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James Campbell

Published 17 April 2008

James Campbell is the only stand-up comedian for kids currently touring this or any other circuit. (For all his charm, Roy Chubby Brown rarely performs to primary school audiences). His show Comedy 4 Kids earned spectacular reviews at this year’s Edinburgh Festival and now he is bringing his unique brand of ingenious idiocy to London’s Criterion Theatre – just in time for Half term! Tom Bowtell gave him a bell to find out more.

When James Campbell answers the phone he seems surprised, and a little disappointed, that I am not his answer phone: “I thought you were going to be my answer phone” he points out, before adding, a tad unnecessarily “but you’re not.” James is a little flustered as he’s just finished having a hair cut (all those doting mums out there needn’t worry however, his luscious locks were being coiffed, not cut off), he then needs to pop off to collect his favourite suit (the one he always performs in).

Later, James is back home, with his rampant curls tamed and favourite suit collected he is “completely ready to do the show!” In reality (a place James visits only occasionally) he might do a little more rehearsing, but as he points out “I try and improvise as much as possible, the show isn’t set, it changes based on how the audience responds, I’ve got about 80 hours of stuff I can do if it I get into trouble!” One thing that is worrying James about the Criterion show is that he’s “never done a theatre with circles in before.” For a moment I think that James might have gone a bit mad, before I realise that he is talking about the layout of the Criterion, where the seats are arranged in three layers, rather than stretching backwards: “I don’t know how it will affect the Feng Shui of the piece, but I think it’ll work quite well as it means that people aren’t that far away from me. The big theatres I’ve done have always been one big long shallow rake with the ones at the back just miles away. So it’ll be fun to see what happens!”

"Kids are more attentive than adults: they're sober for a start!"

So how does one become a kids’ stand up comedian? It isn’t exactly the sort of thing you tell your school’s career service you want to do… Almost inevitably, James fell into the job: he left university early (about three years early) and started out as a children’s writer and in 1995 he was runner-up in the South London International Playwriting Award, the youngest person ever to have received a prize for this event. From there he started touring schools with his ingenious mixture of stories, intertwined with observations, genuine improvisation, faked improvisation, audience interaction and very silly songs. James’ approach to producing comedy for kids is very simple: “I never patronise them. I speak to them how I would like to be spoken to and I’m honest. Honesty is very important, kids can spot fibs a mile off.” James also believes that kids actually make a better audience than adults: “They’re sober for a start and I find that kids are much more attentive than grown-ups – because they’re going to school they’re used to listening to someone wittering on for an hour than adults are! I never dumb down for kids, in fact I sometimes do more complicated and weird stuff because kids are definitely more receptive to strange things, they go with it a lot more easily – if you start talking about talking dogs, they go ‘yeah sure, dogs can talk.’ Adults don’t do that.”

James’ method of writing his material for children is perhaps unique as it doesn’t actually involve any writing. “I never – or at least very very rarely – write anything before doing it! What tends to happen is that something starts off as a deliberate adlib or a mistake: some of my very best stuff comes from mistakes and it’s only afterwards that you’ll think, ‘that was quite good actually….” James also gets quite green-fingered about his in-show ideas: “I have what I call greenhouses, stories or bits of material where you can stick anything in the middle, a new idea, a seedling and if it doesn’t work then it doesn’t die because it’s protected by the rest of the greenhouse. Overtime it’ll grow until it can be transplanted out by itself! Isn’t that a wonderful metaphor?”

"Kids might not get jokes about Iain Duncan Smith…"

Any adults who might think that James’ comedy won’t be for them should think again, however, as James is keen to point out that he wants mums and dads to enjoy his show as well: “nearly half of my audience are grown-ups, so it would be a bit silly to ignore them! Kids might not get jokes about Iain Duncan Smith or whatever, so I tend to talk more about school, and parents and pets and things like that. But adults can laugh at that stuff too: we all went to school, we all had parents and most of us pets of one sort or another. I think a lot of kids stuff is aimed just at children with the parents just sitting through it – which I don’t like doing, I want everyone to like my stuff.”

Something that stand-up comedians for adults have always had to put up with is heckling, or shouting out, from drunken (or just over-excited) audience members. Surely he doesn’t have the same problem with the angelic children who come along to his show…? “The wonderful thing with child hecklers is that they have all been trained to put their hands up first! So if I’m on a roll and doing a bit that doesn’t need any help, I can just ignore the hand, but you do get the occasional shouter out who needs to be put down firmly but kindly.” So what would James say to a child who gets a bit carried away with the shouting out? “asking them ‘is this the first time you’ve been out of the house for a while?’ and that usually does the trick, but sometimes I come across a kid who gets the better of me – they don’t have the inhibitions adult hecklers have and they’re not drunk and they can be harder to beat…” So if you do go along to one of James’ shows, make sure you have plenty of smart remarks to throw back at him, otherwise he might end up making you look a little foolish in front of your mates, or even worse: your mum.

"The wonderful thing about child hecklers is that they put their hands up first!"

It is clear that in his line of work, James comes across plenty of very witty kids, so has he ever thought about doing a show which had children performing in it? “Well actually, I’ve been thinking that I would quite like to do a show made up of my songs with a choir of about fifty kids behind me. They would probably be dressed as penguins. Tap-dancing penguins. My songs aren’t really very interconnected so it wouldn’t be a very coherent musical, but then most musicals aren’t very coherent, so it would probably be OK.” Probably.

James says that when he was a kid, the comedians that tickled his giggle stick were Morecambe and Wise and the “fantastic” Les Dawson. James also “caught the back end of Dave Allen [‘s career]” and was influenced as a teenager “by the likes of Vic And Bob and Withnail and I”. James’ love of surreal stories and magnificent nonsense also reminds me of the legendary writer and performer Spike Milligan (the author of silly poems like The Ning Nang Nong) “I’ve always loved Spike Milligan, and his stuff was for everyone – like my stuff is – but I’m not actually all that familiar with his poems. I couldn’t quote you a Spike Milligan poem.” We, however, are able to quote you a typical James Campbell poem, this one called Bumble Bee:

Once upon a plum
A bee said – feeling glum –
"What will I do?
I'm thirty-two,
And still live with my mum."

It is clear from his chosen line of work (and his success in it) that James Campbell is quite good with kids, so can we expect to hear the patter of tiny Campbelly feet at some point soon? “I want to have kids eventually, but I haven’t got any yet and to be honest I can’t see a huge advantage to them at the moment [James; that is an unwise thing for a kids’ stand up to say…] They’re very cute and everything, but, more importantly, I haven’t found anybody to do the hard bit yet, so once I’ve done that maybe I’ll think about it… but I am getting on [he’s 30] and I don’t want to be an old Dad… but not just yet, I need to spend all my money on clothes… and things… and CDs.”

As that last comment suggests, there is still plenty of the child about James Campbell, something which The Scotsman newspaper picked up on when one of its highly complimentary reviews of his work said that he has “the speech and body language of a seven year-old.” To most 30 year old men, this might be seen as a bit rude, but James is rather proud of his status as an honorary child: “I think when I’m impersonating children I really get into how they think and act – but I don’t act like a seven year old all the time! Most of the time I am quite lazy…” To be perfectly honest I find it quite hard to work out if James Campbell is a normal grown up who is very good at acting like or a child, or a 30-year-old bundle of youngsterish energy who is very good at acting serious for interviews… Whatever the truth may be, children across the country (and perhaps even the universe) will be hoping that he doesn’t grow up and get a proper job for a good while yet.

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