Skungpoomery, Part II
Skungpoomery is the art of making up a word, then making up a meaning for it, then doing that thing. For instance, I’m tentringersinging — singing the praises of Ken “Prettyboy Tentringer” Campbell. (In the same way as Philip = Great Equestrian in Greek and Dick = Fat in German, allowing Philip K Dick to adopt the pseudonym Horselover Fat, so Kenneth Campbell called himself Prettyboy Tentringer and I can call myself Lovey Rockpiles.)
Ken Campbell’s Hail Eris! had what I take to be the desired effect on me — I was amazed, amused, taken to a strange place. The world was made bigger. And the evening was not over. The play was followed by a spectacular promenade up the Royal Mile to another tiny venue, where Neil Oram was doing his own monologue, also under the auspices of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. Oram was the author of Campbell’s follow-up play to Illuminatus!, The Warp – at 22 hours, the world’s longest play. The Warp had played Edinburgh, in the old Regent Cinema, and I think I remember seeing the posters, but I was too young to see it (although I would have been older by the time it had finished a single marathon performance).
Now, if Campbell was clearly an eccentric, Oram qualified as half-mad, but in what seemed a benign, attractive way. His tale was one of consciousness expansion, from eating the cotton wool out of nasal decongestants in Soho in the fifties, to the banks of Loch Ness in the now (where his drug of choice appears to be PCP, or “rape smack”, later described by Campbell with some despair as “injecting chemicals intended for veterinary purposes into his muscles”). Campbell and Oram’s spiky relationship was obviously enjoying a warmer spell — the difference in their personae was defined by Oram as “I was, and still am, on a spiritual mission. Ken was on some kind of power trip.” Campbell put it differently — “I don’t think you should believe anything. Anyone who starts out by saying ‘I believe -’ is usually a right berk. So you shouldn’t believe anything. But you should SUPPOSE — everything!”
After Hail Eris! I made a point of checking out every play Campbell directed in Edinburgh. Some of these don’t even rate a mention in the new biography, so I want to describe a little of what I remember here –
Memories of Amnesia — a monologue-play, based on the novel by Lawrence Shainberg, about a brain surgeon who awakens one morning unable to recall his wife’s name. Diagnosing himself as afflicted by a tumour, he resolves to self-operate with the aid of local anaesthetic, one assistant (his wife) and an arrangement of mirrors. This is all technically quite possible. Disturbing and funny, the play used absolutely minimal props (a melon stood in for the afflicted head) and a bare stage. The character muses on the history of brain-mapping, whereby fully-conscious patients had their heads opened and little electric shocks applied to parts of the brain to see what happens. If you get some motor neurons, an arm or a leg might move. If it’s a psychic region, the character will suddenly re-experience a memory: “It’s my Mum coming up the hill.” Once areas have been identified, little flags on pins, colour-coordinated to the various functions, are stuck into the brain tissue. It’s like a military campaign.
As the story progresses, the character refers to his wife as “what’s-her-name” and then by a wide variety of names beginning with “J”, until the end, just as he’s about to experience a seizure in mid-operation and spasmodically tear out his own brain, he refers to her as “Janet”…”Janet! THAT’S her fucking name!”
Wish I could remember the actor who played the part, he was great.
Campbell’s plays often fed into his later TV science presenting work, and so Memories of Amnesia carried the seeds that would blossom into Brainspotting.
Then there was Schlatzer’s Bouquet — some movie relevance here, since this dealt with Marilyn Monroe and the conspiracy theories around her death. Campbell’s friend Jeff Merrifield was the author, and the play featured both David Rarraport’s brother (a man with impressive eye-baggage, almost as striking as Campbell’s bushy brows) and Pauline Bailey, a professional Monroe impersonator, playing herself. Campbell had a history of incorporating “real people” into his productions, since anything that puts the wind up the actors was considered positive. The play incorporated several Photo Opportunities, in which Bailey would pose while members of the audience took pictures with disposable fun cameras sold on the premises. There was a prize for the best one.
My favourite part of the show was the opening — Rappaport appears on stage dressed as a stagehand, moving boxes around. An audience member hurries in.
“What time does the show start?” he asks.
“7,” says Rappaport.
Pause. “It’s two minutes past 7 now,” the audience member points out.
“Then it’s started.”
When I came to make my short film CLARIMONDE, set entirely in one room, with a nod to REAR WINDOW, I deliberately wrote in the character of Inspector Childers, who appears only via the telephone or behind doors. My logic was that I could get a Dream Actor to play the part, since it was entirely audio and could be recorded in twenty minutes, tops. When it emerged that Campbell was coming to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to do his Bald Trilogy all in one go, I contacted him via his agent and asked if he was up for it. He was!
Taken all together, the three Bald monologues must amount to about four and a half hours. Campbell began his marathon by telling the audience. “To be quite honest, while I’d definitely do what I’m doing… I’m not sure I’d do what you’re doing…”
Buy the book! Campbell’s stories take in movie-related stuff like the mysterious goings on in the Middle-East segment of THE EXORCIST, Fortean stuff like synchronicity, mysterious disappearances and invisibility, autobiography, outright lies, and the benefits of translating Ken Dodd comedy routines into pidjin English as spoken in the Southern Hebrides. Consistently funny and mind-popping stuff.
In the intermission between Furtive Nudist and Pigspurt, or, Six Pigs from Happiness, I went to the green room with my intrepid sound recordist Kiyo and Fiona, and we taped Ken’s role in CLARIMONDE. This may be where I told him cartoonist Gary Panter’s line: “Our eyes are just parts of our brain that have grown to the outside to have a look around,” which he liked so much he repeated it several times, committing it to memory. I wonder if he ever sprang it on anyone?
My longest conversation with Campbell was in a pub, probably around 2000/01. Because it was in a pub, I don’t remember too much of it, except that Ken was in monologue mode and did most of the talking, which was fine. His dislike of BLADE RUNNER came up, since he felt the film was untrue to Philip K Dick — he was certainly right in that the melancholy, underpopulated feel of Dick’s novel, and his work in general, is entirely subsumed by Ridley Scott’s cold, bright/dark vision. Scott hadn’t even read the novel, finding it “too dense.” Scott has a magnificent eye, but one does sometimes wonder if there’s anything behind it.
Campbell was, however, enthused about the idea of Steven Spielberg doing MINORITY REPORT, while I was more skeptical. I think I was right, but I never got to find out what Ken thought of it. I imagine Campbell admired Spielberg’s showmanship, because he was a great one for wonderment and astonishment, but I’d say Spielberg’s visual sense of wonder and Dick’s narrative/existential/intellectual outrages don’t really match. My recipe for making MINORITY REPORT both a successful Dick adaptation and a proper scifi-noir (which is how Spielberg pitched it) would be to chop the last 45 minutes and end on the tragedy of Cruise realizing why he’s going to be guilty of a stranger’s murder… A better, darker ending that SE7EN!
I was excited that synchronicity, such a major force in Campbell’s life and work, had show her silvery hand again in my casting of him in CLARIMONDE shortly before he became interested in the heretical history of the Cathars, including Esclarimonde of Foix. Campbell shrugged this off — this kind of coincidence was clearly nothing compared to what he was used to. (I was also thrilled to hear the spectral radio in Cocteau’s ORPHEE announce “A glass of water illuminates the world,” which contains the phrase “clairement le monde”
which sounds like “Clarimonde” with a stutter. The film got kicked off by the fact that the name appears both in Hanns Heinz Ewers’ The Spider and in Theophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoreuse, both of which have Cathar undertones…
Of Campbell’s later projects, I watched his several science series avidly, although they did not quite reach the heights of undiluted Campbell — but they informed his other work, notably Mystery Bruises / Violin Time, another amazing monologue. I missed his pidjin Macbeth, which sounds mouth-watering and mind-watering, but I did see a production of his improvised Shakespeare with the School of Night. According to Campbell, the true secret of Shakespeare’s authorship is that his plays were made up by the actors. To prove this shaky hypothesis, supposed rather than believed, Ken began leading a troupe of players in marathon sessions of iambic pentameter improv, discovering that “The iambs only really kick in around the thirteenth hour,” or words to that effect.
In the show, whose stated aim was to ultimately, by the end of its run, reconstruct a lost Shakespeare play, the actors did the usual improv thing of taking suggestions from the audience. Ken acted as onstage director and goad, mercilessly critiquing the improvs. The show also reintroduced the ancient idea of the four bodily humours as a way of informing performance, and at one point Ken berated and audience member for paying insufficient attention, “Not like her!” he said, pointing out the wide-eyed Fiona next to me.
Ken with Doris and some bad editing.
Finding Campbell’s work in Edinburgh was always a bit difficult — it was rarely listed under his name, unless it was a one-man show. Often I’d turn up without really knowing what I was going to get, as when Fiona and I discovered the genius of Nina Conti, girl ventriloquist, who Campbell had already discovered and turned on to the joys of the vent act. Here’s a bit ~
Conti’s debut was a full ventriloquial play, exploring the link between ventriloqism and demonic possession, ending with the actress’s backside becoming possessed.
Anyway, as a result of this elusiveness I only saw Campbell’s penultimate fringe show through the aid of a friend who spotted it, and I missed entirely his last show, which I’ll always regret. Still, more footage of Campbell will be wending it’s way onto YouTube, and there are unproduced film scripts which maybe I could get my hands on… Plus, I have a VHS of his production of Whores of Babylon at the National Theatre. Here’s a sampler –
Mac McDonald, leader of the colony in ALIENS and captain of the Red Dwarf, explains how TV news works to keep us fearful. The ideas are influences by Milton Shulman, plus a dash of Robert McKee, whose eyebrows Capbell identified with. He offered to do a complete rendering of McKee’s screenwriting seminars for half the price at the college where I teach — alas, I wasn’t in a position to accept.
Michael Coveney’s excellent Campbell biography, which got me started on this, begins with the Great Man’s death, like CITIZEN KANE. Or his funeral, anyway — a magnificent arboreal affair with a cardboard coffin drawn on a sled by dogs. Most life stories sound better backwards. Campbell’s life story perhaps works best in fragments — he created anecdotes wherever he went, on his mission to astound the world into apprehension.
That’s a beautiful headstone. I wonder who carved it? In the interests of narrative neatness, it’d be the retired policeman who carved the wooden necktie used by Ken onstage (wielded like a dagger). At any rate, it’s beautiful, and the emptiness at the centre expresses the loss of the great caperer.
Images stolen from the Facebook group Ken Campbell Changed My Life.
Blow your mind by buying these –