Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney, adapted by Pete Nichols

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BBC Radio 4, 4-8 April 2011
Ken Campbell (1941-2008) was a theatrical iconoclast who started his career in the dying days of weekly repertory before being taken on by Peter Cheeseman, a maverick director who ran the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent for many years. Campbell cut his directorial teeth at Stoke before moving to the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, where he was asked to form a company that would tour local venues - factories, pubs, women's institutes and the like - in an attempt to publicize the theatre's work. Campbell enjoyed the touring aspect, but his productions were too idiosyncratic to meet his employer's expectations. He subsequently set up his own company based in Liverpool, dedicated to staging productions in non-traditional venues.
Campbell's most celebrated work was performed at the Royal National Theatre - most notably his eight-hour epic Illuminatus, which opened the Cottesloe Theatre in late 1977, and the trilogy Bald (1993). Coveney interviewed several actors involved in his productions, notably Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Russell Denton, who recalled the experience as being hellish yet stimulating. Campbell was a hard taskmaster, driving his actors to the brink of exhaustion, yet he could also inspire them to hitherto undiscovered feats of improvisatory skill. Although Illuminatus was a landmark production of its time, Coveney gave little sense of what it was like in performance; it seemed to combine the anarchic energy of The Young Ones or Monty Python with the acting versatility of the Marx Brothers. However it might have been valuable to include a more detailed description of specific scenes.
Campbell's last work of note was a pidgin version of Macbeth. Coveney believed that this version released some of the source-text's anarchic energy, but his account made it seem as in Campbell was indulging in an act of mimicry, with white European actors impersonating tropical natives.
Read by Toby Jones, The Great Caper offered a detailed account of Campbell's life, but did not succeed in proving that he was anything other than a vociferous footnote in the annals of British theatre history. The desire to challenge the so-called "traditional" aspects of performance has been characteristic of British theatre ever since the days of Shaw and Pinero. My abiding memory of Campbell has nothing to do with his theatre work, but rather focuses on his supporting role as an actor in the latter series of Till Death Us Do Part, where he played one of Alf Garnett's long-suffering friends.
The producer of this Book of the Week was Karen Rose.