Archive for Ken Campbell

Beyond Our Ken

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2018 by dcairns

To Terry Johnson’s play Ken at the Pleasance Dome, planned as our one Edinburgh Festival Fringe extravagance this year — but Jeremy Stockwell, the second man in this one-man show alongside its author, is also appearing as Spike Milligan in A Sock Full of Custard, and is apparently as uncanny in that role as he is as the shade of Ken Campbell.

I used to ONLY go to Fringe shows that had a Campbellian element, which was fine as there were often more than one on. This year, Campbell alumni Nina Conti and The Showstoppers are both playing. Often, Campbell would appear in one of his monologues and direct someone else. I first saw him in the never-revived Hail Eris!, chunks of which I can still quote by what I fondly imagine is heart. That one was about staging Illuminatus!, his epic science-fiction conspiracy saga. Ken deals mostly with its follow-up, the twenty-four-hour-long The Warp, by Neil Oram, whose own one-man show followed Hail Eris! back in, I think it was 1989.

I had fancied making the trip down south to see Ken, but I should’ve known it would come to Edinburgh – The Warp was performed in Edinburgh, at the defunct Regal Cinema. I would have been nine — rather too young for a 24-hr sex and drugs play. I regret missing it, though.

The theatre space has chairs and tables and bean bags and cushions. I immediately threw myself on the floor, Fiona opting to loom over me from a chair. Johnson takes to the podium, and Ken Campbell’s voice issued from behind me. I figured they had a recording of him saying his name. As the play continued and “Ken” said more lines, I realised they were issuing from a bloke directly behind me. I sort of figured I shouldn’t look at him, though, as Johnson was the star of the play. But “Ken” – in reality the brilliant Jeremy Stockwell, moved around the venue, just as actors in The Warp would, interacting with the audience, so it became impossible to ignore him. Stockwell looks different from Campbell: everyone does, unless they are a church gargoyle sprung to life. But the voice and the stare were so uncanny, you couldn’t help feel Campbell was in there, animating him.

The stories and capers and the elastic-band-and-housebrick skit are excellent, and there’s an emotional clout too. It’s all an amazing feat, not of homage, but of resurrection — the spirit of a genius captured and brought to life for a short spell.

Campbell, we are told, once gave Stockwell a hat identical to the one he himself wore. “Here you are. I think you might need this one day.”

Terry Johnson also wrote INSIGNIFICANCE, filmed by Nic Roeg, so there’s your movie connection.

 

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.

 

Lionel’s Share

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2015 by dcairns

atwill

Lionel Atwill, that Janus-faced smirker of pre-code legend, previously got the Shadowplay treatment in an early post celebrating his two-faced versatility. In a frank spirit of self-plagiarism I have returned to these themes for an alternative outlet: reader, I chiseled him.