Nick Hern Books at 30

This year, Nick Hern Books celebrated thirty years of theatre publishing. As the year draws to a close, we take a look at some of the things that have made it a year to remember…

We published 100 new plays over the year, two-thirds of them by female writers.

They included the exhilarating debut play from Natasha Gordon, Nine Night, which premiered at the National Theatre in April, went on to win the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award, and is now in the West End.

Featuring alongside Nine Night on many critics’ review-of-the-year lists were Ella Hickson’s The Writer, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre in April, and Annie Baker’s spellbinding John, which had its UK premiere at the National Theatre in January.

Arinzé Kene followed up his acclaimed performance in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country with a play of his own, Misty, performed by Kene at the Bush Theatre in March before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in September.

There was Josh Azouz’s unsettling Buggy Baby at The Yard in March; Joe White’s ethereal family drama Mayfly at the Orange Tree in April, along with Chris Bush and Matt Winkworth’s headline-grabbing The Assassination of Katie Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd, winner of Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards; Stephen Karam’s The Humans at Hampstead Theatre in August; Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t, opening the renovated Kiln Theatre in Kilburn in September; Nina Raine’s Stories at the National Theatre, debbie tucker green’s ear for eye at the Royal Court, and Iman Qureshi’s Papatango Prize-winning The Funeral Director at Southwark Playhouse, all in October; Jessie Cave’s Sunrise at Soho Theatre in November; and, in December, Mike Bartlett’s Snowflake at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, as well as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse.

In January, we published a collection of plays from the annual VAULT Festival in Waterloo, as well as a selection of award-winning monologues from the inaugural Heretic Voices competition. In June, there was a volume of short plays by and about women, from the Women Centre Stage Festival. And in July, we published Vicky Featherstone’s selection of monologues, Snatches: Moments from 100 Years of Women’s Lives, as well as a collection of plays by Stephen Jeffreys, who very sadly passed away this year.

It was also a year of major revivals, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s superlative musical Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre in March, and now in the West End; in May, Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at the Bush, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studios with Orlando Bloom; Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at the Almeida and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake, both in June; David Edgar’s Maydays revived by the RSC in September, alongside his new one-man show, Trying It On; and Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair at the Orange Tree in October, thirty years after it premiered there in 1988 – when it was the second play ever published by Nick Hern Books!

Dealing with Clair by Martin Crimp (left, the 2018 edition; right, the original 1988 edition, also published by Nick Hern Books)


Awards

Many of our playwrights won awards this year, and we’ve got space here to mention only a few…

Jez Butterworth’s magnificent play The Ferryman won Best New Play at this year’s Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Whatsonstage Awards.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won Most Promising Playwright at the Critics Circle Awards for his plays Gloria and An Octoroon, while Andrew Thompson won Best Writer at The Stage Debut Awards for In Event of Moone Disaster.

There were awards aplenty for the revivals of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Stephen  Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies.

And at the Writers Guild Awards, Lucy Kirkwood won Best Play for The Children, Sarah McDonald-Hughes won Best Play for Young Audiences with How To Be A Kid, and Caryl Churchill was recognised for her Outstanding Contribution to Writing.


Some key stats….


Essential theatre books

This year we published Antony Sher’s account, in his own diary entries, paintings and sketches, of his portrayal of King Lear for the RSC. Year of the Mad King follows his classic of theatre writing, Year of the King, in offering a close-up study of a great actor at work on one of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles ­– a fascinating read for actors and theatre-lovers.

Amongst our other publications, there were invaluable resources for actors, including a selection of audition monologues from the National Youth Theatre, and a series of vocal warm-ups on CD from the National Theatre’s Head of Voice.

We published books on Brecht and Ibsen, as well practical guides to puppetry, verbatim theatre and long-form improvisation.

For budding playwrights, there was an indispensable career guide, Being a Playwright, from the team behind new-writing theatre company Papatango, destined to guide and inspire a new generation of playwrights.

Being a Playwright authors Chris Foxon and George Turvey with (centre) NHB Managing Director Matt Applewhite


30 Years / 30 Plays

In July, we published 30 Years / 30 Plays, a fabulous book of postcards featuring a selection of covers from some of the most successful plays published by NHB over our first thirty years.

Copies quickly sold out at HQ, though there may still be a few available from other retailers.


Birthday Party

Also in July, we joined many of our authors and friends for a party at the Royal Court Theatre, to celebrate the anniversary of the company’s launch in July 1988. There were speeches from NHB author Jack Thorne (whose completely delightful speech is reproduced on our blog here) and the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre, Indhu Rubasingham, as well as from NHB Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite. It was wonderful to bring together some of our newest authors with those who have been with Nick Hern Books since the very beginning.

Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham, Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at Nick Hern Books’ 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre in July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


Amateur Theatre Fest

NHB author Mike Bartlett (right), interviewed by Matt Applewhite at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

On 8 September, a capacity crowd gathered at The Questors Theatre in Ealing for an all-day event of talks, workshops and performances focussing on amateur theatre. Taking part were over four hundred actors, directors, producers and many others involved in amateur theatre up and down the country. Highlights included the keynote speech from actor and NHB author Simon Callow, interviews with NHB playwrights Jez Butterworth, Amanda Whittington and Mike Bartlett, and masterclasses from actor Oliver Ford Davies, director Stephen Unwin and fight director Roger Bartlett. Thank you to everyone who came and made it such a success!

Nick Hern Books is one of the UK’s leading licensors of amateur performing rights, and we look forward to helping more amateur drama and youth theatre groups find their perfect play to perform, over the years ahead.

Nick Hern Books staff at Amateur Theatre Fest 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)


Playwriting Then and Now, National Theatre panel event

We staged a panel event at the National Theatre on 8 November with NHB playwrights Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Alecky Blythe and Natasha Gordon, to explore how playwriting has – and hasn’t – changed over the 30 years of Nick Hern Books. It was a lively event, attended by many budding and emerging playwrights, who came away full of hope and inspiration, even if there was a consensus that playwrights still face daunting challenges when it comes to making a living from their work.

Clockwise from top row centre: Alecky Blythe, Howard Brenton, Conor McPherson, Nick Hern, Natasha Gordon


Anniversary Interviews

Over the course of the year, we published a series of Anniversary Interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights, specially commissioned for our blog. Launching with Harriet Walter on the unique challenges facing actresses, particularly in finding mature roles for women in the Shakespeare canon, the series included interviews with playwrights Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton.

Drawing the series to a close this month, NHB’s Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite reflect on the company’s thirty-year history, and what lies ahead. Catch up with all the interviews, over on our blog.

Left to right: NHB authors Jack Thorne, Lucy Kirkwood, Harriet Walter, Howard Brenton, Rona Munro


And finally…

Thank you to everyone who has come along to one of our events this year, or who has bought a book from us. We look forward to seeing more of you in the next thirty years. But for now, have a very happy Christmas, from all at Nick Hern Books.

The Nick Hern Books team at the anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

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Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Rounding off our Anniversary Interviews series, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Publisher Nick Hern and Managing Director Matt Applewhite about thirty years of Nick Hern Books, and what lies ahead for the company…

In the thirty years since it came into being, Nick Hern Books has grown into a considerable force, not just in theatre publishing – where it’s undoubtedly a leading player – but arguably in the whole ecology of theatre in the UK and beyond. Without Nick Hern Books, the livelihoods of many playwrights, and consequently many theatres, would be severely diminished.

And yet, while he is hugely liked and respected amongst playwrights and their agents, and in the world of theatre professionals in general, the company’s Publisher, Nick Hern, keeps a relatively low profile. He’s not to be found on Wikipedia, and some people still confess a degree of surprise when they learn that Nick Hern is in fact a real, living person.

I know for sure that he is, because I recently met up with him, along with the company’s Managing Director and Commissioning Editor, Matt Applewhite, at their offices in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, not far from the venerable Bush Theatre, one of London’s great crucibles of new writing.

Nick is in his seventies now, but his commitment to the theatre and to his company is undiminished. He came to theatre publishing from academia, joining Methuen as Drama Editor in 1974. When he left Methuen to set up his own theatre imprint at Walker Books in 1988, it was Sebastian Walker who came up with a name for the fledgling imprint. ‘I was at a bit of a loss about what to call it,’ recalls Nick. ‘Sebastian said, “I call my company ‘Walker Books’, so you’ll be Nick Hern Books”. I thought it rather self-aggrandising, but I’ve got used to it now.’

Nick Hern (left) and Howard Brenton at the launch of Nick Hern Books in 1988

For five years, after leaving Walker Books and setting up as a self-financing limited company, Nick ran things out of his back bedroom. But now, after thirty years, it’s thankfully on much firmer footing. In 2013, Matt Applewhite was appointed as the company’s youthful and enterprising Managing Director, and the two continue to work closely together, along with a core team of eleven staff. They have every intention that the company will embrace another thirty years and more of theatre publishing. ‘We’re prepared for the future,’ says Nick, ‘whatever that will bring.’

Matt first joined the company in 2003 as Editorial and Production Assistant, not long after getting a good degree from Cambridge and finishing a Masters at RADA. Nick recalls how, when his future employee turned up for interview, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. ‘He was like a drowned Bob Cratchit!’ he recalls. ‘But it was clear that, of the ten or twelve people we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.’ They connected immediately.

Matt spent his childhood in Chichester, getting his first fix of drama at the esteemed Festival Theatre, and sometimes venturing up to London. ‘Chichester is a great place to grow up – if you like theatre,’ he says. For a while he had ambitions to become a stage director, ‘But I think I lacked the courage to cope with the challenges of being a freelance. On the other hand, I wasn’t absolutely smitten at the time by the idea of going into publishing. I eventually settled for giving the job six months, maybe a year, and seeing where that got me.’

Once he’d started working at Nick Hern Books, however, Matt realised that theatre publishing was the perfect fit. ‘I’d spent my whole youth watching plays and buying theatre books, so nothing had really changed.’ Over the next few years, he tackled just about every job it’s possible to do at NHB. Within that time he spent six months at Currency Press, Australia’s chief publisher of plays, having swapped jobs – and lifestyles – with his opposite number there, which included living in a flat just a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach. The experience gave him a new perspective on theatre publishing, and NHB’s association with Currency Press remains strong. ‘The world of theatre publishing can be insular, with rival publishers competing for the same small pool of talent,’ says Matt. ‘But being immersed in a very different theatre culture is a great reminder that there’s equally important work going on elsewhere. It’s vital to remind ourselves of that, especially at times like the present.’ NHB prides itself on having a list of contemporary playwrights that spans the globe, and Matt is particularly pleased to have so many talented Australian playwrights on the list, including Joanna Murray-Smith, Andrew Bovell, Tommy Murphy and Melissa Bubnic.

NHB playwright Jack Thorne, Indhu Rubasingham (Artistic Director of the Kiln Theatre), Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite at the Nick Hern Books anniversary party, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

There’s something of a family atmosphere about NHB. It’s a small, tightly knit company, with employees who are noticeably passionate about the theatre. Many of them have been with the company for over a decade. What’s the secret? ‘There’s no secret, really,’ says Nick. ‘Though certainly, when we take someone on at Nick Hern Books, the most important thing is that they like theatre. If what you really want to do is get on in publishing, you’re probably better off elsewhere.’ Matt agrees. ‘In many ways, I think of us as part of the theatre world, working alongside theatres, if you like. We do a lot of things differently from a conventional publishing company.’

For one thing, much of the company’s publishing schedule is dictated by the theatres that produce their authors’ work. ‘When I first started in theatre publishing,’ remembers Nick, ‘plays were being published some months after their premiere. I’d come from teaching in the provinces, and what we needed most was immediate access to the plays that London was seeing. So I wanted to speed the whole process up. And I’m pleased to say that it’s now more or less expected that a playtext is available on opening night.’ ‘Which means we have to move fast,’ adds Matt, ‘because understandably our authors want to be able to make changes to their text as late as possible in the rehearsal process. We have to go from final text to finished copies in a matter of days – sometimes less than that. I don’t know if many conventional publishing companies would be able to compete with the turnaround times we can achieve.’

Another difference is that the company handles the licensing of amateur productions of its plays. ‘It was something I wanted to do from the start,’ says Nick, ‘to extend that relationship between the play on the page, and its future life on the stage. We have an in-house Performing Rights team actively promoting the plays we publish to the amateur community, which includes students and drama schools, as well as the many, many amateur groups who do brilliant work. It has become a huge part of what we do. Amateur theatre is really flourishing at the moment, which is so pleasing.’ ‘And authors like it too,’ says Matt. ‘It means their plays have an ongoing life, which is so important. We’re publishing plays not just as a record of the first production – but also as a blueprint for future ones.

Nick Hern Books’ staff at Amateur Theatre Fest, a one-day event for amateur theatre practitioners at Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

For their own part, Nick and Matt have a relaxed and informal working relationship. It’s easy to see why Nick and his wife Jane were mistaken for Matt’s parents while they were visiting him during his stint in Australia. ‘I already saw him as my successor,’ says Nick. Matt claims to have learned everything he knows about publishing from Nick, and in return, Matt has overseen the expansion of the company’s activities into ebooks, apps, audiobooks, and online publishing, alongside developing an enviable social media presence. ‘We’ve got further plans in that direction,’ says Matt. ‘It’s hugely important to connect with new readers, and especially new generations of drama students, who are using exciting new platforms to access our titles – and we want to support them in doing that.’

Matt Applewhite interviewing NHB author Mike Bartlett at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photo by Ben Copping)

Can Nick point to other examples of Matt making a difference to the firm? ‘Yes. I’d always assumed that in a publishing company, design and typesetting was something you outsourced. But Matt assured me that it would be much quicker and more efficient to take these functions in-house. And he was right.’ ‘It’s about being able to respond quickly when you’re up against a tight deadline,’ says Matt. ‘And knowing that your designer or your typesetter is focused on the job, and not squeezing you in between other assignments.’

Both insist that there’s never been a cross word between them. ‘Nick operates with a combination of charm and iron,’ says Matt. ‘The authors he’s worked with all know that he’ll be candid with them about their work. They expect and appreciate that. And it’s the same in the office. Though he’s yet to wield the big stick!’ ‘We have the same taste in plays,’ adds Nick. ‘We talk about plays in the same way, even though we’re from very different generations. And we trust each other’s judgements. He has a great understanding of the work of younger theatre-makers – he really gets them. Yet the fact that NHB has survived for thirty years means I must have been doing something right.’

Nick Hern with NHB authors Howard Brenton (left) and Nicholas Wright (right), July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)

Are there ever any differences between them? ‘Matt is much more collegiate that I am,’ says Nick. ‘He seeks consent from the rest of the office, whereas I’m much more autocratic. However, I do look around me at organisations where the leadership is ageing but where they are simply not preparing for the future. I feel incredibly relieved and happy that NHB’s future is assured in Matt’s hands.’

‘There are some differences between us,’ admits Matt. ‘But I really value the fact that Nick is still very much involved with the running of the business. He’s so knowledgeable about plays and playwrights, and he still goes to the theatre more than anyone I know. His indefatigable, undimmed passion for it is inspiring.’

So, no regrets? ‘Occasionally I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got the job at Nick Hern Books, and gone into theatre-making instead,’ confesses Matt. ‘But actually, I think I can make more of a genuine contribution to theatre in my current role, through publishing the plays that people will go on reading and performing, and the books that make such a difference to other theatre-makers learning their craft. That’s the contribution we all make at Nick Hern Books.’ Apparently, he still has the advert for the Editorial and Production Assistant role that he cut out from The Guardian’s Media section, sixteen years ago. ‘Sometimes I wonder where I’d be now if I hadn’t bought The Guardian that day!’

Nick Hern interviewing NHB author Jez Butterworth at Amateur Theatre Fest, September 2018 (photos by Ben Copping)

As for Nick, he’s spent most of his career working behind the scenes, the midwife to other, starrier careers. Does he ever crave the limelight himself? ‘Not really. I did a bit of acting when I was at university. I have no great desire to inflict myself on the public.’ Still, he can certainly rise to the occasion when it calls. At the recent Amateur Theatre Fest – a day of talks and workshops for anyone involved in amateur theatre, organised by Nick Hern Books as part of their thirtieth-anniversary celebrations – one of the headline speakers was the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose plays, including Jerusalem and The Ferryman, are published by NHB. When Nick followed Butterworth onto the stage in order to conduct the interview, there was a second roar of approval – this time for the publisher who has brought so many great plays to so many different stages, simply by putting them in print.

The Nick Hern Books team, July 2018 (photo by Dan Wooller)


 

The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews series includes interviews with Harriet Walter, Rona Munro, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Howard Brenton. Catch up with them all here.

Photograph of Nick Hern and Matt Applewhite by Dan Wooller.

Max Stafford-Clark in Conversation at the Royal Court

On Friday 17 January, renowned theatre director and founder of Out of Joint Max Stafford-Clark appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, London, for a talk and Q&A to launch his new book, Journal of the Plague Year, a personal exploration of the state of arts funding in the UK today.

Appearing on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre, where he used to be Artistic Director, Max spoke about a range of topics, including dealing with Arts Council England, the ecology of UK theatre, and the climate for young directors trying to break through today.

Listen to the event below in full, via our new SoundCloud page. The recording includes a reading from the book by actor Danny Webb, a discussion between Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court’s Literary Manager Christopher Campbell, and an audience Q&A.

By turns funny, alarming and deeply personal, Max Stafford-Clark’s book  Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts his struggles with Arts Council England’s decision to slash his theatre company Out of Joint’s funding, offers a fascinating exposé of the often Kafkaesque workings of arts subsidy in England, and the financial and artistic manoeuvrings which are a fact of life for every arts organisation today.

The book also often takes on an autobiographical flavour, including the unexpectedly moving story of his two fathers, his surreal encounter with the New York theatre world, and the shocking details of what it is to suffer a massively debilitating stroke. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the state of our arts, from students to theatregoers, and from struggling arts workers right up to the Secretary of State for Culture.

An extract from the book is available to read on the Guardian website.

Formatted

Journal of the Plague Year, £10.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Journal of the Plague Year, Max Stafford-Clark’s truthful, personal and insightful exploration of the state of arts funding and carrying on in the face of adversity.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, visit our website here.

Be sure to follow NHB on SoundCloud to be among the first to receive future audio content from the UK’s leading performing arts publisher.

Introducing ‘Meet The Playwright’ – on Stage Talk TV!

Stage Talk TVThis month sees the launch of Stage Talk, the first show on TV dedicated to amateur and community theatre.

It’s a sign of great confidence in grassroots theatre in the UK that a dedicated programme should appear just as many professional theatre companies are reeling from the shock of Arts Council cuts. ‘Am Dram’ has so often been denigrated or patronised that it’s heartening to see evidence that more and more people are turning to their local theatre group simply to put on a good show.

Whatever your theatrical tastes or instincts, we urge you to take a look at Stage Talk. It broadcasts monthly, on the first Sunday of the month, on Sky Channel 201/FreeSat 403, or you can catch up on the entire programme on the Stage Talk website. And if you’re actively involved in amateur drama, there are plenty of opportunities for you to contribute – including a ‘Show Tube’ section where you can promote your own production.

As a taster, here’s a clip of the regular Meet the Playwright section, sponsored by Nick Hern Books. This first episode featured an insightful interview with playwright Amanda Whittington, whose plays including Be My Baby, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Day have received more than 50 amateur productions in the past year.

Stage Talk TV: Episode One – ‘Meet The Playwright’ with Amanda Whittington

For more information on the full range of NHB plays available for amateur performance download your copy of our latest Guide to Plays for Performance here.

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington

Amanda Whittington’s poignant and heart-warming drama – Be My Baby – set in 1960s Britain is currently playing at the Derby Theatre (as part of Derby LIVE) to 21st May. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets – ‘beautifully crafted drama… there’s not a word wasted’ Mark Shenton, Stage.

Ken Campbell: The True Spirit of a Prankster

Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney, biographer of Ken Campbell

Published today – April Fools’ Day – is Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the one-man comic whirlwind who tore through the British theatre establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy. Here, Coveney recalls Campbell’s fondness for a good wheeze – including his notorious Royal Dickens Company hoax…

If there’s one side of Ken Campbell that illustrates his insistence that theatre should be lived ‘in the moment’, it’s his penchant for the prank, his love of the hoax. The maverick director, who died two years ago aged just 66, was a sucker for stunts and wheezes of all kinds in his work, from the physical clowning in his early Ken Campbell Road Show, right through to the impossible feats and adventures in his great epics – Illuminatus! and The Warp – and his unstoppable flow of unlikely tall stories in his magnificent solo performances. He mixed vaudeville with science fiction, pratfalls with philosophy and physical fun with furious linguistics.  This is what made him so unusual: he emerged from the world of weekly rep and the first stirrings of the fringe as a provocative instigator of the unexpected, the outrageous and the downright disrespectful.  He really did believe that the only things worth doing were impossible, and that going to the theatre should entail taking your life in your hands.

He also felt that creating mayhem was all part of the serious artistic process. Thus the idea that the Royal Shakespeare Company should be put on hold in favour of a similarly dedicated Royal Dickens Company may sound ridiculous, or even far-fetched, but the whole madcap adventure had a serious undertone.

Many theatre directors, even RSC ones, have occasionally called for a moratorium on the Bard. One of them was Matthew Warchus, who directed the Alex Jennings Hamlet for the RSC and is currently responsible for their biggest non-Shakespearian hit since Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, the Roald Dahl musical, Matilda.

Campbell’s RDC hoax, brilliantly conceived and inspirationally executed, was a response to the great success of David Edgar’s two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, exactly one year after Ken had launched his ten-play, 22-hour epic The Warp on an unsuspecting public at the ICA Theatre in the Mall.

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

But it was also a dig at the RSC’s increasingly commercial ambitions in the rush for sponsorship and world domination, and a reminder that some people were capable of ambitious, glorious work without any subsidy to speak of and outside the citadel of the establishment.

He despatched a series of letters on authentically reproduced notepaper, apparently signed by Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s artistic director, inviting leading directors and playwrights to embark on a series of Dickensian adaptations: Bill Bryden was asked to consider The Pickwick Papers; Peter Hall required to ‘have a look at’ Martin Chuzzlewit; and Trevor Griffiths urged to re-visit A Tale of Two Cities with Jonathan Pryce in mind as Sydney Carton.

Mike Leigh was offered twenty-three actors and a 17-week rehearsal period ‘to take on the challenge of Bleak House: looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev.’ Mrs Thatcher’s arts minister, Norman St John-Stevas, was also kept in the loop: ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard…Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch some time soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Stories appeared in the newspapers and Trevor Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no more Dickens adaptations were planned. He even told The Times that a lot of people had written back to him refusing his offers or, more embarrassingly, accepting them. Eventually, Campbell’s cover was blown by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and he emerged from a silhouette to make a confession, claiming that he’d been inspired to perpetrate the hoax in order to focus even more public attention on the excellence of the RSC’s work.

There are two things theatre is particularly good at: telling stories and making mischief. And Ken was an arch exponent of both. The Ken Campbell Road Show was planned to be an advertisement for the lively new work at the Bolton Octagon, but Ken made his own offshoot enterprise in pubs and clubs far more interesting and enjoyable than the stuff they were actually putting on the Octagon stage itself. This subversive campaign was rooted in a philosophy, deeply and joyously antagonistic towards all manifestations of official culture or indeed political correctness, and it burns through his work from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow (Bolton, 1969)

The Great Caper of my book’s title is also the title of a play at the Royal Court which recounted the Search for the Perfect Woman across continents as far as the Lapland tundra. This was an orgy of tall storytelling that mystified most critics but delighted a few, notably Ronald Bryden, who described the play as an alternative version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with Warren Mitchell as its Phileas Fogg and Ken himself, appearing on the stage where he had once been rejected as a ‘career’ director, as his Passepartout.

Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master. In Walking Like Geoffrey, the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham pretend to be mad in order to avoid paying their taxes, while a member of the aristocracy tries to ‘pang’ himself into another universe. He approached the task literally, just as Bob Hoskins in the Road Show used to invite his partner to stretch a huge length of very strong knicker elastic across the heads of the audience before unwittingly releasing it full on into the innocent mush of his cooperating partner. Sylvester McCoy used not only to put ferrets down his trousers, but also bang nails up his nose and explode small bombs on his chest.

And throughout his career, Ken was daring his friends and colleagues to go further than is strictly allowable, in both art and life. His solo shows were a perfect amalgamation of heightened, creative reminiscence and speculative narrative propulsion, brilliant compilations of words and images that leave you breathless with excitement and helpless with laughter. And he liked nothing more than watching a daring improviser compose a sonnet forwards on the spot while counting backwards in sevens from five hundred.

It simply can’t be done: which is the only point in doing it.

Michael Coveney is chief critic and blogger for Whatsonstage.com. To purchase your copy of his new book – Ken Campbell: The Great Caper – hot off the press at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p (usual price £14.99, UK customers only), click here and quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also send a direct message on Twitter to @nickhernbooks quoting ‘THE GREAT CAPER’ and we’ll get back to you speedily to process your order!

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

Also, to coincide with the book’s publication, Michael Coveney will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Nina Conti and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter), to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy, on Friday 8 April 2011 (5pm). Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court’s website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. For more information visit the BBC iPlayer website here.

Spotlight: A SCREEN ACTING WORKSHOP

NHB has just published A Screen Acting Workshop, an invaluable new resource book by internationally renowned acting coach Mel Churcher, with a Foreword by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons.

Mel has worked with actors of all backgrounds and experience – from drama school students at the start of their careers to Hollywood stars including Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley. Featuring a series of five practical workshops covering every aspect of acting on screen, the book is accompanied by a unique 90-minute DVD showing all the work in action.

On today’s blog you can watch clips from the DVD, see photos from the official launch at London’s Actors Centre, and read an extract from Jeremy Irons’s Foreword.

Film acting has traditionally, in the UK at least, been rather looked down on as being something that the Americans do and which really doesn’t need the technique of a theatre actor. In England, we’re mainly theatre actors, and film actors have been historically regarded as overpaid and under-talented.

But in reality, film acting can give you a real insight into acting in the theatre because you can’t lie on film whereas you can get away with lying in theatre. In other words, the camera will see you if you are pretending. You have to be. Now, I believe you have to be in the theatre also. You have to have a technique to enlarge that state of ‘being’ so that an audience, whether it’s two hundred or two thousand, can understand what you’re saying and what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. And you have to be able to transmit that. But in order to do that honestly, you have to be able to be in that moment – with no pretence. And if you come to film and think that you can ‘pretend’ in front of the camera (which you can get away with on stage, and which you see a lot of actors doing) – it doesn’t work.

In life, we recognise the difference between someone pretending to be angry and someone being angry. We can tell whether they really find something funny or if they’re pretending to find something funny. So, if we ‘pretend’ on stage, a perceptive audience sometimes can tell. Well – they can always tell on camera.

So I think film is a real testing ground for actors. You have to find ways to get, very quickly, into your role – to learn the techniques that you need when you’re going to shoot, probably, in short little bites. You have to understand what the scene’s about and what the arc of the scene is, as you would in theatre, but then you have to be able to get immediately into the right bit of that arc for the particular shot that’s being done. These days, people tend to shoot longer takes, shoot wide and use multiple cameras, so things are easier than they were. But you’ve still got to have tricks to make sure that – very fast – you’re ready. You don’t want directors to have to do more than two or three takes. The old days of fourteen or fifteen takes are over.” From Jeremy Irons’s Foreword to A Screen Acting Workshop

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[Photographs by Rob Baker Ashton]

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