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 —

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

Violin Time (Methuen Modern Plays)

12 Responses to “Skungpoomery, Part II”

  1. Fiona W Says:

    For those not in the know, Nina Conti is Tom Conti’s daughter.

  2. THe best thing in Minority Report is the great Lois Smith’s scene. It’s an aria really — with a chorus of plants backign her up.

  3. Nice to see Jessica Harper, too, and the Sam Fuller homage is cute, if irrelevant.

  4. Wonderful piece on a fascinating man. This is why I bin the Sunday Supplements and come here instead.

    For some reason when I think of him it’s not epic Illuminatus stagings I remember but a line from one of his shows; “David Rappaport, ladies and gentlemen; not the smallest man in the world but fucking close.”

  5. …and then I read Part 1. We both remember that Rappaport line.

  6. I *love* this piece. Excellent. “If Ken was an eccentric, Oram qualified as half-mad(…)” was a dry enough line (I particularly like the use of qualified) but “Scott has a magnificent eye, but one does sometimes wonder if there’s anything behind it” bests it handily. As an irrelevant aside, that comment reminds me of Ridley going on about being a “storyteller” during promotion of Prometheus (a film that would seem to disprove that claim, but I digress…again), one rather wishes someone would say “tell that to the fucking writers” to the cigar-fondling visual stylist. My heart rather sinks to read his comment on the “denseness” of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sleep? It’s hardly difficult to read. Blade Runner’s a pretty good film (not as good as Alien though, his greatest accomplishment) but for all the excitement over its – pretty simple – themes if one peels away the visual and sonic dazzle the fact that its two screenplays mashed together is clear while it lacks the original’s unsettling Dickian humour and more inspired moments, plus its a bit ponderous (2001 may have less action but that isn’t a film about pace, it’s about environment and blank slate people being – very slowly – buffeted by change and the unknown while Alien has a more interesting world of sight and sound, quite apart from the facehuggers and slavering xenomorphs). Aside ends.
    “Just as he is about to experience a seizure in mid-operation and spasmodically tear out his own brain…”Janet! THAT’S her fucking name!””. O, God! Hilarious. Ken Campbell is missed. Imagine if he, rather than his protege Sylvester McCoy, had been cast in Doctor Who. I’m not sure if that would have been an exciting prospect, or a terrifying one. This piece was fantastic, as eye-opening as Nina Conti’s documentary.
    Curious Coincidence Case File #406 : Mac Macdonald was the captain in Red Dwarf and worked for Mr Campbell but Pauline Bailey, the Marilyn Monroe impersonator you mention above, *also* appeared in Red Dwarf (as a Marilyn Monroe waxdroid). Patterns…

  7. Thanks!

    I don’t mind Blade Runner being slow — it feels like a bold innovation for a sci-fi detective story, the kind of thing New Hollywood in the 70s would have tried. It’s counter-intuitive but interesting.

    Comparing it to the book obviously brings up pros and cons, with the book winning hands-down on story, tone, and the conceptual details of its story world (also on clarity, I’d say). The film has all this visual pleasure that’s not nothing, though. Dick’s depopulated world is a far more interesting idea than Scott’s crowded one, but if you want a dazzling surface, those flocks of damp extras do help.

  8. It’s not so much that it’s slow (it’s not about the destination, after all the film in the later cuts doesn’t end it terminates, it isn’t about what’s on-screen necessarily but what is suggested, I think. It’s a film in which everyone is dead even the living with only the psychotic murderous Batty showing any real wonder, and maybe poor Sebastian too) but ponderous *in certain places*. Then again, some of the movie’s greatest moments are when “nothing” is happening! Those opening shots, the looming Tyrell Corporation building, the camera’s calm consideration of Sean Young’s lovely face, the scene in which Deckard uses the scanning equipment. Yes, I love all that. “Nothing” is happening but everything is. Hm. Beats a lot of busy-busy pictures. And, as I say, I don’t even like it that much!
    Mention of the New Hollywood leads me to think of the links between the screen Deckard and those seventies reinterpretations of the detective genre (though when people overuse the term “noir” that’s when I reach for my – metaphorical – revolver. Hah). Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Conversation et al. Maybe Ford thought he’d be more Magnum P. I. in the future (and hey I liked Magnum) when he was closer to the ’70s versions. His triumph is he gets to live, how much of a prize this is in the Blade Runner future is questionable. Of course, if one wishes to believe Scott he’s a replicant anyway (but who’s to say what is life?!)… Thinking of this reminds me of how much I love The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould’s drowsy Marlowe; so discomfitting, so great, and what an ending! Special mention for tv’s lighter Rockford Files, Jim Garner wins through but almost by accident.

  9. My memory of Rockford is that he always cracks the case but never gets paid. A nice way to use Garner’s cool — cast him as eternal loser. As a kid I thought it was cool he lived in a trailer. Actually, it is.

    Just watched Peeper, a 70s private dick movie I’d never seen: review forthcoming.

  10. I look forward to that. I have a predeliction for shamuses. As regards Rockford apart from rarely getting paid he was hit on the head almost as many times as Jeff Randall (Mike “Little White Bull” Pratt) in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). More interesting is that Jim Rockford is as much of a revisionist take on the private eye as Altman’s Marlowe, the difference is that the acridity is absent. Rockford is as buffetted by events as Gould but makes it through. Altman couldn’t conceive of a Marlowe, the shop-soiled Sir Galahad, functioning in ’70s LA so he’s an impotent figure unable to actually do anything useful not even really for his cat (and not for the woman who has a bottle smashed in her face by Mark Rydell, in a terrifying scene). Of course, The Rockford Files being made for ’70s television couldn’t have gone that way anyway but it does something just as interesting with the detective concept. Rockford may run into (a lot of) trouble and be the little guy but he isn’t impotent, so far so conventional, what makes the character work – apart from Garner’s relaxed charisma – is that though he pretends toward the cynicism of the Spades, the Marlowes, the (godforbid) Hammers, he has a heart. It’s all played with lightness and charm but what makes him and the series appeal is that he’s a *good guy*, a good guy who’s been to prison, has a winningly world-weary turn of phrase, and is able to navigate the smoke-and-fog of seventies California, but a good guy nonetheless. Yeah, it’s a fun series and a light relative to the darkness of the great cinematic mysteries of the period (and clearly coming from a similar place to the semi-comedic revisionist works of the period), it may not be Chinatown (!) but Rockford’s cop friend Becker is reluctant to help because the system is more for smooth running than the awkwardness of justice especially if it threatens those in power, though of course he usually does (because this isn’t “noir” and he’s only semi-schmucky)!

  11. “Down these streets a man must go who is not mean…” Note also that Garner successfully played Marlowe on TV just before The Rockford Files, which I think was a smooth attempt to transfer the character as he saw it into a more economical modern environment.

  12. The Rockford Files is really Marlowe (the film) done right. Rockford is decidedly *not* the Chandler-Marlowe because, despite the famous quotation, Chandler-Marlowe *is* a *little mean* at least from a modern standpoint (tho’ books like City of Quartz tend to make Chandler and Marlowe seem like monsters, which is pretty silly) while Rockford has a completely different attitude ) plus he’s got his Dad, Rocky, and a host of – some pretty dubious – friends. But, as you suggest, Jim Garner imports the charm from his Marlowe interpretation but without the sixties garishness of Marlowe’s milieu (no Bruce Lee either!). Um, I’ll stop drivelling now.

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