Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

kencampbell  One of the main achievements of Anton Corbijn’s movie Control is that its recreation of early Joy Division gigs captures the excitement of what it is like to see music live. Like putting on a good stage version of Macbeth or concentrating on an episode of Midsomer Murders all the way through this must be far harder than it looks, since virtually no-one ever manages it. But from Corbijn and his collaborators you really get a feel for why Ian Curtis’ band was so vibrant and, crucially, important. Michael Coveney never quite manages to convince us that watching Ken Campbell – oddball theatre actor and director, deeply strange man – doing his stuff would have been anything other than slightly tiring. Sitting through Campbell’s 22-hour play cycle The Warp must have been extraordinary/a crushing bore, perhaps both, possibly at the same time. His Illuminatus! sounds a bit more like it, and was certainly much shorter. Warren Mitchell was his mentor, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Chris Langham were friends and colleagues. He had one-man shows at the National Theatre later in life. Became a Fringe guru. Had a chaotic private life and could be something of a prick. Campbell was also – the book implies but is much too polite to dwell on – quite a dangerous man. His intensity was such that if you were drawn into his orbit you needed to be wary of having him take over your life. Even his daughter speaks of having to get away from him. It’s also slightly disconcerting to see Coveney, a theatre critic, misusing the word ‘enormity’, especially twice. Similarly, suggesting that light years are measures of time rather than distance seems a pretty basic error. But so it goes. For all the reservations, there is something very admirable about a man (Campbell this is now, not Coveney) who did everything on his own terms, who built his career and reputation virtually alone and followed a vision. Most of us don’t attempt it because it’s far easier to just squeeze by in the background. Campbell wanted to be noticed. It takes a lot of effort, as Henry David Thoreau put it, ‘to live deliberately’.

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