I kept telling The Belated Birthday Girl that one of these days, we needed to see a Ken Campbell live show. The last occasion was even documented here, when it was announced last August that he'd be at the Edinburgh Festival doing some late night shows with improv musical group Showstopper. Unfortunately, there was no way we could fit him into our schedule, but we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that he'd doubtless be turning up in London again fairly soon.
By the end of the month he was dead. A Ken Campbell live show is now, as far as I'm concerned, exactly equivalent to pre-Katrina New Orleans: one of those wonders of nature I wanted The BBG to fall in love with the same way that I did, but events have conspired to ensure that it'll never happen.
It's not an entirely lost cause, however, as one of his best bits of theatrical work was published in book form: The Bald Trilogy, a collection of three vaguely autobiographical monologues. Before I rave about it, I need to geek out slightly about how I obtained the book - because, technically, it's been out of print since 1995. When Campbell's death was announced, I felt a sudden urge to read The Bald Trilogy, and assumed second-hand bookstores and eBay would be the only way forward. And then I discovered The Book Depository: it's a magnificent resource which holds hundreds of thousands of out-of-print books in digital form, and if you pay them a few quid they'll print one for you on demand. Within a week, a brand new copy of the book had popped through my letterbox. (They even supply through Amazon, which makes for a handy link at the bottom of the page there.)
So I've managed to sort of re-experience The Bald Trilogy, some 15 years after I last saw it performed at the National Theatre. (At the time, the National's main auditorium was running David Hare's state-of-the-nation epic triptych, The Hare Trilogy: hence the name.) Campbell's writing style in the book only really works if you can imagine his voice in your head, because this isn't presented as coherently structured prose -
not at all -
it's all in tiny fragments separated by HYPHENS -
(and unexpected bits of emphasis) -
whenever you saw Campbell, this was exactly the way he'd talk -
hurling ideas around and CHALLENGING you to keep up with him -
the hyphen works as a literary device representing that -
also it's a homage to Charles Fort, who wrote in the same breathless style -
(Campbell was reading the Fortean Times long before it became fashionable in the 90s) -
Fort's opinion was that "everything in the universe is linked with everything else -
so a Full Stop is a Lie -
or a Hyphen coming staight at you."
(I'll stop that now. But it shows just how much this is written as a performance text, rather than for the casual reader. Some heartless bastard, if they wanted to, could clean up at Edinburgh next year by performing The Bald Trilogy verbatim on stage as a tribute, like that Bill Hicks guy.)
Fort's idea of everything in the universe being linked is one of the key themes that drives these monologues, along with Campbell's voracious appetite for any ideas that other people tend to reject out of hand. It's crystallised in Jamais Vu, the third monologue of the trilogy, where he describes his time hanging out with other fellow 'seekers' in the basement of Gants Hill Library, where they kept all the books nobody wanted - or dared - to read. It led to one of Campbell's best ever quotes - "I'm not mad! Arsehole! I've just read different books!" - and the clearest statement of his personal philosophy. "Don't believe in anything... but you should suppose everything: and in fact you should - supposing as much as poss is mind-opening, mind-widening..."
Combine all of this with Campbell's love of storytelling ("I wasn't scared of being arrested... I rather felt the tale you could tell afterwards would make it worth it"), and you start to wonder why he waited as long as he did before performing his first theatrical monologue. Furtive Nudist (which I caught at my first ever Edinburgh Fringe in 1989) is the most organic of the three pieces, not feeling as obviously constructed as the others - although by the psychedelic finale, it becomes apparent that it consists of several dozen elements which have all been lined up towards a single visionary payoff. It could be considered as a description of Campbell's mid-life crisis, which initially manifests itself in bursts of the activity of the title, but settles down when he sets up an office in the middle of Hackney Marshes and waits to see who'll turn up. The stories he encounters along the way are extraordinary - the tale of Emma May Wang reliably made audiences gasp whenever I heard him perform it - but are held together with warm remembrances of his childhood, and a growing suspicion that we don't really understand what's going on in the world around us.
That suspicion forms a central part of Pigspurt, the 1992 followup. With a rigidly defined structure - a hatstand with six hats, which illustrator Eve Stewart cleverly uses throughout the book design - Campbell once again tells stories of some of the strange people he's encountered in his life. Character actor Hugh Hastings, who taught him the joy of playing Third Act Detective Inspectors in rep theatre: Charlie Charrington, the far eastern explorer who might have been Max von Sydow's inspiration in The Exorcist: and actor David DeNil, who as a result of one of Campbell's dreams ended up in the New Hebrides telling Ken Dodd routines translated into Pidgin English. And this is before we even get onto the erotic adventures of Campbell himself (or rather his alter ego Pigspurt), inspired by the discovery that his nose looks like the back of a naked woman (see photo above).
One of the joys of following Campbell on his regular appearances was seeing how themes drifted from one show into the next. And in the following year's Jamais Vu, the interest in Pidgin English expanded into a second half entirely dedicated to his own visit to the New Hebrides. Specifically, to one of those islands where they worship the Duke Of Edinburgh as a god. By now, Campbell's writing has become a little too self-aware, as large parts of Jamais Vu tell the story of its own commission by the National Theatre, and his struggle to find a theme for the show. But there are some explosively funny sequences in here, many of them based around a huge chain of conspiracy theories that all tie up with the Prince Philip cult he ends up investigating. My favourite one is the rumour that the explosion at Chernobyl was really a coverup for a failed nanotechnology experiment, where a machine designed to convert vegetable matter into meat went nuts for a few hours and accidentally turned acres of Russian countryside into pork.
Campbell delights in ideas like this: it's no coincidence that when I last saw him perform in 1999, he was holding up a copy of David Icke's book The Biggest Secret and yelling "have you read this?" in an entirely non-judgemental fashion. And I'm pig-sick that I never got to see him again after that. But The Bald Trilogy gives you the means of recreating his genius in your own home: like the man himself, it's full of big laughs, gobsmacking ideas, and the occasional touching moment. Having said that, some of those moments are more touching now than when he originally performed them, like the statement by God at the climax of Pigspurt (don't ask): "Heaven and Hell, Kenneth, are basically the same place - The good go to a good part of it, the bad go to a bad part of it, the fairly nice go to a fairly nice eternal picnic in a sort of park: louts sit around in the lout compound - but comedians sit with me!"
I'm not saying I believe that. But just suppose...