Saturday, October 31, 2009

Can you ken?

I’ve just heard a lovely programme on BBC Radio 4 about the late, great Ken Campbell. Catch it while you can. I saw Ken perform several times, and it always left me giggling throughout – as did this programme. The phrase ‘true original’ gets overused, but there was no one for whom it is more apt. Ken had a consistent fascination with science, which is understandable in someone whose constant demand was ‘astound me’. He developed some wonderful routines around such exploits as his conversations with David Deutsch about the multiverse, and there’s a great moment in the radio show where Ken’s precision with words collides with the glibness of scientists’ habitual speech patterns: he was delighted, on asking someone at CERN if they were worrried that they might generate an entire new universe in their particle collisions, to be told that it was ‘unlikely’. Ken captured the essence of the speculative extremes of physical theory when he would talk of how it required one not exactly to believe in such things as parallel universes, but simply to suppose them. ‘Can I suppose it?’, I remember him saying, immense eyebrows gesticulating. ‘Well yes, I can suppose it.’

I was thrilled to get Ken involved in the series of talks I arranged with Harriet Coles at Nature at the V&A Museum as part of the ‘Creating Sparks’ BA Festival in 2000. He was doing his Newton/Fatio routine at the time, and it became quickly clear that we were never going to achieve much in the way of tailoring to the themes of the series – he was going to do just what he was going to do. We didn’t much care, knowing that whatever he did would supply a great night – which it did (despite a few grumbles from people who’d been expecting a ‘science’ talk). When we chatted to Ken over tea afterwards, my wife and I figured that he would be exhausting to live with – and from the accounts of his daughter Daisy, that seems to have been the case, although it is nice (and a little surprising) to hear that it was mostly fun too. Ken was interested in the Paracelsus theatre project I was putting together at the time, and I always had the suspicion that he would have made a great Paracelsus. Even then I saw it as the ideal role for either him or the clown performer Gerry Flanagan, and I’m still filled with glee that I got Gerry to do it nearly a decade later. And while working with Gerry was a joy, I suspect working with Ken could be a kind of inspirational nightmare. But it was wonderful to have briefly come into his erratic orbit.


Lisa said...
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Amy said...

Hello Philip,

I am not yet aware of this Ken character but I am most intrigued and will follow up. From time to time I am ensnared by my science friends when I propose such Newtonian suppositions as 'transmutation of conversational energy' and the like. The irony is that these friends are the only ones who understand the parallel - and they refute it. Perhaps their skepticism will serve to propel me still in my own orbit. I think yes.

With compliments to you and your work,

Amy Lay