Ken Campbell: An obituary

PR guru Mark Borkowski pays tribute to his friend

Genius is an attribute thrown around like confetti in this modern media age. Few individuals adhere to that particular wonder, but the late Ken Campbell had genius burnt into his DNA. If ever I daydream about who would make up my ultimate fantasy dinner party, Ken would be at the top of the list. He was one of the most interesting human beings I ever met.

When I first arrived in London bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I was invited to a furtive gathering of philosophers, academics and iconoclasts in a garden flat in Notting Hill. I felt unworthy to be in a room with such glittering luminaries and yet was enthralled by the congregation. Fortean folk swapped notes in trepanning, teleportation and synchronicity and played with mischievous abandon, positing notions that bewitched this kid from the sticks.

The central topic was how to disrupt the Stratford upon Avon Shakespeare heritage trail. Ken took centre stage and hurled creative ideas in the room that bowled many of the company over with helpless laughter. I saw the potential chaos for the slumbering tourist trap if the Anti Shakespeare League had ever been given the wings of flight.

That was the start of a long friendship with a man who had a torrent of unconventional creative ideas. He did look like the clichéd mad professor, gifted with a set of remarkable eyebrows. God clearly felt he had to scar Ken as a hint to humanity that he had bestowed some sense of brilliance on this man.

Ken developed an uncontrolled urge to communicate with me at the most surprising and inconvenient times. Interventions from Ken frequently came in the belly of the night, with a fantastic thought that he might have some leverage with the media. I was never annoyed by Ken’s wake-up calls because no matter how insane his thought process was, a thread of common sense was always lurking in the dog-eared corner of the idea.

Ken’s professional work was erratic. His one-man shows were things of beauty. He will be known for his commercial cameos on TV, such as In Sickness And In Health or Fawlty Towers, but the legacy of his live work will be the true measure of the man.

The Ken Campbell Road show that nurtured the likes of Bob Hoskins, Sylvester McCoy, Jim Carter and Marcel Steiner eclipses any of the more commercial live comedy available on draft today. It was really raw and touched so many who were lucky enough to witness the bedlam.

Ken was fascinated by tall tales and curious stories, and in the Eightes he created a series of lectures close to Avro arch in Walthamstow, where Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe constructed his Avro triplane in 1909. The audience brought chairs and at dawn as the mist rose we encircled various philosophers-in-exile who enriched us with tales of wonder.

Perhaps this cosmic search for enlightenment robbed us of the one true dark Time Lord. Ken was unsuccessful when he auditioned for the part of the seventh Doctor Who in 1987, ironically being beaten to the role by his old protégé Sylvester McCoy. Script editor Andrew Cartmel later said that Campbell’s interpretation was ‘too dark’ for TV.

Ken was a propagandist for Bislama, a language spoken in the Republic of Vanuatu. He campaigned for its adoption as a world language. Campbell translated Macbeth into Bislama, as well popularising the Bislama for Prince Philip: ‘Nambawan Bigfala him blong Missus Queen’ (Number one big fellow him belong Mrs Queen).

A few years ago, in the forlorn hope of trying to get Ken into the digital age, his daughter gifted him a sum of money to buy a computer. Unfortunately the computer shop was next door to a pet shop. Instead of a laptop, Ken came back with an African grey parrot called Doris. He turned his bizarre Swiss chalet home in Epping into a giant aviary to accommodate Doris, and made artwork from her random droppings.

Ken fell in love with Jim Moran, one the publicists I discuss in my book, The Fame Formula, and we had agreed to create a show around the man’s crazy life. I think Ken could see the art in the stuntster’s works. After Trevor Nunn won global acclaim for his Nicholas Nickleby production with the RSC, Ken decided to prick his pomposity by distributing a forged press release announcing the company would be changing its name to the Royal Dickens Company. It spoofed the theatre world until Nunn outed the scam when he brought in the police.

In the theatre world, too few players in power stood up for Ken or respected his efforts. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that he was one of the most influential figures of contemporary performance and theatre in the last 40 years. Ken’s eccentricity and inspiration frightened the establishment. I hope that in his death a true appreciation of his genius is put into a proper context.

For a fuller version of this obituary, see Mark Borkowski's blog

Published: 1 Sep 2008

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