English and Drama blog

10 posts categorized "Comedy"

04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  


As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt) 

11 December 2012

Privates on Parade- Theatre of War

Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade (with music by Denis King) opened on Monday night at the Noel Coward Theatre, and has been garnering rave 5* reviews from the print press this week; good enough to raise a smile on even this (faux-) grumpiest of playwright’s faces.



Having enjoyed the final preview of Privates on Saturday (the title doesn’t disappoint, incidentally, with no lack of Privates’ privates on parade), I went back to Nichols archive in the British Library this week to look again at the papers relating to the play. Peter’s archive is a key component of our post-War British theatre collections– although his wickedly subversive formal experimentation marks him out from many of the more formally cautious social realist writers of the period.

The first item in the folders relating to Privates (British Library Additional MSS 78985-78988) is a glossy hotel brochure for the Merlin Hotel Group: ‘a most exciting holiday experience in Malaysia and Singapore’ with ‘a standard of service that makes you feel really important’. The ‘standard of service’ the brochure promises British visitors to Malaysia in the 1980s is a far cry from Peter’s play, set during the Malayan ‘Emergency’ in 1948, although the region’s post-war economic miracle is cheekily signposted in Michael Grandage’s new production. 
The play follows an entertainment unit called SADUSEA (Song And Dance Unit South East Asia), a fictitious version of the real-life Combined Services Entertainments Unit in Singapore, in which Nichols entertained the troops between 1946 and 1947. As Peter recently recalled, his unit toured a show called ‘At Your Service’

‘We’re men of the service,

We’re at your service - Entertaining you’

around mainland Malaya and Hong Kong to uninterested conscripts, unaware that the show’s performers included soon-to-be stars such as Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams. Privates on Parade reworks these memories into a rambunctious ‘Play with Songs’, which balances the narrative of their mission to track down Communist rebels in the jungle, and the stage world of the group’s performances – a separate play within a play that casts the audience as the show’s spectators.

The play was written in the mid 1970s, although some of the set-pieces drew on earlier sketches that Peter devised for end-of-term revues while working as a schoolteacher in the late 1940s (see ADD MS 78985), and the several stages of drafting and redrafting are documented in the archive.


The play was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, London, in February 1977, where the star role of flamboyantly camp Captain Terri Denis

‘You dare to speak to an officer like that, and I’ll scream the place down’

was played by the late Denis Quilley, and the fanatically austere Major Flack by the late Nigel Hawthorne (programmes in MS ADD 79185).



It’s the first time that the play has run in the West End for many years (Michael Grandage directed an earlier production with Roger Allam at the Donmar a decade ago), and it remains a subversively sly, wholeheartedly entertaining evening that is well worth catching.

Peter has talked more about his work, including Privates on Parade, for the Theatre Archive Project (Peter talks about Privates on Parade from ca. 8'50" from the player below)


Peter Nichols_Part 1 of 2


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