Saturday, 30 April 2011

Beached Boy or My Life in Movies

It may not have been Ken Campbell. Well, no, it was Ken Campbell, obviously, but it may not have been Ken Campbell, is what I'm saying. Originally.

So my hailing him, in his soft black felt hat, as he was about to get into, or was possibly getting out of, a car in Parliament Hill Fields was, or may have been, on balance, a mistake.

But I wasn't to know that at the time - indeed, had no possible means of knowing that, what with my friend and his wife - the ones who don't read the blog, so it won't much matter what I say, even though I do strive for accuracy, what with the the hand of history a-tickling of my shoulder - with them, as I say, the only ones who had ever laid claim to witnessing the event - which was, or had been, a non-starter, chartwise, on two separate occasions (nothing to do with me, I hope), hence the - well, the obscurity of this promo video, and so the doubt on an early evening in the 1990s, as I crossed the road in search of answers from the soft felt-hatted one.

I can see that I've started too quickly. So let's leave my late nineties self frozen in the act of making some kind of hailing gesture, and let's have - well, let's have some kind of doubt or fear creeping over the features of Ken Campbell as, turning to another TV screen, we rapidly rewind ....

All the way back to the summer of 1985. Two weeks after my finals are over, I've gone to London, done a brief bit of kitchen portering and am now doing what I don't yet know to be a cr*ppy sales job. In the street. Cheapside, which makes me think of Thomas a Beckett, "the Cheapside brat", as one of the murderous knights (I think) calls him in Eliot's verse drama, but such thoughts only divert for a brief while and although I have a few interesting mini-conversations with those who take the time to stop, overall it's not a good day in terms of closing sales.

And, pretty soon, I'm out - and pretty soon it's starting to dawn on me that all those jobs I pored over in a stray copy of the Evening Standard spread out over the living room table when I was still in Steelopolis-as-was are actually all much the same: sales. Or security.

Anyway, I'm walking past Wardour Street Job Centre on  the afternoon of my dismissal and see an advert for extras for a video. I'm still wearing the (to me) smart grey suit I used for the sales gig, but I go in and they say I'll be perfect for the role of down at heel hack reporter in what I'm wearing.

Charming, I think, but I've only been in London a week or two and opportunities seem to fall into my lap. Unlike the former Steelopolis.

So the next day I make my way to an address in Hanwell, where a whole pack of variegated reporters is assembled.

We're told, fairly quickly, that the song is about a John Stonehouse situation - the politician who did a disappearing act - which is interesting, because in 1976 or thereabouts I'd seen a Bristol University revue at the Edinburgh fringe which had a terrific number - but no time for that, as we are all marshalled onto the front lawn of the house which has been rented for this video, complete with star (whom we haven't yet seen) lurking inside.

The director or assistant loosely choreographs our assault on the house, which contains the girlfriend of the man who has done a Stonehouse. We try it several times, and for want of a reporter's notebook I am waving my university diary, though I don't think anyone notices.

It's all good fun, but sort of serious as well, and I begin to notice that although we seemed to be a vague group of similar abilities - in other words, non-actors pocketing £10 for the day (having signed away all rights to further payments in return for a generous breakfast and seemingly neverending supply of supplementary sausages), there are in fact a few who are not above making themselves conspicuous in the melee - and doing so, what's more, each and every time it's restaged, reminding me of the contemporary at school, now a prominent Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon, who - I remain convinced over forty years later - somehow stopped me getting to bat at school on one of the rare occasions when we were allowed to play cricket - but that's not germane to the story, so forget about it.

Concentrate instead on this pretty convincing impression of a grizzled reporter, shouting at those he imagines are in his way, with a cliched kind of reporter's hat - as it might be, as, yes, it very well might be, with a soft felt brim. I don't know his name at the time, but I remember the bulging eyes, and the way this one little man was making sure no one would be forgetting about him, or able to edit him out afterwards.

I'm not English, but even so - and despite having been denied my one chance to play cricket - some vague sense of the concept of Bad Form drifts to mind. I'm not sure how other people feel, or if he has some privileged position, and it's not really something you can ask. It doesn't matter - it's a day out - and yet it does matter, it's affecting me, and the rest of us, if he's forcibly hacking his way, no pun intended, to the centre of things.

But what can I do? Push in? Gesticulate more aggressively? Is his conduct indeed finding favour with the director or will he be out on his ear? Could it be that he's actually being a good actor, unlike the rest of this cheerful herd?

I do gain one small victory: a decision is made to have a select group of the journos actually inside the house: we will mime to part of the chorus. Can't remember whether Pop-eyes is part of this troupe, but at least I am.

When the star eventually comes out from the house and lets herself be seen, she looks slim and beautiful but clearly is the star: no cheery greeting to us wannabe thesps and a sense is transmitted of a job to be done in a limited amount of time

Anyway, soon we're in the house, mouthing part of the chorus and making a sort of collective pounce forward towards her as we do so, as though desperately eager for whatever morsel of information we can snatch from the star-cum-widow.

And then, at some point, it's over - or that part which involves our merry band of some-more-equal-than-other brothers. There's a kind of dying fall, where we eat more sausages and chat - or maybe we're being kept on in case further retakes are needed, but it seems not.

I fall into conversation with someone roughly my age, whose name I no longer remember, but he has been in London longer, and he tells me of his friend, Takeaway Tim, who can't stand his job, but survives by the continual treat of getting p*ssed and having curries.

It's a vison of how life in London could be, and I can't remember what I said to him, how I responded to that depressing image (or was it sort of reassuring, being survival, whatever else it was, after all?) although I must have outlined something of my philosophy of life (if I had one then) or my intentions or hopes for this life in a new city as I do recall that we parted amicably but with his saying that he wished me well but that my views or my dreams or whatever diverged from his.

Anyway, the little exciting episode is over, and some days later I get an office-based sales job (I didn't learn) which lasts about a couple of weeks as I - and my employer - realise that unlike some of the longer-term staff I've got a bit of difficulty simulating enthusiasm about a product whose worth seems dubious. I eventually go into security work then - rushing back gratefully into the arms of the middle classes whence I sprang, if you discount my father's background - commit to becoming a dominie wannabe, an occupation which, it could be said, rather conveniently combines aspects of skills acquired in the previous two jobs.

A year or two on, standing with two colleagues supervising, rather than participating in, a disco, I realise that some kind of fundamental change has taken place. Nevertheless I continue to watch Top of the Pops for signs of My Video, for some connection to that initial excitement on arriving in the big city. Nothing. Back in Glasgow, my friend's wife tells me she saw it once on Saturday morning kids' TV but clearly it wasn't a  hit, and the video was never reshown, even though the single seems to have been released twice, over a gap of months, and we're talking mid eighties, a time when TV isn't on all night (as I realise to my cost during the long nights of security work) and DVDs are not plentiful. And no youtube: Amstrad, with its lime green lettering on a black background, rules, or will do shortly.

Round about the year 2000 I get a device which allows me to access the net via my TV screen. I eventally find a forum for fans of the star, and someone makes a vague promise about sending a copy of the video, but I don't feel able to push it, as it's a favour, and so the promise of that promo, which I still haven't seen fifteen years after it was recorded, begins to grow in my mind. It will be a wonderful souvenir, a time capsule of my arrival in what seemed then a place of infinite possibilities, where you'd lose one job then walk into pop superstardom or theatrical fame, or whatever, that same afternoon.

But that limited ability to surf the net doesn't seem to yield anything: I'm dependent on the kindness of strangers who have no compelling reason to be kind.

Which is why my chance sighting of Ken Campbell in Parliament Hill Fields simply had to be followed up. I notice the soft black felt hat - maybe not so much reporter-y as actorish, but in the same ballpark, and I have nurtured the belief, ever since becoming acquainted with the work of Campbell on TV sometime between shooting the video and now, which is around the late nineties, that he was that pushy journo who made himself stand out by berating everyone else.

So I go up to him: Mr Campbell? I say. And I ask if he had been in a video for the star, and maybe I mentioned Hanwell and the specific year or maybe I didn't, though I suppose the clear implication was: can I have a copy? Can I? Go on, Mister. Pleeease.

And whether or not he was in it, he says - and I'm guessing that Campbell's line of work, the things he delighted in investigating, had given him long years of dealing with nutjobs to draw on by this point - Ken Campbell looks at me, listens briefly to my prattle, then says the only thing he can safely say, which is:
Ask me tomorrow. 
And I stepped back. Or I imagine I did. Because there was clearly Nothing Doing, Buster.

And then at some unspecified point later - meaning I can't be bothered to look up wikipedia - he died, taking the secret of whether he did or did not have a role in the promo to his grave. Though I suppose his agent would know.

But in recent years, even before the surging popularity of youtube, the arrival of DVDs meant that it was easier to hear and see music videos in acceptable quality, and a compilation of the star's hit and non-hit promos was eventually released in the early years of this new century. Having only ever seen a few tantalising, poor quality videocap images online, I fell upon this opportunity to see myself as once I was, rushing, with my fellow scribes, towards a future full of promises ...

Friends, I was in that video in the same sense that David Bowie was in The Virgin Soldiers.

Probably less, actually, as I've never seen The Virgin Soldiers beyond reading that Bowie's part was of the Don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it  variety. And I didn't even have a Ken Pitt in my corner.

Or, to give an example I am better acquainted with, my disappointment must have rivalled that of Screaming Jay Hawkins as he sat down with his popcorn (or maggots, or whatever) to enjoy his performance in American Hot Wax.

Though I suppose that the actual video, rather than the video of my imagination, has, or would have if you were Donovan, with his penchant for interpreting things well after the event, some kind of prophetic force.

For there I am - or not - circling helplessly somewhere around the perimeter, lacking the courage or the force to be at the centre of the scrum, and my university diary and my politeness isn't doing a bit of good when there are Ken Campbells willing to risk everything, who can give themselves wholeheartedly to the part and embrace their ambition instead of shrinking from it.

So I suppose, yeah, it is actually a sort of time capsule, only in reverse. A message from the here and now - where I've ended up largely through my own failings, my own fears - hurled back across the years as a a warning which, even if I'd been sent a complimentary copy of the finished promo at the time, my younger self probably wouldn't have been able to understand.

Maybe "Ask me tomorrow" is always the best answer.

If you have read this far, and want to see the video, it's on youtube here. I'm about 0.47 in. Possibly.

Oh, and those interior shots where I'm part of the elite who get to mime to the chorus?

Never made the cut.

Related posts and links:

My child's eye view of London in a post about Waterloo Sunset here.

Obituary and photograph album of Ken Campbell here
David Bowie in The Virgin Soldiers here.

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