Suppose We Did An Interview

September 19, 1994

I had never met Ken Campbell [1941-2008] before interviewing him in 1994.  In fact, in those pre-internet days I never even knew what he looked like, so when we spoke on the phone and arranged our meeting place, in his Liverpudlian accent, he told me to look for “the man in mauve hat.”

“Mauve, ” I thought.  “What the hell is ‘mauve’?”

However, the man in the purple porkpie who greeted me on the steps inside the Thomson Student Centre at Memorial University in St. John’s was every bit as genial and outsize in personality as the brilliant colour his hat displayed.  As we walked from the staircase to the elevator that would take us to the campus radio station where our interview was scheduled to take place, he rapidly looked around at the cafeteria and printing shop that highlighted our walk.  We walked briskly as I was playing a longish record up in the studio to facilitate me going to meet him.  He seemed marginally interested in his interviewer but affably engaged my attempts at small talk.  I had been researching his life from the press clippings I was provided.  Whereas he had been busy living that life for 53 years.

We settled into the dingy, spartan studio and were about to go live on my show, “Vox” (it was campus radio, have I mentioned?), and the presumed excuse for our conversation was a monologue called “Mystery Bruises” which had premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London during June of that summer.  The Evening Standard wrote of Campbell after the premiere that he was, “… a Grade II Listed Nutter, a Site of Special Theatrical Interest …He should be cherished, and visited often.”

Armed onstage with a shopping trolley of props stringing together essays, asides and anecdotes (with the cohesive thread withheld from the audience until the last ten minutes), this Campbell show was another example of his work up to that point transforming himself from thespian, to informational dervish to “affable gargoyle” to surrealist blunderbuss.

I’ll freely admit I barely grasped any of this at the time.  All I knew is that he was an English actor of note (Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, being but two credits) and he was in St. John’s at the LSPU Hall to perform this new show.

Following one of CHMR’s ID’s, at 7:19pm, and as he adjusted his own microphone, we launched into the chat.

RUSSELL BOWERS:  So tell me about the concept behind “Mystery Bruises.”

KEN CAMPBELL:  (Pause) eh… (Pause) Riiight…

Well, I had the privilege quite recently of interviewing very top level scientists.  This for a TV show yet to come out in Britain, and they thought it would be an interesting idea if I… and I really don’t anything about science, but I know quite a bit about science fiction, you see.  I know about things that probably aren’t but I don’t really know about what probably is.  So they thought it would be interesting if I went and found out what it is you’re supposed to suppose from the top geezers!  We’re talking Professor Stephen Hawking, Dr. David Duetsch, for example.

RB:  That’s gotta be a daunting challenge.

KC:  I know, coz he’s got no voice anyway!  He’s hardly got any use of his fingers but one finger operates his trolley and the other finger operates a little computer thing, so sometimes he’ll answer and it’ll come up on the screen so you have to peek down to see what he’s written.  But sometimes, disconcertingly, a strange voice answers, this American voice called “Perfect Paul” – that’s what it’s called in the brochures – but he’s also got the facility to answer as “Uppity Ursula” or “Whispering Willy” but he doesn’t use those on television interviews. He saves those for parties and that sort of thing.

He’s really a very funny guy, and he’s laughing a lot of the time but as he’s lost his vocal chords, you can’t hear it.  And you know how people have witty body language, well he’s got witty “trolley” language.  He’s very versatile with it!

RB:  So, how did the show evolve out interviewing all these scientists?

KC:  Well it gave me an extraordinary new view on life, learning what it is you’re supposed to suppose.  I’ve always been a great supposer anyway and I’ve held that you shouldn’t believe in anything.  Believe in nothing!  When you trace any belief back it’s always the product of a human mind.  It’s not a belief, it’s just that someone “supposed it.”  To suppose things is a mind-opening, mind-windening experience – or at least I’ve always supposed it for that to be so.  You could suppose the existence of fairies, just for half a minute, or alien abduction – all the great wonders – and you’ll be the richer for it.

And even though I’m one of the great supposers… I would suppose that I have supposed so widely – and wildly – that I should have supposed myself into a suppository.  And actually, when I got to the big boys, the scientists, I’d always thought that all this supposing I’d been doing was for you, for the seekers, as a way of breaking down the walls of an elysian, frightened establishment.  So I found out after all this time that I’d been mega out-supposed by the scientific establishment.  Even to me with the brain of a very practised supposer, I was going “Really? I don’t think I can take this.  I mean I can comprehend what you’re saying Dr. Deutsch… but that certainly is a … remarkable view.”  (Laughs)

RB:  A friend of mine and I got into a discussion about science and religion and his theory… he supposed, that science was a religion.

KC:  Well, it is a religion. People suppose the word religion means something magical, it doesn’t.  The root word, “religare”, the Latin, which just means to bind together, so it’s  just a bunch of people bound together in some form of suppose.  So, they all say “We suppose this!” but if they’re really blinkered they say, “We believe this.”

So, science is a religion but we use the word religion in a warped sense when all it means is a bunch of people all wearing the same hats or carrying on in a certain way.

RB:  One of your heroes growing up was a man named James Cooper.  Tell me about him.

KC:  Good Lord!  Wow!  This was years ago!

Well, I was a lad at school, there was a guy who used to put on these amateur productions.  Actually he was a professional putter-off of amateur productions with this group called The Renegades.  He lived in a derelict railway signal box, a rather exotic thing.  And he used to sling on a new show with amateur people, and himself in it, every month and when I was 12 or 13 I joined his company.  And not just the company of people, but his actual company to be in was very terrific and to me, he knew everything.  It’s taken me 30 years to divest myself of all his views and have my own.

RB:  Did being in those shows create the love of acting?

KC:  No, the love of acting I was born with.   I was born in the war, you see, when I was 2 or 3, when there was a lull in all the blitzing, my parents would send me to the lavatory to “perform” … “Go and perform in there now, Kenneth,” my parents would say.  But I used to find myself literally performing in there, enacting grand tales for the creatures that I could suppose to see in the linoleum, with these abstract patterns of many colours and I could divine jungles and creature in there.  Very particularly there was a frog, and I could draw extraordinary meanings for him. I wish I could remember them now.

And when I do these one-man shows, it’s what I was cut out to do, you see?  And if you start by showing off in front of relatives, they say, “Oh you should go on the stage and become an actor.”  I never should have really. It was clear I was meant to entertain linoleum.  So me in front of an audience is much easier than being on stage with other people.  That get me a bit nervous.  But when I’m on stage in front of an audience, and the lights are in my eyes, they look for all the world like linoleum.  But you get real noises out of them rather than imagined ones.

RB:  Interesting you mention a frog because you were quoted once as saying “Power is like a toad.  There’s no point to it unless you abuse it.”

KC:  Well, I said that when I first did “Mystery Bruises” and I was talking about critics.

The reason I did “Mystery Bruises” was that a theatre in London had announced a six-week run of an old farce.  They thought it was going to do well, but the critics panned it and nobody came at all.  So they asked me to come up with something and I’d just been visiting all these extraordinary scientists and I thought, I’ll tell them about the scientists!  So, I was trying to explain my presence at the theatre instead of this farce and I said critics are human and alright, but they do have a little bit of power – they had enough power to close the previous show – and so I said that power was like a toad.  There’s really not a lot of point to it unless you abuse it.

You see, I subscribe to very odd magazines, as you probably know, like the Fortean Times and other mags, and there’s been a lot of talk of “toad abuse”.

RB:  So not so much disregard on your part, just a societal thing?

KC:  I’m just comparing it.

RB:  So what do you think of reviewers who love or pan your shows?

KC:  Well, it is handy if they do like it.  I mean God knows how long this will last but there’s sort of a collusion that’s grown between me and the critics. I’m seen as one of them and then there’s all these other poor sods putting on shows, so I’ve got an exclusion order at the moment.  But you can’t trust them. One day they’ll go, “What is it with this Campbell?  Genius!?” and the rug will be pulled and I’ll be exposed in all my awful, naked wretchedness.

Sometimes critics recant.  Kenneth Brannagh is an awfully talented guy but people like to knock him at the moment.  Nicholas De Jong of our Evening Standard wrote a review and then said “Listen, I’m very sorry about praising Kenneth Branagh in that production.  I don’t know why I did that.  I thought he was awful,” and then he was able to join a bandwagon of Knock Branagh.  So that’s a type of toad abusing.

Someone once said to me, but I think it’s attributed to… Our Lord, isn’t it?  “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  And someone said to me, “What do you think that means?”  I said, “You’ve got to get miserable coz He might be coming back soon!”

But it doesn’t mean that really.  It just means “Keep changing your mind and you will be ruled by God.”

And funny enough, Leonard Cohen uses the word “Repent” these days and it’s quite rare in song, isn’t it.  And there’s been a recant or repent over him.  I mean he was a complete arsehole for an umpteen years and so now, he’s great.  A mate of mine came around a few months back and said, “I’ve just been to this great concert, the best one in years.  Leonard Cohen!”  And that’s happening all over England.  He’s like 70 years old and fantastic all of a sudden.

RB:  What do you think of the current state of one-man or one-woman shows?

KC:  I’ve been seeing some very good ones. There may be a load of craps ones that I haven’t seen.  Last night seeing Andy Jones at the Hall, gee that was a terrific show.  Spalding Gray never ceases to amaze.  What’s that fellow, the Talk Radio man who came to Britain?  Eric Bogosian!  Bloody hell, he was good.  But then we have our own ones that haven’t travelled here yet.  Mostly I see good-uns, but then I’m not keen to see bad ones.

RB:  It’s been said that you are re-inventing the artform.  How active is that?

KC:  I’m just being honourable to my own infant bathroom.

RB:  I’d like to revisit the last show you did here, Jamais Vu.  What have you learned about the Vanuatu tribe you discuss the show?

KC:  Oh, the Innanen (Editor’s Note: actual name, Yakel). They are on the South Pacific island of Tanna and they regard the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, as a god and they worship him and everything, but there beliefs are way more interesting than that.

They believe he’s a black Tannese soul currently trapped in a white body, but it’s a white body of some significance and he can traced back to “Jayk Cratus” which is how they saw “Jesus Christ.”  Now how did they do this?  Well, there’s this one book out there for sale on the islands, and it’s quite a genuine book published in Wales, called “Did the Virgin Mary Live & Die in England?”  It shows how that could be that our current Royal Family, and indeed Holy Family, is traceable according to that book… Remember when King Herod  had gone into a tiz, was wiping out all the babes and things like that?  Well, Virgin Mary’s uncle, Joseph, not the Joseph the carpenter she was married to, but this is her uncle, Joseph of Arimathea and he was a tin man importing tin into the Holy Lands.  He was getting most of his tin from Cornwall, England.  So he said to VirginMary, “Listen, why don’t you take the baby Jesus off on one of the boats and go and live in Cornwall.”  Cornwall was an amazing place in those days, it wasn’t a bunch of idiots burking about.  You had the Druids and the Celts there and it was one of the great places of the civilized world.

Anyway, according to this book, they did go there.  When Virgin Mary got there with Jesus, well, she was a virgin when she had Jesus but this all changed in Cornwall and she had loads of kids by this Cornish gentleman. Now, Jesus stayed there til he was “39” not this 33 business.  The guy who wrote this book, Victor Dunstan, is an accountant, so obviously he would done his arithmetic on this.  Well, Jesus at 38 became fixed on this idea that he wanted to go back to Palestine, the land of his birth, and tell all these things he’d learned from The Druids!  And people thought he was daft do this, but he did go back with the unfortunate result you’ve no doubt read about.  Now, Virgin Mary did come back to Cornwall, she loved it there, and she’s now buried at Glastonbury.

To get this back to the Tribe, now, Jesus went on holiday in France  and he had some children, French children, and that French line becomes the French Kings, so that’s a holy royal line and they come into the English line with Henry VI and Henry VIII. You can trace both Prince Phillip and our Queen, both being direct descendants of Queen Victoria.

So, this book is available on these islands and it’s become very important to them.  Well now, their belief … or maybe they only suppose it, I don’t know … is that secretly, Prince Phillip’s secret goal is pump his hot holy blood right back into the Tribes of Tanna.  One of the chiefs I met there has 3 virgins ready for the Duke at all times and has done for 30 years!  Well, fresh ones, anyway, every couple of years.  The Queen can visit during all of this, but if she sees the Duke drinking, she’d have to get a blow on the head with an enormous root.  In fact they have sent the Prince this ceremonial pig bonker to Buckingham Palace for him to bonk the Queen because they saw a picture somewhere of the Queen looking at Prince Phillip while he was drinking.

But behind the scenes, you know, he did go there.  I was invited to the British Friends of Vanuatu Society dinner and I met the High Commissioner who gave the Prince his bonker.  And then a chap came up to me, very quietly – I can’t give his name – and he whisper, he did indeed go there… in 1973.  It’s officially denied that he’s ever been there.

RB:  At least in the official press.

KC:  I mean, how do I know any of this?  Because a bloke in a bar told me.

But it was quite a posh bar.