neighbour Fred) and in 1999, in the West End production of Yasmina Reza’s comedy Art – at Colchester Repertory theatre.
No jobbing actor, Campbell soon began creating work for himself and founding initiatives that drew in others who went on to become big names. In the early 1970s, he established The Ken Campbell Roadshow, a pub-performing theatre group whose other members included Bob Hoskins and Sylvester McCoy.
His love of sci-fi came to the fore in 1976 when he formed, with Chris Langham, the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, whose masterwork – an eight-and-a-half-hour staging of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy - also featured Jim Broadbent and Campbell’s then wife Prunella Gee and later transferred to the National Theatre. The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool also presented the 22-hour version of The Warp and adapted Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Campbell also had a part in the radio serial of the novel).
Since the late 1980s, Campbell has concentrated his stage work on a series of one-man shows – including Pigspurt, Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, Wol Wantok, Jamais Vu (which won the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy) and Mystery Bruises - which he wrote and performed, combining autobiography with comedy, philosophy and stand-up. He toured these nationally internationally, with numerous stints in London.
Another one-man show, The History of Comedy Part One: Ventriloquism, was commissioned by then National Theatre artistic director Trevor Nunn, with whom Campbell had previously fallen out after Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby prompted the mischievous Campbell to issue a fake press release suggesting that the RSC’s name be changed to the Royal Dickens Company and inviting actors to appear in fictional adaptations of other Dickens’ novels.
On screen, Campbell’s credits included, on film, A Fish Called Wanda, Derek Jarman’s The Tempest, Creep and Saving Grace; and on television, In Sickness and in Health, Falwty Towers, Dooley Gardens, The Professionals, The Bill, Heartbeat, Fantasy Island, Minder, Bulman and Law and Order. He also presented Channel 4 TV shows on science and the paranormal.
Speaking today to Whatsonstage.com, Nicki Stoddart, one of Campbell’s representatives at United Artists, said his death was “totally shocking and extraordinarily sudden”. She added: “Ken was a one-off. He was a delight, such a bright and intelligent man. We represented him for many years and never ceased to by amazed by his imagination, exuberance and intelligence. Watching him work with young people was a joy. He will be greatly missed and we send our love and condolences to his family.”
Whatsonstage.com chief critic Michael Coveney, writing Campbell’s obituary in the Guardian, paid tribute to “one of the most original and unclassifiable talents in the British theatre of the past half-century … a writer, director and monologist, a genius at producing shows on a shoestring and honing the improvisational capabilities of the actors who were brave enough to work with him.
- by Terri Paddock