A Cemetery For Our Time

I sat in the bath wondering what to wear for the funeral.
Ken Campbell was a man of vision. A luminary, some would say a nutter. He could have cared less what I was wearing. When we worked together he wore a faux fur loin-cloth whilst I strutted my stuff in a drawer string sack that scratched like buggery.
‘Stone Henge Kit The Ancient Brit in the End of The Woad.’ hit the Edinburgh Festival over thirty years ago. I wore orange peel for teeth, cooked dog food on stage and had to apply wet coffee grains to Pans pants to make him look like he had – well you get the picture.
I was nominated as Best Actress and Ken Campbell was deemed to be a genius for our time.
If it all sounds a bit luvvie, forgive me, Ken taught me everything I know about being in the moment. He died in his sleep two weeks ago,
I was about to make my way to Epping Forest Burial Park – a cemetery for our time – which is why I was sitting in the bath wondering what to wear.

With fifteen minutes to spare I decided on my tried and trusted dalmation dungarees, a lime green cotton jacket with a huge pineapple appliqued on the back and my trainers, I knew I was going to have to walk through the Burial Park.
I stood at the bus stop, willing it not to rain too hard, as I waited for the 170.
People don’t queue like they used to but I let the girl with the French phrase book push in front of me it was easier. We picked up all the working folk from every bus stop from Battersea to Victoria, by the time we got to the tube it was 8.15 and I had taken off my jacket.
The underground was packed.
Victoria line to Oxford Circus. I was thigh to thigh with a teeming mass of miserable commuters. A young Asian woman offered me a seat. I said I wasn’t pregnant, she blushed and I said it really was okay. In fact I was secretly chuffed that she thought I was still young enough to be up the duff.
A swift walk to the Central Line. The first train to arrive was a direct line to Epping, not so crowded. I slipped onto a pull down seat and read the first four pages of the Free London Paper. By St. Pauls most of the travellers had been disgorged so I settled myself in a proper seat and read the rest of the paper. How anybody had imagined that Andy Murrey could beat Federa was beyond me.
By the time we reached Mile End my fingers were covered in newsprint, I lay down my paper and concentrated on my fellow travellers.
Loughton Station delivered a slim girl with knee high boots and a tired complexion.
She had Debden, Theydon Bois and Epping, just three stops, to apply her make-up. Either the distance between each station was long enough or she had a knack for a slick applicaton. It was the latter.
From Loughton to Debden she rubbed in her foundation.
From Debden to Theydon Bois she brushed on pink blusher and smudged in her eye shadow, and from Theydon Bois to Epping she miraculously mascarared her lashes even though the train trundled from side to side.
As the doors opened onto Epping’s platform she zipped up her make-up bag and walked confidently to the exit with not a blemish in sight. I lie, she had missed a big spot on her chin, but I didn’t have the heart…
The journey from Oxford Street to Epping had taken about an hour, I was starving but there was nothing to be had. Epping sounds huge,in fact the station is tiny; two turnstiles and a guard. A number 500 bus was parked outside the station so I climbed aboard and asked Penny, the bus driver, whether she drove anywhere near the cemetery.
‘Yes.’ she said, she would put us off at the right stop, and I could grab a bite there, but who, she wondered, was being buried today as she had had several, similar requests.
‘Ken Campbell.’ I said. ‘He was big in theatre.’ I handed over a twenty pound note, she recognised my voice off LBC so she didn’t mind scrabbling around for change..
I took my seat behind three men. They were swapping Campbell stories, it was only 9.15 and the tributes had begun.
The Irish one chortled on about how Ken had changed his life. The bald one now lived in America. He had come home to check on his properties, heard about Kens death and decided that now that he was over his jet-lag he would come along to Epping to show his respect. Indeed it was Ken who had introduced him to ventriloquism and taught him that dummies aren’t dummies but KNEE-PALS. The last of the trio was an eruite theatre man who wore his green linen suit and grey cap with pride and carried his lunch in a brief case.
We had all been told to bring a picnic to have under the trees. I had not prepared anything. At 7 o’clock this morning it was all I could do to think about dressing myself let alone a salad.
We alighted and thanks to Penny’s directions ended up walking the wrong way. I asked in the taxi office and they sent us back down the hill and right into the burial park.
Funerals are funny things, for me it’s never about the dead but about the passing of time.
My trainers crunched on the gravel as I power walked towards the gathering place. The air was soft, the sky grey, pebbles flew as I marched on, passing the field of rolled corn, cars passed at 10 miles an hour. I wanted growling black clouds and a downpour to make if feel like a cinematic event, but today there would only be a washed out sun and a few drops of heavy rain.
The Burial Park is just that, beautiful healthy trees, shrubs, bark,earth, birds, graves and people. I felt priviliged to be amongst the crowd that had gathered for Ken.
The first person I met was ANDY ANDREWS. He and I had sung on stage together, slept in a Volstwagen van on the canals in Frankfurt, stolen Kens props, nicked all his costumes and plundered his material. I hadn’t seen him for nearly 40 years.
BOB HOSKINS and I grabbed hold of each other. The last time we had hugged he was oscar nominated and I was on the settee at TVAM.
CHRIS LANGHAM and I had a squeeze. He felt accepted by all of us old Campbellians, it was the best gig he’d had in two years, he joked. We cried.
JIM BROADBENT, shyly made a wonderful speech, NINA CONTI, with her monkey knee-pal, gave a brilliant eulogy.
This is not an exercise in name-dropping, just giving you an indication of the kind of people that had come, from far and wide, to pay tribute to a man who had touched their lives.
And there were many, many people who had turned up. TERRY FRISBY, the writer who wrote A GIRL IN MY SOUP, drove all the way from Fulham. He said the gathering ‘MADE KEN MATTER’. That so many of us, when we die, don’t seem to matter to anybody.
Ken mattered to all of us,and all of us had a different reason for how he mattered. Young, old, wild and colourful, drunk, sober, scarred and fashionable. Agents, writers, actors, musicians, family, friends and dogs milled around the grounds of Epping wanting to share in Ken’s legacy.
A lone man cracked – twice. Wailing and screaming. He knocked open the coffin, which lay in state.
‘I don’t want you dead.’ he screamed. It was strange and touching.
A woman sitting next to me asked whether it was real or a stunt, who could be sure it was Ken’s day after all.
A representative from a red brick University placed an Honorary Doctorate on Kens coffin, he was to have received it on the 15th of October.
Daisy, his daughter, a playwrite herself, revealed that as a child if she wanted new shoes he made her learn a poem or speech, and that whatever she wrote he wanted to help her make it BRILLIANT. Her poem, which she wrote and recited, was just that.
WARREN MITCHELL, was helped out of his wheelchair. He cried,momentarily, told a great Jewish joke and was helped into his chair again.
Ken’s young grandaughter fought back her tears as she recited a poem about a candle going out. When she cried we all cried. One after another friends and family stood up and spoke of a man who had enriched their lives and the lives of his beloved dogs and parrot who both sounded and swore like him.
Somebody was called up to write a sonnet, 14 lines of iambic pentameter, finishing with a rhyming couplet, whilst counting backwards from 100. The whole congegation counted down with him and cheered when we all got to 1. When he read out his perfectly formed poem we clapped and shrieked, cried and laughed. The perfect obituary.
Then we all stood up and sung THE LORD OF THE DANCE, Kens favourite song, accompanied by a trumpet, guitar and dulcimer. We were then asked to make our way through the grounds to his burial plot under the trees.
All of us slowly walked over crackling leaves, dry twigs and stood under the shady green canopy. We made a huge circle round the open grave as a man in a kilt played a clarinet. The solitary notes spiralling into the air like smoke. The coffin was lowered slowly into the grave.
A beautifully decorated wooden coffin, painted and covered in pictures of Ken smiling and laughing. The smell of the leaves, the damp earth, the gentleness of the ceremony. Everyone of us felt touched by the man who had been lowered into the ground.
Three generations of Kens women; wife,daughter and grandaughter filled their hands with dark fresh earth from a bowl that was balanced on the side of the grave. They threw the earth onto the wooden casket, Mr. Frisby whispered that the three handfuls of earth landed with a melancholy thud. By the time it got to me the bowl was filled with yellow Essex clay.
And then it was over. Kisses were exchanged, telephone numbers were exchanged, picnic food was exchanged.
I drove back into London with Mr.Frisby. We were more reflective than glum. That so many people attended – it was a bloomin’ hard act to follow. That there was no mention of religion, that there was so much laughter, that Ken had taught so many of us so much, that without doubt the man had been a genius and though he will be sadly missed his work will live on.
‘That’s the best funeral I’ve ever been to.’ said Mr. Frisby.
But I leave the last word to Ken Campbell, who reminded us, with his disembodied voice, that FUNERAL is actually an anagram of REAL FUN.
Rest In Peace Ken

5 thoughts on “A Cemetery For Our Time”

  1. Good choice with the dalmation dungarees Jeni. I stuck with the tried and tested suit and thought that leaving the black tie at home was being unconventional enough. Yeah, right!
    The guy with the ‘count from 100 Sonnet’ was Sean McCann.
    My goodness. I didn’t realise that was Warren Mitchell. Bless him.
    It’s a really beautiful write up Jeni. I do struggle to put such a day into words but I had a go here: http://markham.ph/blog/2008/09/09/ken-campbell-is-buried/

  2. Hi
    The dalmation dungarees and the lime green jacket were perfect Jeni, just perfect. I bet they made Mr Campbell smile!
    Love June

  3. I have been trying so hard to find the right words to describe Ken’s “real fun” to some friends who could not attend; then I discovered yours and Michael Coveney’s blogs which together perfectly encapsulate the event. Thank you.
    I had been planning to ring Ken again this week now that he’d returned from Edinburgh; he’d told me to remind him about some more ventriloquism sessions. I’d first heard of him in the early 1960’s when I became a member of The Renegades just as he’d escaped to RADA; he was already a legend then. He was always welcoming when I visited him backstage once describing me as, “Carrie’s a real actress – she worked with Jimmie Cooper!”
    I found his workshops challenging. Whilst actors love being told “darling, you were wonderful” it’s not exactly helpful criticism. Ken was honest; capricious and wicked at times but he made me feel alive.

  4. Dear Jeni,
    I was a GFL & Jeni fan (I always think of Stephen King’s novel Misery, sorry).
    Like many of your supporters I always read your diary but don’t always comment.
    We are moving to Bavaria in October as my husband works there. I will be leaving behind my son, daughter and two young grandchildren, so not very happy. I love this country and really would like to stay here but what I do love about the Bavarians (or Germany as a whole) is their pride in their country. Weekends or festdays they wear their costumes, young or old and look beautiful. Where has our pride and bulldog spirit gone? The only time we seem united is when we do well at sport!
    Keep up your blog, hope I can listen to LBC in Germany.
    Best wishes to you & yours

  5. What a wonderful tribute to Ken. Many thanks for writing this. I’m the chap who did the 100-1 sonnet. That was a staple of the impro show I did with Ken and our company over the last three years – I wasn’t told about it because Ken’s family and friends thought a piece of proper impro would be just the thing for Ken’s send-off. It was truly a wonderful, uplifting day – so much love for such an incredible man.
    All the best
    Sean McCann – founder member – Ken Campbell’s School Of Night

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