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No April Fool: Ken Campbell's Dickens of a Hoax

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Whatsonstage.com’s chief critic Michael Coveney’s latest book Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the authorised biography of theatre’s one-man comic whirlwind, who passed away in September 2008. Ken Campbell delighted in tearing through the British theatrical establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy.

One of the chapters in The Great Caper – for which Michael was given unrestricted access to Campbell’s letters, notebooks, original scripts and photo archives – relates the details of a notorious hoax Campbell – with his cohorts Dave Hill and Richard Adams, a publishing colleague of Heathcote Williams – played on then-Royal Shakespeare Company joint artistic director Trevor Nunn following the success of his epic staging of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

Appropriately, The Great Caper is published on April Fool’s Day, and we’re republishing an edited version of the “Dickens of a Hoax” chapter below in the same sense of foolish fun.

On 14 July 1980, halfway through the first run of Nicholas Nickleby at the Aldwych, a series of letters was dispatched from the London headquarters of the RSC, written on Stratford-upon-Avon notepaper, signed by one of the joint artistic directors, Trevor Nunn, offering the distinguished recipients important work in the next stage of the company’s artistic evolution. In every detail save one, the notepaper replicated the RSC’s official square letterhead, but substituted the heading ‘RSC Royal Shakespeare Company’ with ‘RDC Royal Dickens Company’, the initials bordered with the correct thin black lines and a circular emblem of the swan of the Avon.

The RDC was, the heading declared, under the overall direction of Peggy Ashcroft, John Barton, Peter Brook, Terry Hands and Trevor Nunn, exactly as was the RSC; the Royal Dickens Theatre was similarly incorporated under Royal Charter, with Her Majesty the Queen as Patron, Sir Harold Wilson as President and Sir Kenneth Cork as Chairman. One of the recipients of these letters was the director Bill Bryden, well known for his National Theatre productions of The Mysteries, the sea plays of Eugene O'Neill and an adaptation by Keith Dewhurst of Flora Thompson’s rural Oxfordshire documentary Lark Rise to Candleford:

Dear Bill,

As you have probably heard, there has been a major policy change in our organisation. Nicholas Nickleby has been such a source of real joy to cast, staff and audiences that we have decided to turn to Dickens as our main source of inspiration. So that’ll be it for the Bard as soon as our present commitments decently permit. The first production of the new RDC is hoped to be Little Dorrit, adapted by Snoo Wilson and directed by John Caird and myself. I feel your theatrical development has probably led you close to the field we now move into. Would Pickwick Papers fire your imagination, Bill? With the prospect of a Keith Dewhurst script, and music by the Albion Band, it certainly fires mine.

Looking forward to your reaction.


In similar letters, with slight variations, but not in the basic structure and information, Peter Hall was asked about the idea of Alan Ayckbourn turning his attention to Martin Chuzzlewit; Howard Davies was invited ‘to have a look at’ A Christmas Carol; and Campbell’s old mentor Peter Cheeseman was encouraged to let the Stoke house dramatist Peter Terson fall on Hard Times – ‘Let me know your reactions, Peter, together with any plans you might have for altering the shape of the auditorium.’

Nor was the grandiloquent, seigneurial, theatre-loving Minister for the Arts in Mrs Thatcher’s Government, Norman St John-Stevas, kept in the dark on these developments. He was assured that ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard… Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch sometime soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Richard Eyre might have cast a beady eye over the suggestion of yoking Trevor Griffiths to A Tale of Two Cities and Nunn’s rider that ‘Jonathan Pryce would seem to me a perfect Sidney Carton’. But film-maker Mike Leigh, who had worked as a young director at the RSC and had cancelled a new RSC commission tentatively called Ice-cream ten weeks into rehearsal at the very start of the Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands co-artistic directorship in 1978, was only momentarily fooled by his overture: ‘Let bygones be bygones, Mike, and let’s really try to put your inimicable (sic) style to work on this new venture. I can offer you 23 actors for a 17-week rehearsal period in the spring of 1982 if you are prepared to take on the challenge of Bleak House. Looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev’.

Apart from the uncharacteristic and unlikely mishmash of ‘inimical’ and ‘inimitable’, Leigh noted that Trevor never actually signed off as ‘Trev’ and that, unlike on the RDC letter, the ‘T’ of Trevor was always a sort of crossbow signifying a fraternal, perhaps even affectionate, kiss. One wonders how John Barton must have reacted to his letter, which also implied a little less erudition than you’d expect from Nunn: ‘Which is the unfinished one, John? Are you the man to finish it?’

Fooled or not, neither Leigh nor anyone else knew who was the real author of these letters. Ken had gone to see Nicholas Nickleby with Dave Hill. They both loved it but there was something niggling away inside Ken about the comparative lack of acclaim for his own efforts in the epic sphere. He wanted to goad the RSC into a really major effort of risk-taking, something more concomitant with their vast funding.

With the letters in circulation, and speculation as to their source running wild in the newspapers, word from within the RSC suggested that an increasingly agitated Trevor Nunn had three top suspects: Snoo Wilson, Ken Campbell and Heathcote Williams – so he wasn’t far off.

Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no further Dickens adaptations were scheduled. A few days later he told The Times: ‘It is now deeply embarrassing; a lot of people have written to me refusing, or, even more embarrassing, accepting the offers.’

It was a serious interventionist caper for both Ken and Richard Adams, expressing important aspects of their respective creative lives in terms of engaging with the culture of the day and offering a critical perspective. As much as any thunderous jeremiad about the course the RSC was set upon, the jape queried the possible deleterious effect of abiding by the charter which demanded that they concentrate on Shakespeare, and the jokey tone of the correspondence highlighted the casual way commissioning was conducted.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, with a foreword by Richard Eyre, is published by Nick Hern Books. To purchase your copy now, click here.

To coincide with the book’s publication, Michael will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter) to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy at the Royal Court at 5pm on Friday 8 April 2011. Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. Toby Jones can be heard reading extracts from Michael's book at 09:45 and 00:30 daily on Radio 4. More information is available on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here.

*** WIN!! WIN!! WIN!! We have TEN copies of Ken Campbell: The Great Caper to give away in our Twitter competition! To be automatically entered, all you need to do is follow us on Twitter AND retweet the competition details, hashtag and a link to this feature to your own followers. Competition ends Friday 15 April 2011 at 5.30pm.
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