How We Met: Warren Mitchell and Ken Campbell

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The Independent Culture
Ken Campbell, 51, trained at Rada and started writing and performing one-man shows in the 1960s. Among other parts, he has played Fred in In Sickness and In Health. The third part of his one-man trilogy, Jamais Vu, is at the Cottesloe. He is divorced with one daughter. Warren Mitchell was born in 1926 and worked as a porter at London's Euston station before making his name as a character actor. In 1966 he was cast as Alf Garnett in the TV series Til Death Us Do Part, and is soon to appear in the BBC production Wall of Silence. He is married to Connie, with three children.

KEN CAMPBELL: I doubt it would be in any way special for Warren, our first meeting - not at all. It was something like 1963 or '64 and I'd been in weekly rep at Colchester. I had the Monday off and I bumped into Bob Swash and Arnold Taylor who said, 'We've got a play coming into the West End, come and read for it'. So I went and read for it, you see, and they said, 'We can't give you the part, but would you like to understudy it?'

I got my things, cleared out of Colchester and on the train, as I was reading the script, I suddenly thought, 'I know exactly how you do this part'. And the reason I knew exactly how you did it was because I'd been to see this film the week before, four times. It was Anthony Newley's movie, The Small World of Sammy Lee, and the reason I'd been to see it four times was because there was a guy who played Anthony Newley's brother in a scene in a delicatessen, and it was like a whole new way of performing that this fellow was doing, character acting, farting about in disguise, invention. And I'd gone again and again to pinch that performance, I got the gestures and everything and it was perfect for this script. It was like an off-the-peg performance I had.

So as soon as the train got in, I rang them and said, 'Listen, never mind about understudying. I can really show you how that part is done'. And they said, 'You're too late. We've just this minute cast it.' 'Oh well,' I said, 'Who've you got?' And they said, 'Warren Mitchell.' And that was him] That was the guy I'd been going to pinch the performance from] They'd got the real one with me as understudy.

He'd got a job on The Avengers, Warren had, so he wasn't there for the first week of rehearsals. The cast all had their faces right in their scripts, painstakingly working it out. When Warren came in the following Monday, all the other actors who'd been rehearsing all week hadn't learnt their lines, but he had; I don't think he'd even brought a script with him. He was word perfect. 'Wow,' I thought, 'more ideas for me to nick off this fellow. This is magic. This is the form.'

He never repeats a performance, Warren. He's like a treasure chest; he'll invent the most extraordinary things about nasal inhalers, or utterly daft people on benches.

Later, when we were touring the play - it was called Everybody Loves Opal - I remember wandering round Bournemouth together looking for digs. There was one moment where I gave him my comb because it had been in his contract that his billing should be three- quarters the size of Betty Marsden's and we checked it on my comb and it wasn't as big as it should be. Anyway, I showed him this script I'd written and he took a much bigger interest in it than anyone else. It seemed ludicrous, but he did. And that was the start of it, you see.

When he was living in Avenue Road I used to go round and babysit. And Warren always used to have a typewriter there, so before he and Connie went out, he'd stick me in this room with the typewriter, under the impression that I was a brilliant writer. I'd have to sit there and when they came in I'd have to read them what I'd written. Somehow, I never wrote much during those evenings, but Warren was so keen on this stuff that sometimes I'd smuggle a bit in so I'd have something to show at the end. I could bugger about with the kids then, you see.

He's an ace reader, Warren. I always give him my scripts to read. He snorts so nicely and he's got different laughs for different things. These one-man shows I do, they're long, and if I haven't done one for a while, I'll play a tape of it the night before. I've got all sorts of recordings, but my favourite is the first night in Sydney. Warren was over there then and I've got his laugh on the tape, among all those people. You can't miss it. It's a good mnemonical thing: I won't forget that bit, I think, that makes the guv'nor laugh.

I don't know when I first was in In Sickness and In Health with him. I did a little part - an awful man in a car - and then I got written in to be an objectionable neighbour. I used to enjoy that. It was like I'd become a sort of secondary Alf Garnett. I seemed to look a bit similar in as much as we were two bald-headed blokes with appalling opinions. I'll never forget one episode when I appalled even Alf Garnett for a moment. 'But if there's been a murder,' I said, 'it's better to hang the wrong person than nobody.' And even Alf Garnett himself has to think for a moment. It was as if I'd Alf Garnetted Alf Garnett. That was a great moment for me, that.

WARREN MITCHELL: We were in a play together called Everybody Loves Opal. Ken was playing a small part, I can't remember what - he didn't have that bald head quite as noticeably as now, nor had the eyebrows received their seniority, or the eyes look so piercingly blue. But he came up to me one day and said: ' 'Ere, I've written this play, would you look at it?' It was called Events of an Average Bath Night. I read it and I said: 'I think it's wonderful.' 'Do you really?' he said. 'Nobody else does.'

I said I'd like to direct it. They'd formed a professional company for ex-students at Rada and I put it on there. It was full of lovely, mad things. It was the first thing I'd directed - actually it was the only thing I've directed. I didn't like it on opening night, when everybody rushed up to the actors and said, 'you were marvellous' and no one came near me.

Since then, I've watched Ken's progress as a writer and a performer. I love his eccentricity; he just has an original way of looking at things, and his own way of delivering a line - whether his own or anyone else's. I think he uses me as a sounding board. I get a lot of scripts sent and they're boring - even the good ones are boring. But Ken sends me a script or comes round and reads it to Connie and me, and Christ . . . what strange brain puts words together in that way?

There's no part Ken couldn't play. It was a great stroke of mine to get him in In Sickness and In Health: I think Ken has an equal relish to myself for horrible people. If I wanted to cast the porter in Macbeth, I'd definitely cast Ken. I might even cast him as Macbeth. He can do anything, as long as it's weird. He used to ring me up and say: ' 'Ere, I've got this job in an aqua show in Bournemouth,' which he had.

We have very different lifestyles, Ken and me. He was over recently and we were sitting round the pool and he said, 'It's like being in a strange American sitcom being here'. I used to go to this wonderful flat he had in Belsize Park. He lived on a platform built up above the living-room - mad. He's a bit of a wild man, particularly under the influence of. He lives on a different plane to ordinary mortals. Ken never meets ordinary people. And he rings up at weird hours. Often the phone will go at three in the morning and it'll be ' 'Ere, I've got this whole new theory of comedy'.

When the kids were younger, he used to turn up at our previous house - a bungalow we lived in not far from here - and my children would go, 'Ken's here, Ken's here'. I got quite angry: I thought they don't show that kind of affection to me, their father. But it was because he built worm sanctuaries in the garden and made clay sculptures which he'd put on the garden fence and get the children to sell to passers-by. I always thought how marvellous to have Ken as a parent - which, of course, Daisy does.

I'm a bad friend to Ken really. I'm not critical enough; I'm just a fan. There's this wonderfully daft line in Events of an Average Bath Night that I always think of. There are these two characters in the play, one was called FAZ, the other was called twoo, and he obviously only called them that so that at one point, FAZ could turn round and say: 'Don't be such a twit, twoo'. It's not Ken's greatest line but, I don't know, it always tickled me.-

(Photograph omitted)