Remembering Ken Campbell

Sadly, we learn of  the death of Ken Campbell’s – amongst many other things, artistic director of the Everyman for one brilliant year, 1980-81, the year of The Warp, The War of the Newts, Hank Williams- The Show he Never Gave…

‘They gave me the job because in the board’s opinion it was getting a bit safe. …..they were doing good plays well but the Everyman wasn’t just for doing good plays well was it?’

‘Losing Ken is like losing a portal onto a freer world. He challenged every received wisdom, every cliché of how things should be done’, Gemma Bodinetz, Artistic Director, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.

Ken Campbell was 66 and ‘one of the most original and unclassifiable talents in the British theatre of the past half-century’. He was a writer, director and monologist and had presented quirky and informative TV series such as Brainspotting and Reality on the Rocks (basically, about everything in the universe), both for Channel 4 and highly enjoyable.

In 1976, Ken Campbell helped form the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in order to stage Illuminatus, a nine-hour cycle of five plays by himself and Chris Langham based on the cult trilogy of science fantasy novels by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

Poster for the Science Fiction Theatre of Live...
Poster for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s inaugural 10-hour show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Highlights from the 1980-1981 Everyman season

Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave

Carl Chase made the move from taxi driver to actor via his first appearance at the Everyman in Maynard Collin’s one man show about Hank Williams. Backed by The Drifting Cowboys, it told the story of Hank’s life conceived as a flashback at the moment of his death in 1953. Director: Ken Campell and Terry Canning

Re-living moments of his life, perhaps remembering them as they might have been rather than as they were, he justifies his life in terms of his art – writing and singing songs that forced themselves by their truth into the hearts and consciousness of millions of people. The evening was conceived in tribute to the spirit of Hank Williams and the dignity that always surrounded this greatest country singer of all time. It is based on the author’s perception that the songs of Hank Williams were in reality prayers to a God he searched for all his life, and hopefully found at the moment of his death. Maynard Collins, programme note

The Warp

The Warp was a twenty-hour odyssey through British alternative culture from the 1950s to the late 1970s and used much of the Everyman’s space as a number of stages, uprooting the chairs from the theatre and encouraging the audience to sit on unused parts of the set. First shown at the ICA as one production, the Everyman’s expanded, revised, and amended version of The Warp was split into ten parts and shown over ten weeks – a soap opera of hippies, wizards, new age cults, and personal discovery. The Warp was a success (playing to audiences of 70%), and the audience responded well to the episodic format, though it was not without its detractors. Controversial scenes involving Eithne Hannigan in plays Two and Three resulted in slurs, allegations of moral degeneracy, and the actress in question head-butting a Daily Mail journalist. One councillor called for the Everyman’s funding to be stopped as a result of the sexual nature of the play. Artistic Director: Ken Campbell; Director: Ken Campbell

“I think the most significant thing I did was The Warp – out of all the plays that have come my way I think The Warp’s the best one. It’s my favourite.” Ken Campbell, Artistic Director

The War with the Newts

The War with Newts used a documentary style to transform Capek’s 1940s book into a modern day tale. It was innovative in set design, using banks of televisions and a water pool, the final scene including a rubber dinghy bobbing about with Malcolm Muggeridge and Robin Day. Artistic Director: Ken Campbell; Director: Ken Campbell and Pip Broughton

“And now here is the Newts:… one of those rambling, exotic pieces of theatre that should have the curious flocking to the place. On offer you have a 2ft water pool inhabited by actors playing newts; a bank of six television screens for slides, and an array of impersonations… ” Philip Key, Daily Post, 03/04/81

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