Archive for Illuminatus!

Still More Things That Aren’t Films

Posted in literature, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2012 by dcairns

Seeker! Ken Campbell His Five Amazing Lives is the second biography of my hero Ken Campbell to appear. Merrifield was a friend and collaborator of Campbell’s, so his book has a more intimate rapport with its subject than Michael Coveney’s The Great Caper did. Merrifield GETS Campbell better.

Unfortunately, he’s in bad need of an editor, so that although his book is more in-depth, a good part of its bulk is made up of repetition and meandering. But it was great to get the inside track on Schlatzer’s Bouquet, a production I saw, written by JM, and which doesn’t rate a mention in the Coveney. Still nothing about Memories of Amnesia, though. Did anyone else see that one?

The productions I wish I’d seen are obviously Illuminatus! and The Warp (which played Edinburgh — I can remember the posters — but I was too little then), but his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Chris Langham as Arthur Dent, the audience pushed around the theatre on a hovercraft, and a flat set painted red and green so that when you put on your tinted glasses it pops out into 3D — that must have been quite something.

Both books are essential for the True Seeker, although artistically Nina Conti’s moving, hilarious documentary Her Master’s Voice is the finest of the Campbell tributes. What’s great is that there’s so little overlap: I think maybe the only story used in both bios is the one about Campbell and friends descending in an elevator.

“Quick, on the floor!” orders Campbell, and they all lie down with their legs up in the air.

Ground floor: the doors slide open before startled onlookers.

“Well, that came down at a hell of a lick!” says Campbell.

***

I thought I’d gotten hold of all Richard Hughes books, and read two of the four, but then I’m in a Stockbridge charity shop and I find The Spider’s Palace. Remarkable that the author of A High Wind in Jamaica (strikingly filmed by Alexander Mackendrick), which has a rather leery view of childhood, should have written children’s fiction — a book of fairy tales from 1931 that seems to anticipate the iconoclastic absurdity of The Goon Show.

In Living in W’ales, the first story, a little girl and a labrador move into a whale, like Jonah and Pinocchio before them, but find the lack of food and bedding a problem…

Meanwhile the whale began to get rather worried about them. He had swallowed them without thinking much about it; but he soon began to wonder what was happening to them, and whether they were comfortable. He knew nothing at all about little girls. He thought she would probably want something to eat by now, but he didn’t know at all what. So he tried to talk down into his own inside, to ask her. But that is very difficult: at any rate he couldn’t do it. The words all came out instead of going in.

A friendly parrot creates a speaking tube out of a snake with the ends snipped off, and the whale interviews his intestinal tenant. The tube also allows him to feed her rice pudding. But then the little girl asks for a bed.

‘She wants a bed,’ the whale said to the parrot.

‘You go to Harrods for that,” said the parrot, “which is the biggest shop in London,’ and flew away.

When the whale got to Harrods, he went inside. One of the shopwalkers came up to him and said, ‘What can I do for you, please?’ which sounded very silly.

‘I want a bed,’ said the whale.

Mr Binks The Bed Man came up and looked rather worried.

‘I don’t know if have got a bed that will exactly fit you, sir,’ he said.

‘Why not, silly?’ said the whale. ‘I only want an ordinary one.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the Bed Man, ‘but it will have to be rather a large ordinary one, won’t it?’

‘Of course not, silly,’ said the whale. ‘On the contrary, it will have to be rather a small one.’

I like this because of the stilted formality, childishness, and the fact that it really makes you picture a whale in Harrods. It’s like the Goons in that it creates word-concepts that recoil from visual imagining.

From As They Were Driving:

‘Now,’ they said, ‘we are not afraid of the Stones, even if they do attack us: the Curious Brothers, and the Spotted Mother and Child, and the Fossil Brothers, and the Plain Brothers, and Mrs Mogany, and the Fierce Man Moffadyke, and all.’

Maybe not, but I’m terrified of them, just by their names. “I can picture all of them,” said Fiona. The book might be too scary for our flimsy modern children. Children in the 30s were made entirely out of snot and knee-scabs, so they could handle anything. Even WWII. In The Gardener and the White Elephants the aged gardener has to fight a vicious rabbit to the death — he throttles it with his bare hands. And in The Man With A Green Face, we get this ~

Nightmare fuel. But, on a lighter note, from Nothing ~

‘Good gracious!’ she said, ‘what a mess these children do leave on the table, to be sure!’

‘What have they left on the table?’ called the cook from the kitchen.

‘Well, there’s a drop of milk,’ said the maid.

That’s not so much to make a fuss about,’ said the cook.

‘There’s also a dead Chinaman,’ said the maid.

‘Never mind,’ said the cook, ‘it might be worse. Has he just died, or was he always dead?’

‘I think,’ said the maid, ‘he was born dead, and was dead when he was a little boy, and finally grew up dead.’

‘What else is there?’ asked the cook.

‘There’s a tooth, and I think it has dropped out of some passing shark.’

‘Dear, dear,’ said the cook, ‘children are that rampageous!’

‘There is also,’ said the maid, pulling up the blind and looking at the table more carefully, ‘unless I am much mistaken, a live Chinaman.’

‘Tut-tut!’ said the cook; ‘what a fuss you do make. And was he always alive?’

‘I don’t know.’

***

Next to this, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, a parody of the Gothic school written by an actual friend of Shelley’s, seems positively staid, but it does have a couple of good laughs, and the blend of philosophy and bedroom farce is unusual.

Ironical fact: Thomas Love Peacock did not actually love peacocks.

Mad Friday

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , on April 13, 2012 by dcairns

I saw Ken Campbell‘s TV play The Madness Museum when I was nineteen or so, and it stuck with me. Years later I met Campbell and even collaborated with him in a small way, but only this year did I manage to find a copy of the show.

A fictionalized look at historical treatment of the insane, it features a fervid perf by Campbell himself as the Rev. Dr. Skipton, asylum proprietor with many revolutionary ideas, and young John Sessions (a Campbell protege) as his new assistant, Dr. Arthur Uwins.

In this scene, Skipton’s water therapy/torture is deployed on Simon Callow, a very un-Campbellian actor, one might have thought — but in fact, Callow seems to fit right in, along with David Rappaport from TIME BANDITS and several other members of the Campbell stock company.

Rappaport was a primary school teacher when he answered an ad placed by Campbell to recruit actors and crew for The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s production of Illuminatus! — based on the giant three-volume SF satire by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. By chance, the book features a dwarf, Markoff Chaney (a guerilla ontologist fighting a lonely war against the concept of the average) and Campbell had been wondering how to cast the part.

(Rappaport on teaching — “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to look a child right in the eyes.”)

Years later, after an unsuccessful US TV show, Rappaport committed suicide. He’d always been a very upbeat figure in interviews, but didn’t hide the sadness underneath the sunny exterior. “How did you first find out -?” was one interviewers question. “I was a kid, and I noticed that the other kids were all getting new clothes all the time, and I asked my mum, ‘How come I don’t ever get any new clothes?’ And she said, ‘Because you’re not going to get any bloody bigger.'”

Rappaport could tell this story in such a way that it provoked a huge laugh, followed by the shocked sound of an audience trying to withdraw the explosive laugh back into their mouths and shamefully swallow it.

Using an arrangement of mirrors, Campbell presents an early rendition of his enantiodromic approach to acting.

Skungpoomery

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2011 by dcairns

Just finished Michael Coveney’s Ken Campbell, The Great Caper, about one of my heroes, the actor, theatre director, sit-down tragedian and genius, “in the pure sense of an influential demonic character.”

I think I first became aware of Ken Campbell via a TV play he wrote and starred in — The Madness Museum, dealing with experimental treatments for insanity in the Victorian era. A kind of blackly comic chamber of horrors. If anyone has a copy, I’d love to see it again.

But I may already have read about him in Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati, in which Wilson recounts how the Illuminatus! trilogy, which he co-wrote with Robert Shea, was adapted for the stage by Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool as a nine-hour theatrical epic, somehow transferring to the National Theatre in a production featuring John Gielgud as the voice of the super-computer, FUCKUP.

If so, I didn’t connect the two Ken Campbells. And due to some ambiguity in the credits of The Madness Museum, I wasn’t sure if the guy in the show was called Ken Campbell or John Sessions… But I knew which one I was primarily interested in.

Also, there was the Ken Campbell Roadshow, which I’d seen featured in THE SECRET POLICEMAN’S BALL, the film record of John Cleese’s charity concert for Amnesty International. My friends and I knew nearly all the star comedy acts featured, having seen them on TV, but this stuff was new, and alarming. Sylveste McCoy hammered a nail into his head. Campbell acted as goad. And little David Rappaport (later the leader of the TIME BANDITS) was introduced as “Not the smallest man in the world… but fucking close.”

Apparently this was the second house. The first show wasn’t filmed, which is a pity because that’s the one where Campbell turned loose a herd of pigs which invaded the audience…

And then I met him — I was working in the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, selling posters and books, and he came in and bought two copies of a dictionary of film & television terminology. Now, I don’t think it was possible to have a normal, run-of-the-mill encounter with Campbell, and this one isn’t particularly impressive, I suppose, but it’s in some way typical. The second book was a gift, and Campbell was concerned that the person it was for might come by and grab a copy for herself. “If a tall Chinese bird comes in, don’t sell her that book.”

For dramatic effect, he popped his head in half an hour later and repeated, “Remember, don’t sell the film dictionary to the tall Chinese bird!” I think he perhaps only did this because I was chatting to a friend and it would mildly blow the guy’s mind.

Sure enough, a tall-ish oriental girl came into the shop and leapt upon the volume of motion picture terminology. This was my chance, and I feel I rather underplayed it. You see, Coveney’s excellent book makes the point that life for Campbell was a form of theatre, and that the director’s job was to goad the actors into doing interesting things, “to kick ‘em up the arse and get them ON.” He’d assigned me a role in this scene, and of course the correct procedure was to wait for the customer to attempt to buy the book, and then, without explanation, refuse service. The ensuing conversation would slowly, as I allowed more information out, move from being sinister and annoying, “What do you mean, you won’t sell it to me?” into being funny and sweet. And it did kind of work, but I was to swift in unfolding the backstory. The girl, who I think was actress Sarah Lam with whom Campbell was infatuated — possibly the role model for the fictitious Emma May Wang, who appears dramatically in Campbell’s monologue Furtive Nudist, then wanted to know, “How did he describe me?” I opened my mouth, hesitated, and she said, “A tall Chinese girl?”

Campbell was at the Filmhouse to talk about SECRET NATION, a movie dealing with Canada’s sneaky annexation of Newfoundland, the London-born Campbell’s spiritual home. So I guess that dates the encounter to 1992. Again, if anybody has a copy of that film, which I’ve never seen, let me know.

Ken illustrates the enantiodromic approach to acting…

By now Campbell had aroused my interest. I think I’d missed a chance to see Recollections of a Furtive Nudist at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on its first appearance, but next time he had a show on, I went. This turned out to be Hail Eris!, the missing/suppressed monologue in Campbell’s Bald Trilogy, which otherwise consists of Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu. (“Deja vu is when you go somewhere and you’ve never been there before, and you get the feeling, I’ve been here before — Jamais vu — is when you go home and you say: ‘Fuck, I’ve never been here before!’“)

See, although Coveney’s book is excellent and you must buy it, using the link below, I guess the Financial Times doesn’t send their critic to Edinburgh, so he’s missed some good moments. I think I was drawn to Hail Eris! partly because Eris is the Greek goddess of discord, worshipped by the ontological terrorists of the Illuminatus! books, so I maybe had figured out Campbell’s collection to that book-cycle, or maybe it was a surprise…

On comes this bald man with eyes like radioactive marbles under a porcupine conga line of bushy eyebrows, and proceeds to tell us “seekers” about the backstory of his epic theatre production Illuminatus! One part of this saga not covered in detail by Coveney is the origin of the project.

“I was at a science fiction convention — I’m not sure why, except I think a group of us had resolved to do something every day that we’d never done before,” (an excellent project — every day becomes memorable, and the acceleration of life in middle-age is slowed down at least a tad, DC) “I picked up one book, which was called Stand on Zanzibar, and I was excited because I immediately got what it was about. I’d heard that you could stand the entire human race, shoulder to shoulder, on the Isle of Man, so this book was obviously about a future time when the human race would pack the whole of Zanzibar. The author was there, John Brunner, and I asked him, “What’s it all about, this science fiction? What’s it for? ” and he boomed back, ‘FUN!'”

I’m quoting from eighteen-year-old memory here, so you can expect around 60% accuracy… If it were longer ago, I could do better…

In fact, I’ve just remembered that the Fringe programme listed Hail Eris! as being a production of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, so I knew it was genuinely connected to the original show — it was Campbell’s presence that was unexpected. “That’s that guy!”

Campbell’s attraction to Illuminatus!, based on the Yellow Submarine on the cover, is well-documented in Coveney’s book. His account of the play’s cult success, likewise. How TIME BANDIT leader David Rappaport, then working as a primary school teacher (“The most wonderful thing in the world is being able to look a child right in the eyes.”) had come in, apparently by chance, when they were looking for somebody to play anarchist dwarf Markoff Chaney (“The midget against the digits.”) How the play gave early roles to Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent (Campbell, having discovered Bob Hoskins, had already released him into the wild) and Chris Langham (“Most British acting always seemed to be in the past tense, but Chris was always in the present tense”). How Bill Drummond (later of the KLF) had created heroic sets which eschewed the abstract to give science fiction fans the super-computers, yellow submarines and Atlantean domes they required — all on a stage the size of a dining table.

But the account given of the more bitter aftermath differs between Campbell’s monologue and Coveney’s biography. Now, there are small inaccuracies in the book, but Campbell mythologized and theatricalized his life story, so there’s no way for me to offer an opinion on which is truer, but here’s what I recall of Campbell’s version –

Briefly, in the aftermath of the play, one of Campbell’s actors, cast as The Man Who Killed God, became increasingly preoccupied by the conspiracy theories recounted therein. At first he’d struggled to believe or get interested in any of it. Latterly he became obsessed. This was good for his performance, but it didn’t stop when the play finished its run.

Campbell found himself avoiding the guy. Then he got a call. “I’ve just killed an old woman.”

Campbell was called into the police station to explain all about “these illuminations”, by a very fat, jovial policeman. “I didn’t know you were allowed to be that fat and still be a policeman. “Your friend isn’t a criminal,” said the policeman, “He’s a nonsense case.” Apparently he’d strangled a bag lady, and then, uncertain whether perhaps his image would be recorded photographically on the retinas of her eyes, as the last thing she saw in life, he’d attempted to put her eyes out with a chair leg.

Campbell attempted to explain his nine-hour play cycle. More policemen drifted in, making cups of tea. The day wore on, as the playwright-actor-director attempted to make the story fully explicable. The sun had set when he finished. “We must have evenings like this more often!” declared the policeman.

He then told Campbell that his friend was now in the place where they keep nonsense cases, being looked after. And the old lady he’d attacked had not died — and she could see out of one eye, and the doctors thought she might be able to see out of the other one if she became able to open it. “And this incident has alerted social services to her plight, so she’s now in a nice place, being looked after by nice people — and she’s got a story to tell.”

A story to tell — Campbell had thought his deranged actor was put away for life. But in 1995, more or less cured — the paranoid schizophrenia he’d been diagnosed with under control — he was released, and Campbell retired Hail Eris! since he didn’t feel it was nice to be talking about the guy’s problems. The story is retold (with variations) in Coveney’s book, so I guess it’s OK now. He names the actor, I don’t, in case Campbell’s account is inaccurate and it might be doing the guy a disservice.

I learned about the reasons for Hail Eris!‘s disappearance from the Campbell canon on my third meeting with the Great Man, of which more later…

End of Part One.

Buy: Ken Campbell: The Great Caper

A fine documentary about Campbell, ANTIC VISIONARY, can be purchased here.

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