6th April - 7th May 2007
Kinetica Museum, Spitalfields Market, London, UK

In April 2007 Kinetica hosted Cabaret Mechanical Theatre’s first-ever major retrospective show in London, at their old museum space in Spitalfields Market. This exhibition included The Ride of Life, an infamous automata project commissioned in the 1980s.

The origins of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (CMT) date back to 1979, when a handful of automaton artists (woodcarvers, mechanists, caricaturists and satirists) began to work together as an artists collective, sharing a strong appreciation for the tradition of craft and a mutual wit with regards their sense of cultural commentary. The group, founded in 1983 in Falmouth by Sue Jackson, moved to London’s Covent Garden shortly thereafter, where their collection of automata immediately received both critical and popular acclaim. Through Jackson’s direction, CMT quickly established itself as the first and finest collection of contemporary automata in Britain, boasting a repertoire of artists such as Peter Markey, Paul Spooner, Ron Fuller, Tim Hunkin, Lucy Casson, Andy Hazell, Jan Zalud and Keith Newstead. The cavernous venue, which provided an environment reminiscent of the old end-of-the-pier arcades, became one of London’s major tourist attractions (1984-2000) and captured the charm, creativity and humour of true British ingenuity.

The Ride of Life, developed as a satire of British culture, was a large-scale project commissioned in the late 1980’s by the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield. Designed and created by the top British automatists of the time, it was to become a huge automated theme park and ride covering a colossal 25,000 sq ft area of the shopping centre and was set to become a landmark in the history of automata. However what started as a wonderful dream in the booming 80’s had a very rude awakening with the recession of the 90’s and after 3 years of work, the project was suddenly axed. Stored in sheds and warehouses for the past twenty years, many of the sets were tragically destroyed through vandalism and theft. CMT have initiated the restoration of the surviving scenes with some of the artists originally involved, enabling segments of The Ride of Life and the only complete surviving scene to be shown publicly for the first time.


Cabaret Mechanical theatre: A Personal View

My long love affair with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (CMT) began almost two decades ago, in the early nineties, when I stumbled upon their weird, dungeon-like premises in the basement of Covent Garden piazza. Here was a world of completely insane machines that turned, twisted, talked, danced, swam, ate spaghetti and dropped dead - all at the touch of a button. Even the man who stamped your entrance ticket was made of wood. 

 The concept of robots and strange machines had always appealed to me. One of my most enduring childhood memories was the huge, bronze giant in the film “Jason and the Argonauts” brought to life by that brilliant stop-frame animator, Ray Harryhausen. When I was about nine or ten, I loved the crazy inventions of the British artist, Heath Robinson, the machines of Jules Verne and – inevitably – the gadgets dreamed up by Ian Fleming’s Q. Working on a TV adaptation of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, I came across an eighteenth century inventor, the aptly named Jean-Joseph Merlin, whose automata were said to be so realistic that they were frequently mistaken for real people.

 Early automata, though frantically expensive and rare, have always left me cold. With their origins in Swiss clock-making, many are indeed little more than elaborate time-pieces although there are any number of artificial birds, whistling in their gilded cages: a taxidermist’s wet dream. The Victorian dolls and monkeys that turn up from time to time, turning their frigid heads and blinking their sightless eyes, are – for me – rather creepy. Such toys were used to add menace to the film cinema version of Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. They could even have been the inspiration for Chucky, the doll that killed people in a whole series of bad horror films.

But as I discovered in the underground arcade, the world of automata had been completely reinvented by a mother-and-daughter team – Sue Jackson and Sarah Alexander and that the next two decades, perhaps more cynical and utilitarian than any that had gone before, – would see a full-scale renaissance of what had become almost a forgotten art.

Oh dear. That already sounds much too portentous. A forgotten art? Can anyone call these bizarre toys “art” even with inverted commas and a small ‘a’? Over tea and mille feuilles at the Patisserie Valerie, I asked Paul Spooner if he was an artist or a craftsman and he was pleasingly uncertain. “I call myself an artist on my passport but I’ve been given money by the Crafts Council. On the other hand, I’ve spent it all so I suppose that makes me an artist again.” Ron Fuller – whom I visited at his brightly coloured, secluded Suffolk home was more forthright. “I’m a toymaker. I make toys…things that you play with, basically.” Finally, I put the same question to Sarah Alexander. “They’re definitely artists – but they’re satirists in equal measure.”

And that’s the problem. Automata are nearly always funny – perfect jokes in miniature – and, as Spooner puts it, “Artists aren’t supposed to be humorous.” John White, another collaborator in the Ride of Life (about which, more later) says: “All my sculptures have humour in them. I’ve tried to make things that aren’t humorous and I’ve never succeeded. I’ve never actually managed to make something that’s completely serious.” But in the world of real art, even chopping a shark into sections or cross-dressing as a seven-year-old schoolgirl is done with a heavy dose of po-faced seriousness and it’s hard to think of any “great” artist who has displayed a sense of humour. The Dutch genre artist, Jan Steen, perhaps? Magritte and some of the surrealists? Who else?

But if Paul Spooner, Keith Newstead, Tim Hunkin and the rest of them aren’t exactly artists nor does the word “craftsman” quite suit them. I think it undersells them, bracketing them with the same folk who make seagulls out of driftwood or ear-rings from beaten tin. Ron Fuller’s 1999 piece “Driftwood’s Revenge” even takes a swipe at these distant cousins: made entirely from reclaimed bits and pieces it has a man being executed for his crimes, dropping through a driftwood scaffold.

Are they engineers? “I’m not an engineer,” Spooner responds, firmly. “I just have fantasies about how machines will work.” Certainly, there’s a sense that they’re all making it up as they go along. How about artisans? Ugh! At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what you call someone who spends hundreds of hours creating a cat that laps up a puddle of poisoned milk and then collapses in a heap or a farm-boy who has his head cut off regularly by a scissor-wielding sheep.

But I can explain my love of these wonderful toys:

We live in a world where we are surrounded by machines whose perfection is way beyond our understanding. The laptop that I’m typing this on is one. If a machine is not perfect, it is replaced. We no longer mend anything. Increasingly, as science fiction writers have long predicted, machines are being used against us. The speed camera, no matter how valid or valuable, is surely the first and most striking example of inhumanity gaining the upper hand.

In this world, is it not refreshing to find something which is ingeniously designed and somehow cobbled together from springs, magnets, oddly shaped bits of wood and which is not only quite unique but also absolutely bloody useless? I like the fact that most automata do not conceal their inner workings but actually flaunt them. The mechanism is as entertaining as the end result.

The best automata somehow cock a snook at modern life. Martin Smith’s endlessly applauding hands. The ingenious magic tricks of Pierre Mayer, who recreates one of the greatest illusions of all time with his new piece, The Orange Tree. Some are scatological. Some are mildly blasphemous (my own favourite has always been Spooner’s “Flight into Egypt” where Mary, Joseph and a donkey actually take wings over the Sinai desert). Some contain a slapstick violence. But all of them are, in essence, a complete waste of time.

And without wishing to sound jingoistic – for automaton makers are an international family – I see something very British in all this. It is the ability to find greatness in trivia and vice versa. Only a British Mars probe could crash quite so delightfully into the planet. Automata find their antecedents in the Victorian end-of-the-pier show…What the Butler Saw and the saucy postcards of Angus McGill. And they have also returned there as any visitor to Southwold will know with works by Tim Hunkin, Will Jackson and other CMT regulars drawing in the crowds.

It seems to me that the animations in Monty Python (even if drawn by an American) belong to the same tradition as CMT. As does Nick Park and the huge, global success of Aardman Animations. Months spent making a plasticene sheep fall off a bicycle in a Wallace and Gromit adventure? It comes as no surprise to learn that Spooner’s very first automaton was Anubis drawing a sausage. What could be more British than that? You take something ancient and esoteric and – with a stroke of pure genius - make it ever so slightly silly.

I also find it somehow reassuring that despite its best efforts, CMT has never managed to get rich. Again, in an age where success is measured primarily in terms of the wealth it brings, CMT is just about the only exception to the rule, memorably described by the journalist, Rosemary Hill, as “a triumph of the imagination over accountancy.” Part of the trouble is that automata don’t make great investments. They’re both fragile and regularly man-handled. But I also get the feeling that money has never really been the point. In all its incarnations, CMT has always been something of a cottage industry but the cottage is ever so slightly ramshackle, missing slates and miles from the nearest decent school, station or supermarket.

This exhibition is in two distinct parts. The ground floor tells the history of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. The first floor, in a way, tells what might have been. It deals with the extraordinary but ill-fated Ride of Life.

Described, with perhaps just a touch of grandiloquence as “one of the greatest collaborative works of art since the King James Bible”, the Ride of Life seems to have been the result of a chance encounter between a Canadian entrepreneur called Ronald McCarthy and CMT. It’s hard for me to write about it because until very recently I knew nothing about it and my response to it is no more informed than yours.

However, in essence, the idea was to fill 25,000 square feet in the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield with…something. Gradually, somehow – and over large amounts of alcohol - the idea of a ride came to mind- “the Jorvik Viking Centre, but a thousand years too early,” Spooner told me. A sofa (memories of Wallace and Gromit again) would carry visitors along a track past various tableaux. These included singing washing machines, babies eating cat-food, panicking air passengers, demons, Vikings and forty-six blinking gnomes.

The whole enterprise was cancelled at the eleventh hour by the American backers. In the TV documentary made about the debacle, a rather plaintive Sue Jackson turns to the camera. “We were never given a reason,” she says. Well, perhaps I can help. I would say it was almost certainly doomed from the start. What we have here is the mother of all clashes between two cultures: indecipherable British humour on the one side and American business sense on the other. I mean, how exactly do you explain Paul Spooner’s vision of Heaven: thirty-six heads singing “My Way”. And – oh yes – they’ve all got “I told you so”, printed on their pockets. In Greek. I’d love to have seen them explaining that to their financiers.

At the end of the documentary, McCarthy dead-pans to the camera. “This is a commercial development.” And adds: “The concept had never been test-marketed.” In the end, the 25,000 square feet was given over to fast food outlets. And that, I would say, about sums it up. What is more puzzling is the final chapter.

The various pieces were packed away in a warehouse in Rotherham and were essentially left to rot. Much of the work was stolen or vandalised. Almost nothing remains apart from Ron Fuller’s “Pubic Bar” which you will find upstairs. The failure of this hugely ambitious project seems to fit in, once again, with the amateur, wing-and-a-prayer nature of CMT. It is a glorious failure, in a way. That anyone expected this sort of project to come to fruition in a Sheffield shopping mall is almost beyond belief (and many of the collaborators express their doubts about the venue in the DVD). But the fact remains that the sad end of the Ride of Life denied the country something that would have been so utterly unique and memorable. It will never happen again.

The rest of the exhibition brings together some of the best-known toys created by CMT with works by more recent contributors including Carlos Zapata and John Lumbus. Of particular interest in this exhibition is Arthur Ganson’s “Thinking Chair”, a brilliant mechanism being shown for the first time. Together, they tell the story up to the present day.

CMT left Covent Garden Piazza in 2000, forced out by soaring London rents. If it was bad news for them, it was disastrous for the piazza which remains to this day a rather empty, soulless place with too many shops selling tourist tat. CMT disappeared from London – and from my life – and set up shop at an entertainment centre called the Kursaal in Southend-on-Sea, It was, quite simply a disaster. “It was horrible and nobody came,” Sue Jackson reminisces. “We were meant to share the profits and the moment I knew it was bad news was when they sent us a bill for half the losses.”

But if this is all beginning to sound a bit gloomy, the story isn’t over yet and let’s not forget that this exhibition at Kinetica is a celebration. CMT struggles on – indeed, it goes from strength to strength. Returning from her financial advisor recently, Sarah Alexander was exultant: “He’s just told me…for the first time ever, we’re going to have to pay tax!” All over the country, the automatists (was that the word I was looking for?) are still as busy and as inventive as ever. Exhibitions pop up here and there and recent commissions – such as the surprisingly rude “Plant Takeaway” at the Eden Project in Cornwall, continue to educate and delight.

CMT now operates a superb website, selling toys to enthusiasts like myself and others all over the world. The highlight of the year is still the Christmas special, a toy created by Paul Spooner or Matt Smith and if anything, the family seems to be growing.

One day, perhaps, CMT will find a permanent home in a major British city and their cheerful, utterly eccentric work will once again reach a wider audience. Until then, let’s press the button and get those mechanical hands going. They certainly deserve a round of applause.

Anthony Horowitz - February 2007
Catalogue Essay Cabaret Mechanical Theatre


Ron Fuller
Arthur Ganson
Tim Hunkin
Will Jackson
Pierre Mayer
Keith Newstead
Paul Spooner
Carlos Zapata