Archive for The Bald Trilogy

Skungpoomery, Part II

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Science, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by dcairns

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 –

The Bald Trilogy: “Recollections of a Furtive Nudist”, “Pigspurt” – or “Six Pigs from Happiness”, “Jamais Vu” (Modern Plays)

Violin Time (Methuen Modern Plays)

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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