Monday, 9 May 2011

A Heck of a Job

Viewers of Bob Mills's excellent late night point-and-laugh telly miscellany In Bed with MeDinner have long been baffled by the clip it once featured of the 1980 EMI World Disco Dancing Championships (North West Final). One of the many cheap and cheerful disco dancing showcases that clogged up both channels around that time, this one was notable not for the outrageous costumes, the ridiculous airborne legwork, or even Simon Bates as host. What really confused the post-pub pundits was the presence, among the judging panel, of the late, great Ken Campbell. How did, as Millsy put it, one of the leading exponents of socialist agitprop theatre end up there?

In the spring of 1980, Campbell was partaking in what was a very rare activity for him – a job interview. For a proper job. Normally a free-wheeler moving from one madly ambitious theatre project to another with little thought towards any kind of “career”, Campbell had his head turned when a vacancy was announced for artistic directorship of the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool - a venue with a history of doing the sort of unconventional things that were his stock in trade. The interview flew along, Campbell outlining with his usual maniacal enthusiasm the various off-the-wall projects he planned to put on, including a revival of The Warp, his own 24-hour “acid Archers” marathon play cycle of enlightenment, conspiracy and sausage defecation.

The Everyman board loved all this, but then came the crunch point. What about the all-important Christmas season? A straight panto was out of the question, what with the Everyman's convention-dodging reputation, but so were bumless seats. Campbell was well prepared here, having planned an all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of Raymond Briggs' new book Fungus the Bogeyman. He had the book with him, so all he had to do was produce it with a flourish, and the gig would be his.

On opening his bag for the grand reveal, however, he found the book wasn't there. Explaining Briggs's creation to the panel without pictures would be a slog, even for Campbell. Improvising frantically, he grabbed what was there – a copy of the Sunday Times magazine with Julie Brown, freshly-crowned 1979 World Disco Dancing Champion, on the front. “Gentlemen, our panto this year will be a disco musical extravaganza, starring this woman!” The board were impressed, and Campbell got the job. “Brilliant! So she's agreed to this?” “Er... yeeeees.”

A bit of frantic telephoning, and the disco champ was on board. The show itself, The Disco Queen, had all the elements you'd expect from a disco pantomime. Mirrorballs, lasers, Satinex rubber body stockings, dance contests in which humble heroes become stars overnight, on-stage trains, dancing dogs, and the obligatory first act appearance of Wilf Lunn demonstrating his exploding bird-scarer helmet. A grand time was had by all.

So it was that Ken found himself promoting his panto by sharing boogie assessment duties with his star at the 1980 EMI World Disco Dancing Championships (North West Final). For someone who professed to despise television as a malevolent, money-driven sapper of the creative spirit, Campbell found himself on it often enough, whether being obnoxious in Fawlty Towers or doing some rather great off-the-wall science documentaries for Channel Four in the '90s. TV, even in those more creatively experimental times, could never keep up with Campbell's frenetic pace of invention, but even a little bit of his capering enterprise went a long way.

No comments:

Post a Comment