Tag Archives: Ken Campbell

Douglas Adams interview. Part 2: From Hitch-Hiker to Doctor Who and back

Publicity photo of Douglas Adams circa 1980 (Photograph by Mark Gerson)

In yesterday’s blog, Douglas Adams talked about his life before success.

Today, the interview continues. I talked to him for Marvel Comics in 1980.

This is Part 2 of 4.

JOHN: …So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6 of the original BBC Radio 4 series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

DOUGLAS: Yes. John Lloyd and I had known each other for years and, at one stage, actually shared a flat together and kept on half-producing ideas which never really came to fruition… Actually, there was one thing! About two or three years ago, he and I wrote a couple of cartoons for a Dutch television company. They were making a series called Doctor Snuggles. (LAUGHS) It was being made internationally, so the scripts were being written by British writers and it was being performed in English with Peter Ustinov doing the voices. I gather one of the episodes we wrote actually won an award last year. I think it is eventually coming to British television and it’ll be rather curious to see it.

JOHN: What was it about?

DOUGLAS: Well, if you can imagine a cross between Professor Branestawm and Doctor DolittleIt was quite fun working on that, actually. The writers’ fees were rip-off time. But it was immense fun – there were all sorts of things we could do in  animation.

JOHN: It sounds a busy time.

DOUGLAS: The way things went, yes. I was writing Hitch-Hiker (the first radio series) for a lot of 1977 and we were making it at the end of 1977/beginning of 1978 and it went out starting in March 1978. During that time, I was living at home with my parents and the fee for writing the first radio series was miserable – something like £1,000 for the six episodes – which is not a lot for something over six months’ work. So I was thinking I’m such a slow writer and it looked as though Hitch-Hiker might do OK; but there was no precedent for a radio series meaning very much in the long run.

So I was then offered a job as a BBC Radio producer  and I thought I ought to do it for the money. During the six months, Hitch-Hiker began to be a success and I was producing Week Ending, which was quite fun. In fact, the first job I was given was compiling a programme about practical jokes. I had to go out and interview Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor. I thought: What am I doing here? But I knew people had put themselves out to help me get this job and it was a staff job, not a contract job, so to leave after six months would be ridiculous.

BBC Radio 4 recording of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in July 1979 with (L-R) David Tate, Alan Ford, Geoffrey McGivern, Douglas Adams, Mark Wing-Davey and Simon Jones. (Photo © BBC)

JOHN: Then you were offered the job as script editor on Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Yes, which caused an immense rumpus. And I did Doctor Who for fifteen months and it was a terrible, terrible time. It was great to begin with, while I felt I was actually managing to juggle all the balls at the same time. Because, at the end of 1978, I was writing the first Hitch-Hiker book, trying to get down to writing the second radio series, which kept getting put off and put off, and I was script editing Doctor Who and having to produce lots and lots of storylines for writers.

And I was also doing one fairly major last job as a radio producer — a pantomime show for Christmas called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. Everyone involved in it – the writers and all the cast – were ex-Cambridge Footlights. So we had Rob Buckman playing Prince Charming and Peter Cook was his brother Prince Disgusting and John Cleese played the fairy godperson. John Pardoe MP played the Fairytale Liberal Prime Minister – on the grounds that you only get Liberal Prime Ministers in fairy tales. The Goodies played the Ugly Sisters, Jo Kendall played the wicked stepmother and Richard Murdoch was in it too. It was terrific, but the BBC gave it no publicity whatsoever.

Years later, a BBC publicity shot for Black Cinderella Two Goes East with John Cleese and Peter Cook

JOHN: And after that you were able to devote more time to script editing. What exactly does a script editor on Doctor Who do?

DOUGLAS: Everything. Oh god! I was very naive when I wrote Pirate Planet because I’d always assumed that, basically, writing the script is the writer’s job and coming up with all the ideas is the writer’s job. So I worked very, very hard on The Pirate Planet scripts. Then, when I came to be script editor, I discovered other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So, all that year, I was continually working out storylines with another writer, helping yet another writer with scripts, doing substantial re-writes on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production – all simultaneously.

When you’re doing 26 half-hours in a year, that’s a helluva lot. And, at the same time, writing the first Hitch-Hiker book. And also trying to do the second radio series. It was an absolute nightmare year. For four months when I was actually in control it was terrific – when you feel you’re actually in control of all that and actually getting it done. Having all these different storylines in your mind simultaneously. A writer suddenly phones you up at midnight and you’ve got to know exactly what he’s talking about and exactly what his problems are and sort them all out. You actually get very high on that, as long as you cope. But, as soon as you stop actually coping (LAUGHS), it becomes a nightmare.

JOHN: You finished working on Doctor Who in January 1980 and by then Hitch-Hiker had really taken off on radio and become a cult. It had even been on stage.

DOUGLAS: Well, it’s been on stage three times and the one which got all the notice was the one that didn’t work. Ken Campbell did two. His first one at the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) went very, very well. The audience was put on a hovercraft and the action all took place round the edge of the theatre. I didn’t believe it till it actually happened. We were turning away 1,500 people a night from that show, but only getting 80 people in, because that was all you could fit on the hovercraft.

Then Theatr Clwyd did Hitch-Hiker with a touring company in Wales. They would sometimes do two episodes in an evening and, at other times, the whole lot – which was a long evening. That went very well. I didn’t know anything about Theatr Clwyd: I just thought it was going to be a load of Welshmen going round saying Hello, boyoh! But it wasn’t at all; it was a very good production. So they were then offered The Old Vic but, by then. I’d already offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who wanted to do another production.

He decided to go for broke and put it on at The Rainbow (in Finsbury Park, London). I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I wasn’t really thinking awfully clearly. The thing at The Rainbow was a fiasco.

JOHN: Why?

DOUGLAS: The first two productions had worked well largely because they’d been performed to relatively intimate audiences. The I.C.A. was only 80 and I suppose the largest Theatr Clwyd audience was about 400. But you put it in something the size of The Rainbow – a 3,000-seater theatre – and, because Hitch-Hiker tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail along the way… You put it in something that size and the first thing that goes straight out the window is all the detail.

So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in exactly the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage desperately trying to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you’d put the numbers we were getting at The Rainbow into a West End theatre, they would have been terrific audiences – 700 a night or whatever. But, in a 3,000-seat theatre, 700 is not a lot. particularly when you (the producers) are paying for 3,000 seats. So the whole thing was a total financial disaster.

JOHN: There was also talk of a film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice…


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Mike Raffone on street performance, Dada and his cabaret club for misfits

Mike Raffone bills himself as an “Eccentric Entertainer”.

I saw his Brain Rinse show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year – it was billed as ‘Puppetry of The Audience’ – and I went to his monthly Cabaret Rinse club at the Elephant & Castle in London last month. It is wonderfully unpredictable. The next one is this coming Friday.

“Why,” I asked, “was your Fringe show called Brain Rinse and your London club is called Cabaret Rinse?”

“Because, hopefully it rinses your brain. Not a brainwash. Just a mild rinse.”

“How would you describe Cabaret Rinse?”

“A club for misfits. We did a similar thing about five years ago in Peckham for about six months – The Royal National Theatre of Fools. I just decided we needed a National Theatre for idiots, but it proved quite an expensive hobby.”

Cabaret Rinse is all variety acts,” I said. “Not stand-up comedy…”

The ringmaster of anarchic entertainment – Mike Raffone

“Well,” Mike responded, “what is stand-up? Cabaret Rinse is comedy definitely. Funny definitely. Out there for sure. Interesting I hope. Entertaining I hope.

“When we did Theatre of Fools, we did have a secret non-stand-up policy. We don’t have that with Cabaret Rinse. Last month we had Candy Gigi. You could say she’s a stand-up, but… she’s one in a million, really. There’s bits of stand-up but bits of brilliant clowning. I see that in all the people I like.”

“Candy Gigi is wonderful,” I said, “but I’m a bit wary of the way people use the word ‘clowning’ nowadays.”

“I hate the way the word is used,” said Mike.


“It’s the connotation. The art aesthetic. I think great clowning tends to be anarchistic. I would say The Greatest Show on Legs is great clowning. Or Ken Campbell’s Roadshow.”

“I agree with you,” I said, “that The Greatest Show on Legs ARE clowns, but I’m not quite sure why.”

“I think it’s well rehearsed,” said Mike, “but it looks like it’s thrown together.”

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance in 2012

“Well,” I said, “with the Balloon Dance, the exact choreography is complicated and vital because it builds and it’s all about narrowly missing seeing the bits.”

“Ragged but in a great way,” agreed Mike. “It was by far the most hysterical thing that whole Fringe when I saw them in 2012.”

“Well,” I said, “they feel a bit like street performers but are not, though Martin Soan did start The Greatest Show on Legs as an adult Punch & Judy act. You, though, are basically a street performer at heart.”

“I dunno about ‘at heart’,” Mike replied. “I’m a performer at heart. But I’ve certainly done a lot of street performing. With Cabaret Rinse and Brain Rinse the idea is to take the energy and instantaneous edginess of street performing – of What the fuck is going to happen? – but NOT just do a street show indoors.

“Street theatre is so specific to where it is. There’s load of people there shopping and I’m gonna grab their attention. It’s the big trick. It’s grabbing the attention. If it’s a joke, it cannot be a subtle one. Everything’s big.  So I want to bring that kind of bigness and edginess and freshness into a – not an arty but a – theatrical setting.”

“You trained as an actor,” I said.

“…a misfit theatre course…”

“I remember, when I was a kid, around 16, ushering for my local theatre and seeing the Cardiff Lab and thinking This is weird. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. This guy is scary but I love it. Wow! This is incredible! 

“Then I did a theatre degree at Leicester Polytechnic which was a bit of a misfit theatre course. It was run by this guy – a little bit of a maverick – who wanted to make his own theatre school – a bit like Jacques Lecoq – and he didn’t want it to be conventional. But he also realised the only way he could get funding at that time – in the mid-1980s – was to hide behind the auspices of an academic institution.

“His philosophy was that he was going to run the course but try and have as little as possible to do with the bureaucratic workings of the polytechnic. I got to see things like Footsbarn. It was a very practical, creative course and I think I got a taste there for theatre that was out of the ordinary.”

“So you got a taste for the bizarre.”

“Yes. I got into street theatre 30 years ago. I remember going down to Covent Garden and seeing street shows – it was all quite new then – and thinking: I don’t have the balls to do that. But, within a month, I was doing it. Covent Garden was quite interesting at that time in the late 1980s. It was sort of mixing with New Variety.”

Mike Raffone, street entertainer, performing at the Covent Garden Piazza in London

“So you thought you could not do it but then started doing it?”

“There was a guy who dragged me into it because he wanted to do it. He was like a dancer and acrobat. So we put this terrible show together, did it for about three shows and then he fucked off. But, by then, I had my street performer’s licence.

“We did go to Paris and see this man called Bananaman, who was this mad bloke who collected junk and then played music with it outside the Pompidou Centre. It was all in French. And then he hit this real banana and smashed it and everyone just thought he was mad. Apparently he was seen in Paris as the world’s worst street performer, but I thought: Wow! That’s alternative!”

Mike has learned to conduct himself well in performance

“What did he hit the banana with?”

“A stick. To me it was an act of Dada.

“I thought it was brilliant. So we went back to Covent Garden and decided we were going to create a police car out of rubbish. We got all this rubbish and two half-arsed costumes together and the idea was it would look terrible. Other street performers came up to us and said: Right, here’s a bit of advice – Get yourself some proper costumes because, frankly, it just looks like rubbish at the moment. And we said: No! That’s the POINT!

“The word anarchy,” I said, “might put some people off. But, if you say Dada, it sounds arty and acceptable and respectable. What does Dada mean?”

“Meaningless… I suppose I like it when you take it to the max, If you are truly going to be Dada, I suppose you have to be anti-everything. Anti-script. Anti-comedy. Anti-anti-comedy.”

His autobiography – Hitting The Cobbles

“Being a street performer, though,” I suggested, “is quite disciplined. You have to be half performer and half barrowboy/street market trader. You have to grab the punters’ attention at  the start and tout for money at the end, with a performance bunged in the middle. So, in theory, you could transfer the actual performance indoors if you remove the ‘selling’ element.”

“I would agree with that.”

“Except that the selling,” I said, “is an integral part of the street performance.”

“Well,” replied Mike, “they say you ‘sell’ a joke and I’m very aware of how I am going to set up any part of the performance. I am quite analytical about selling the material. I don’t know if it’s my inbuilt insecurity as a performer, but I so see myself as a writer. I think: This has got to work on paper or it won’t work in performance. That’s probably not the case, but it’s how I see it. I write everything down, even if it is just: We will be improvising at this point. It’s some weird fear.”

“So you are not a Dadaist really,” I said, “because you want everything written-down and organised in advance.”

“No, I don’t think I’m a Dadaist.”

“An absurdist?” I asked.

“I don’t know. To me, if it’s funny, it’s funny. I remember years ago I was called a post-modernist street performer. I didn’t quite know what it meant.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. We’re done. Where are you going now?”

“I’m going to a museum. It’s putting on a Dada cabaret… All I want is a bicycle hooked up to a whoopee cushion and, when people ride fast enough, it makes the whoopee cushion fart. That’s all I want.”

But what about his name – Mike Raffone?

Is it his stage name or his real name?

Say it out loud.

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The night an Oxbridge Classics scholar met British comedy’s éminence grise

From Cambringe Classics to standing in a red comedy bucket

From Cambridge Classics to standing in a red comedy bucket

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned Michael Brunström standing in a bucket of water passionately reading a random article from a copy of Yachting magazine.

What sort of man does this?

Well, in Michael’s case, someone who studied Classics – Greek and Latin – at Cambridge University and who is now an editor at the publishers Frances Lincoln.

“So,” I asked him, “you’re doing your first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?”

“Yes,” said Michael. “Ten performances of a one-hour solo show – The Human Loire. It’s a series of acts with an arc incorporated into it.”

Michael Brunström stands in a bucket of water

Michael Brunström stands in a bucket of water

“That’s a very editory-word,” I said. “Did you always want to be in publishing?”

“I had a job interview about 15 years ago to work for the Erotic Review,” said Michael. “I had to do work experience there. Their opening question was: Can you tell us what experience you have with the material that we publish? I didn’t get the job.”

“Why Erotic Review?” I asked.

“I was looking for any job in publishing. After university, I bummed around fringe theatre doing stage management for a couple of years. But I hated it. I wanted to be a director and a playwright.”

“Why did you hate it?” I asked.

“It was the people I didn’t like,” he told me. “I just found them so up-their-own-arses and so jealous and petty and squabbling all the time.”

“You didn’t want to be an actor?”

“No. I’m not an actor.”

“But you perform,” I said.

“About eight years ago,” explained Michael, “I came out of a pub in Kentish Town and I bumped into Ken Campbell. I was a bit drunk, so I said: I want to meet you. I’m a fan. We started chatting and I was very nervous and I was trying to impress him. We came to a door and he said: Are you coming in? 

Ken Campbell - The éminence grise of alternative comedy

Ken Campbell – The éminence grise of UK alternative comedy

“I went through the door and it was the Torriano Meeting House – a rehearsal space – and there were a bunch of I guess you’d call them actors.”

“There’s no word,” I said, “for Ken Campbell’s tribe.”

“They weren’t like the actors I’d known previously,” Michael told me. “They were all very welcoming and friendly. He was teaching ‘bardic extemporisation’.”

“Do you know how to stick a nail up your nose?” I asked. “Everyone who ever worked with Ken Campbell seems to hammer a nail up their nose.”

“I’m not sure I’d give it a go myself,” said Michael, “but apparently there is a sizeable cavity up there.”

“Did you go to Ken’s funeral?” I asked.

“Yes. It was fantastic! It had ventriloquism, some improvised singing and we sang Lord of The Dance and some Björk was played. It was held in Epping Forest – it was a kind of organic funeral – and we were under this awning and it was slightly pouring with rain. There was one slightly dull speech given by someone from a university who had awarded Ken an honorary degree and, right in the middle of that, this gust of wind whipped up the awning and deposited an enormous amount of water onto some random woman at the end. There was a crazy guy in the front row who had a mental fit and tried to rip the coffin lid off. I don’t know how staged that was. Ken’s coffin was taken to the graveside on a trolley pulled by his dogs.”

“Not chihuahuas…?” I asked.

“No,” said Michael. “It was Ken who got me doing improvisation, so I’ve mainly been doing improv the last few years, in a group called The Inflatables.”

"You tend towards surrealism” - “I guess I do"

“You tend towards surrealism” – “I guess I do”

“When I first saw you perform at the Etc Theatre in Camden,” I said, “there was an element of quirky originality. You tend towards surrealism.”

“I guess I do,” said Michael, “if you’re going to put a label on it.”

“But being a book editor,” I suggested, “is almost the opposite of improvised, surreal comedy sketch madness.”

“Ken would have called it enantiodromic,” said Michael.

“What’s that?” I said. “It’s not Greek.”

“It’s Greek,” said Michael. “Enantiodromia is about having different aspects to your personality.”

“What does it mean in Greek?” I asked.

“Flowing in different directions at the same time. I have a side of me that likes to correct and control but there’s also a Dionysian side. Neitzsche wrote a book which said what you need for a tragedy is to combine the Apollonian aspects with the Dionysian aspects. Apollo is the god of learning and refinement and poetry. Dionysus is the god of wine and of chaos and of madness and delirium.

Michael performs Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale"

Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”: Michael pours milk into his very Chaucerian trousers

“So I spend half my time being very Apollonian and controlling, with close attention to detail, correcting other people’s work… but I also spend some of my time being Dionysian.”

“Like masks in Greek theatre?” I asked. “You change the mask when you change the character.”

“If you like,” said Michael.

“So what did you want to be when you were a kid?” I asked.

“I probably just wanted to be unaccountably famous.”

“You don’t come across like that,” I said. “You seem quite shy.”

“Oh, I’m very shy.”

“But then I suppose that’s performers,” I said. “You expect them to be extroverts, but offstage they’re often hiding in their shell not wanting to do publicity.”

“A lot of improvisers are shy,” said Michael. “Comedians are less shy.”

“They’re more neurotic,” I agreed. “You would consider yourself an improviser not a comedian?”

Michael’s role model? - The Great Gonzo

Michael’s role model? – The Great Gonzo

“I don’t have any jokes.”

“Very few people do jokes now,” I said. “It’s all storytelling with occasional punchlines and it’s mostly the way the stories are told.”

“With my act,” said Michael, “I’m thinking Sylvester McCoy, I’m thinking The Great Gonzo in The Muppet Show. I have yet to place myself in terms of what sort of comedy I do.”

On YouTube, there is a 1min 21sec video version of Lazy Fork by Nux Veybarein (1899-1983), translated and performed by Michael

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Fish act by Mouse made John Sessions and Chris Langham bolt at comedy icon Ken Campbell’s memorial show

Prospective bidders view items yesterday

Would-be bidders view horror items yesterday

“Certain things are always funny,” performer Martin Soan suggested to me yesterday as we drove to an ‘Auction of Horrors’ at The Old Elephant House in Leamington Spa.

“Bananas,” I suggested.

“Yes,” agreed Martin, “and fish.”

After Leamington Spa we went to Banbury where they were having a canal festival. By the canal – which looked more like a river to me – there was an old Elephant Wash. What is it with elephants in refined English towns?

The reason we went to Banbury was nostalgia for Martin. On the way to Leamington in the car, he had told me:

“I had an interesting experience in Banbury which lasted some time and developed into a relationship.”

“How many legs did it have?” I asked – lightheartedly, I thought.

“One had legs and the other one had fins,” said Martin inexplicably.

Perhaps he was joking; perhaps he wasn’t. I did not pursue it.

“I have a friend,” I told him truthfully, “who knows a doctor who works in Accident & Emergency at a hospital in Oxfordshire. At weekends, a surprising number of people come in on Saturday nights with objects which have to be extracted. Fish are a particular problem. If you insert them into your body head first, the scales are OK on the way in but, on the way out, more of a problem…”

“Have you ever seen Fish?” Martin asked.

“Loads,” I said.

“It’s an act,” said Martin. “I met her at the Ken Campbell Memorial Show which me and Viv (Martin’s wife) we were booked for.

Ken Campbell - theatrical lover of things aquatic

Comedy icon Ken Campbell – theatrical lover of things aquatic

“I met this girl backstage. She was very petite, very pretty and had a lovely, lovely multi-coloured, body-hugging costume on – loads of sequins and sparkly bits – And she had a very, very large black minder.

“Her costume was a work of art – gorgeous. But she was very, very small.

“I talked to her and her minder. It was all lovely and great and I was really looking forward to seeing her act, though it didn’t occur to me to ask what she actually did.

“Anyway, she closed the first half of the show. The audience was middle aged, from all shapes and forms of theatre. John Sessions and Chris Langham were in the audience.

“So Fish came on and there was a bit of lovely music – water-related in some sort of way – She came on, did a little shimmy, did a couple of over-arms impersonating swimming and shed all her costume. So she was standing there completely starkers and then she sucked up – not through her mouth – all the contents of a big bowl of liquid. There was a pause and then she squirted it all at the audience – to a distance of six, seven, maybe even ten metres – and drenched everybody. Then she went on to delicately suck up – not with her mouth – various goldfish of different sizes from a bowl and then she spat them back out – not using her mouth.”

“At the audience?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “Into the bowl. She wasn’t cruel to the goldfish.”

“Did the goldfish seem to enjoy it?” I asked.

“I’m not quite sure about the fish,” Martin told me, “but the audience were absolutely mortified. They had had Chris Langham on earlier doing Ken Campbell sketches and John Sessions reading bits of Ken Campbell’s poetry and Nina Conti talking to them and then suddenly there was this bombshell of an act. I roared and roared and roared with laughter. John Sessions and Chris Langham had bolted backstage as soon as the clothes came off.”

Goldfish lead unmemorable lives

Goldfish lead unmemorable lives even when things happen

“Perhaps they knew what was coming,” I said.

“In the audience,” said Martin, “the ones who weren’t mortified were very vociferous in their dislike and disgust. The compère came on – I can’t remember who it was – and said Fish was Ken Campbell’s favourite act.”

“Memorable,” I said, “except presumably for the goldfish.”

“I guess so,” said Martin.

“It must be dull being a goldfish,” I said, “even when interesting things happen.”

“It’s difficult to know,” said Martin.

* * * * *

After the above blog was posted, I received the following message from Kev Wright:

Excellent to see the night remembered! It was organised by A Cracking Night Out.

Her name is actually Mouse not Fish.

I booked her and the compere was Psychic Dave – who ran the night with me.

We were very nearly banned from Glastonbury a few years ago for also putting Mouse on there, in a very small cabaret tent (Starred & Feathered) that we set up next to The Miniscule Of Sound without permission in the first place, let alone with Mouse pretending to be a dog sliding around in dog food and spraying the stunned audience with liquid as above – ‘playing’ with dog bones etc.

There were a teenage couple of hippieish indie kids sat on the floor right at the front whose faces I will never forget and who I imagine will never forget that night either!

“What did you see at the festival?” their mum may well have asked upon return…!!

I haven’t seen Mouse for a while but she is still performing I believe . .
Oh and i believe she did an act demonstrating the art of ventriloquism with ken campbell once in a rather unconventional way . . . .

That memorial night also ended up in the daily mail – hated of course!



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Nina Conti’s amazingly intelligent new film on Ken Campbell and on herself

(This blog was later published on the Chortle comedy industry website and by the Huffington Post)

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies.

But, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush‘s drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices.

Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti‘s documentary Her Master’s Voice – she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the “watcher at the gates of the mind”, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original – often means being criticised, which no-one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

As its climax, the recent Fortean Times UnConvention screened Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti’s wonderfully quirky new love-letter documentary to Ken Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial.

In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind.

In a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about “playing God with other people” – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s “bereaved puppets” she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that “creativity and insanity are almost the same thing” and the doll “gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator” while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her “an extra dimension”.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be.

This is an extraordinarily successful documentary.

Her Master’s Voice.

Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology, Theatre, Ventriloquism

A dog called Dylan and the fickle finger of fame

Last night I went to South East London to see Charmian Hughes’ try-out of her upcoming Brighton Fringe/Edinburgh Fringe show The Ten Charmandments at the equally charming and fascinating Living Room Theatre which is, indeed, just what it says on the label.

It’s a living room theatre.

I suppose I should have counted, but I think the full room had an audience of twelve, sitting in a U-shape. That’s ten or eleven more than some Edinburgh Fringe shows I’ve been to.

The Living Room Theatre allows performers to preview and try-out shows in an amiable, low-key atmosphere and is run by writer-performer Claire Dowie and Colin Watkeys who, among his other accomplishments was apparently the late, much-lamented Ken Campbell’s manager. Now THAT must have been a job and a half.

But, oddly, it was the theatre dog’s name that leapt to mind this morning and the fickle nature of fame. Yes, the Living Room Theatre has a dog. Dylan the dog, though missing from the performance itself, was an amiable and attentive addition to the over-all theatrical event.

It was the name “Dylan” that got to me, though.

People want their name to be remembered, but how that name is remembered is sometimes not what they might have hoped for.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wanted to be remembered as a serious mathematician, logician and academic; instead, he was remembered first as children’s author Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland and, more recently, as the taker of some rather dodgy photographs of young children; his reputation has started to transform into a sort-of Victorian wannabe Gary Glitter.

Thomas Crapper was a very admirable man whose hard work and professionalism changed the hygiene, health and social behaviour of the British nation – there are manhole covers with his company’s name proudly displayed in Westminster Abbey, scene of our recent glamorous Royal Wedding… but his surname has become synonymous with shit. He can’t be turning happily in his grave.

And pity poor Dylan Thomas, the verbose Welsh bard, who presumably wanted to be known for his literary art and womanising but people’s first thoughts of the name “Dylan” soon turned into a Jewish folk singer with incomprehensible lyrics and a terrible singing voice, then into an animated rabbit with acid-head drug fans in the Anglicised version of The Magic Roundabout and now, it seems, among cutting-edge theatre-goers in South East London, into a dog’s name. Though, admittedly, he is a very likeable dog. Probably more likeable than the verbose Welsh bard.

Oh – for the record – The Ten Charmandments is very well worth seeing, though God may disapprove of the name change.

I particularly recommend the sand dance.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Music, Theatre