A fond farewell in Epping Forest

There has never been a funeral like it. Warren Mitchell told a Jewish joke. Someone recited a speech of Macbeth in pidgin English. And a clearly distraught former colleague rushed the coffin, trying to tear off the lid. The dead man’s daughter said that her father used to make her learn poems whenever she asked for a pair of new shoes.

Ken Campbell was buried yesterday in the heart of Epping Forest, removed to his silent resting place among tall trees by a sled drawn by his own three dogs and followed by several hundred mourners and a clarinettist in a kilt.

Tears were shed and handfuls of Essex earth thrown. Luckily, our distressed Hamlet did not proclaim himself once more and jump into Ophelia’s grave — “I don’t want him to be dead,” he had screamed while being bundled from the scene — but no-one would have been remotely surprised if he had done so. Things like that happen with Campbell around. Perhaps he’d ordered it.

Before the ceremony, his friends and family gathered in the reception area, drinking coffee and exchanging stories. Warren Mitchell was in a wheelchair and Peter Cheeseman, former diector of the Stoke-on-Trent theatre where Campbell had a special association in his early days, and now suffering and shaking dreadfully from Parkinson’s disease, was surrounded by well-wishers.

We had a concert of reminiscence. Campbell’s voice spewed out his own material, one speech reminding us that “funeral” was an anagram of “real fun.” Which is what ensued. His first Road Show colleagues Bob Hoskins, Jane Wood, Andy Andrews and Dave Hill recounted Ken’s arguments for not banishing the Lord Chamberlain and stopping all Arts Council grants for five years.

Jane Wood read out a letter he had written to Lindsay Anderson in 1970 declaring that he was increasingly drawn towards “soppy acting, or acting how your uncle used to act.” And Chris Langham brilliantly evoked the Campbell method by quoting the idea that there was no reason to do Hamlet; he was only interested in telling stories that really had to be told.

Nina Conti, whose dad Tom was in the audience, recalled once asking Ken what he thought about life after death. “I’m all for it,” was the gleeful reply. And he was obviously right. Never was the spirit of a man so present in his suddenly bereft friends.

Jim Broadbent told a story that summed up Campbell’s way of theatricalising every minute of his life. Broadbent was with a group of actors led by Campbell in Amsterdam, and they were staying on the top floor of a hotel.

They all squeezed into the lift and Campbell instructed them to get down on the floor with their legs in the air. When they arrived at ground level, legs up, the doors opened in front of an astonished group of wannabe ascendants: “Cor, that lift came down quick!” rasped Campbell.

Prunella Gee, Campbell’s former wife and mother of their daughter Daisy, explained there was no hierarchy of grief on this occasion: we all had our own Ken, she said. We were relieved to learn that Gertie, the oldest of the three dogs, was being taken on by Daisy, and the other two, Max and Bear, were going to Roy at the Essex Dog Training Centre. Doris the artistic parrot has a new perch in Hornsey, sharing with a fellow squawker called Groucho.  

The stories and memories flowed on as we trooped back from the grave and improvised a mass picnic. Other celebrants in a distinguished roll call included Shane Connaughton, Sally Hope, Roger Lloyd Pack, Terence Frisby, Terry Johnson, Helen Cooper, Mike Bradwell, John Joyce, Hattie Heyridge, Roger Chapman, Sue Birtwistle, Mark Lockyer, Les Blair and Gemma Bodinetz — it was the most tremendous party and tribute to the ghost of a host who was larger than life and therefore still spilling out beyond it.   

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