Nobody tells you that when you get old, you’ll see your heroes disappear from out in front of you, like fellow chickens vanishing out of sight from the battery farm conveyor-belt into some unseen manufacturing process.
I first went up to the Edinburgh Fringe in a children’s play, School for Clowns. Everyone else applied, correctly, for the acting experience. Me and Al Murray auditioned so that we could get some money and lodgings to do comedy. There was a tension that Edinburgh between actors and comedians, at least among all of us twenty year olds. Forty of one or the other lived for two months in one room with no baths or hot water or laundry and a single toilet in an old Masonic Lodge near the top of Edinburgh’s granite spur.
We were ostensibly a theater group, but the comedians stank and drank up the place and shouted long after midnight, horribly parodied the actor’s hard work instead of rehearsing their own, and constantly, desperately, hit on everyone. And we never ever washed-up, and we never took anything seriously apart from angry endless nerve-wracking arguments about jokes, which we’d type furiously on a typewriter in a corner of a room, or loudly reconsider while all the actors tried to sleep in our unhygenic shanty-town made of cardboard boxes.
School for Clowns was written by Ken Campbell, who I had never heard about. I thought he was a terrible writer. The play made no sense, and was certainly too weird for kids. After agonies with our director, we quickly jettisoned almost every element of it, and replaced it with a new script, and a new plot, hastily improvised. The play remained just as weird though: the one part we’d left, the characters, had a life of their own, and for six weeks I found myself stuck in the role as Campbell had written it: a wide-eyed idiot clown, endearing but gormless, constantly and randomly suggesting random ideas that drove the play along, constantly accidentally sabotaging the lesson with chaos. The chaos was what the children liked, and hopeless audience-panderers that we were, we would would egg them on to take over the show, commandeering children in the audience and overreacting to their smallest acts of naughtiness until the show would frequently end with dozens of kids on stage, slapping clowns with pies and coloured water, and screaming to their friends to join them.
Then, one night, Toby Hulse, who was twenty-two and therefore infinitely wise, took us to see Ken Campbell’s one man show. I was curious, partly because both the actors and the comedians seemed to talk of Campbell with hushed respect.
It was insane. And I don’t mean that in a sort of “crazy”, light-hearted way. I’d entered sceptical of almost all theater, because really at heart, I felt it was about a sort of overintellectualised basal manipulation, but Campbell managed to drill right into me, while at the same time explaining exactly how he was doing it. He sat there and talked about how to manipulate the audience, then lift you up on one of his extended rants and demonstrate the trick. It was like a masterclass in masterclassery.
I was an easy catch: I spent my teenage years obsessed with the Illuminatus books in the same way other kids were obsessed with football. But I hadn’t known that Campbell had written and performed a five hour musical adaption of the same trashy science fiction trilogy, and then put it up as the inaugural show at the Cottesloe auditorium of Britain’s National Theatre, and that this particular one man show was his retelling of his investigation into the demi-monde of the book and its adherents. Campbell was pulling the old Robert Anton Wilson trick of convincing you to believe a religion made of nonsense, then showing you how gullible you were to believe such a thing.
We came out of the show, recovering and retelling Campbell’s stories to one another, and asking “Do you think that really happened?”; trying to find again the borders between the fictional and the real world Almost everyone agreed that whatever else was true, those books Campbell referred to as coming from the Loompanics catalogue had to be made-up by Campbell for the cheap laughs. “How to be disappear completely”?Kill Without Joy: The Complete How To Kill Book“? I emphatically explained that not only was Loompanics real, but I had copies of their edition of the Principia Discordia at home, everyone looked at me as though I had become part of the play. Was I put up to this by Campbell? Had the show finished?
It’s hard to convey how hard it was to deliver such High Weirdness to the world before Internet, how hard it was to stumble upon the unusual, and how you’d have to mine and hunt for it. And how risky it was to go on those hunts, far away from any reassuring backdrop of normality: the serious parts of Campbell’s stories frequently discussed how others he was going crazy, and how close he felt to it himself. When you met him in person, he gave off that aura of what the Guardian obituary generously calls “a thin streak of malicious devilry”. I’d say it was far more dangerous than that: after surviving eight hours or so of his 29-hour long play The Warp, I really doubted his good intentions to either the audience or the cast, all of whom were on the edge of sanity by then. I remember the ordinarily mild-mannered Kevin Cecil looking like he was going to kick a nun after one three-hour conspiracist Campbell experiment.
The comparison with Puck or Falstaff doesn’t miss the mark, except that he was a Shakesperian character directing his persona at the audience, not another character. He’d be jovial, but with a force to it, as though he was deliberately dunking you down into the lowest most erratic parts of humanity, as an illustrative lesson, but also as a thuggish test to see whether you could survive it. Acting and comedy were the same, low high art. The sin of the arch and luvvie and those actors involved in the “art” wasn’t that they took it too seriously, as all of us trivially thought. It was they didn’t take it seriously enough. The serious part of performance was the shouting and the drink and the squalour and the arguing over stupid jokes.
I didn’t take enough people to Ken Campbell shows, and I didn’t go to enough Ken Campbell shows, and now it’s all gone. Damn.