Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Bruce Lacey at the Camden Arts Centre


The second room in the chronological survey of Lacey’s life and work at the Camden Arts Centre began with cabinets displaying cuttings, programmes and mementoes from The Alberts period. These included posters and flyers for various Evenings of British Rubbish, which attained semi-legendary status for their dalliance with destructive chaos and self-dissolution in the name of art and slightly unnerving entertainment. In the absence of any filmed evidence (a lack which, whilst frustrating for those who weren’t there, tends only to enhance the legend as enlarged upon by those who were) photos from Alberts performance give some of idea of the debris strewn battle-zone to which they cheerfully reduced the stage. Lenny Bruce for one was deeply impressed by the impact they made upon the Establishment Club, the nightclub Peter Cook had set up in Soho in 1961 as a venue for satirical comedy, to which Lacey’s semi-namesake had been brought over from America to perform. There was a telegram on display from Bruce, sent from Honolulu in September 1962, giving words of encouragement for The Alberts’ debut show in New York, an appearance which he had arranged for them. Costumes were hung on the wall above the display cases, direct descendants of those childhood fancy dress outfits. There was foppish cavalier finery from the Three Musketeers, in which the Alberts had played a supporting role, and a red Edwardian military jacket with golden buttons and braids, which could easily have been sported by any of a number of Sergeant Pepper era bands infected with the psychedelic whimsy of the age.

Picnic in Space - The British moon landing
A native American fringed buckskin tunic and trousers contrasted dramatically with the spacesuit which floated above, as if suspended in the zero gravity of space. They demonstrated the twin poles of antique and futuristic impulses which were an odd characteristic of the decade, and which pulled Lacey in different and, on the surface, contradictory directions. The spacesuit came from the British Landing on the Moon performances which he first devised and put on in 1969 after watching the Apollo 11 landing. It involved a low gravity, slowed-down going through the British motions, with the lunar daytrippers planting a Union Jack and a garden gnome to make them feel at home, laying out a picnic from a whicker hamper, pouring tea and eating sandwiches which were all shrink-wrapped in plastic, and having a kick-around with a football. It was both a gentle mockery of British traditions, and a deflation of the nationalistic triumphalism which was one of the less noble aspects of the American moon landings through rendering the whole thing into nothing more than a homely outing. The enthusiasm for a ‘space-age’ aesthetic of synthetic and mass-manufactured food and materials which accompanied the progress towards the moon landings is also held up for ridicule, both in its juxtaposition with the enduring symbols of suburban normality, and in the absurdly futile attempts to eat a simple sarnie or enjoy a cuppa through sealed plastic.

Facing the Albert memorials were some of Lacey’s Electric Actors, anti-luvvie automata which were a foretaste of robots to come. One had a square wooden frame for a head, topped with a Napoleon hat, its neck a revolving brass mechanism which could spin to present one of two Janus-like faces: one offering the blank stare of time, an antique clock-face with wire spectacle rim eyes; the other a colourful Indian mask with extravagant moustaches and gaudy turban. The head rests on a battered loudspeaker cabinet torso, with shop dummy arms attached to broad shoulders made from bellows, presumably allowing for wheezing concertinaed gesticulations. The torso balances on decrepit, rickety stool legs. Another has a foolishly grinning, pink-cheeked Woosterish head with a woman’s cloche hat stuck onto the exposed innards of iron machineries. Whatever lies below the waist area is tightly contained within a pink corset, with a small bunch of flowers jauntily planted between the laces.

The educational meat grinder - School Days (detail)
In the main part of the room, we came upon Lacey’s robots and assemblages from the sixties, the work for which he is probably best known (certainly what I had known him for and had largely come along to see). I’m Not Chicken/The Drug Addict (1968) could be seen on a comment on the pharmaceutical appetites which fuelled the fevered experimentation of the period. It’s a medical operation model (predating Hirst by many a year) with guts exposed, tubes connecting its innards to a dispensing machine with the words purple hearts indicating the amphetamine sweeties with which it is stocked. The transparent tubes carry the pills directly into the Addict’s body as if they were corpuscles in an extension of his circulatory system. School Days is a grim assemblage which expressed Lacey’s loathing for what he saw as the processing and normalisation of young minds within many British schools. The burnt and blackened head of a shop dummy, joke shop glasses with enlarged eyes pasted onto the lenses suggesting the unblinking omniscience of an observer in a panopticon prison, presides with charred malevolence atop an old wooden cabinet. Inside are arrayed rows of steel meat grinders, with the disembodied heads of dolls perched on the rims of their bowls, ready to be pushed through and processed when the handles are turned. In a cubby space at the bottom, fingers, noses and ears are neatly sorted into compartmentalised and labelled jars. It’s a horrific piece, partaking of the darker and more violent currents of surrealism, which suggests an instinctively oppositional stance towards the fundamental tenets of society and the authorities which dictate and enforce them. The worn, dirt-encrusted and chipped condition of it all adds to the effect, giving the impression of a system grown rigid and fossilised with age.

Lacey and his wife Jill Bruce tried to provide an alternative to this vision of the indoctrinating moulding of a common worldview. In the 70s they toured schools in Camden with their Incredible Whatsit Machine, a flexible play sculpture which encouraged children to develop their own creative and imaginative relationship with their surroundings and the wider world beyond. Associated activities were introduced by Lacey and Bruce, including the making of an edible man, a giant jelly mould with transparently visible fruit innards, which the children disembowelled and devoured with cannibalistic fervour. It was a project similar (in a more mobile form) to the establishment of playgrounds for the local children out of the developer’s rubble-strewn dead zones surrounding the Theatre Royal in Stratford by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles in the early 70s , and their creation of new patterns of collaboratively worked out play. Lacey and Bruce also created a magical space within a giant inflatable, which could be transported and blown up (and deflated) with relative ease. Inside were lights, music coming from surrounding speakers and a stage which anyone could get up and make a raucous, amplified racket from. Its promissory billing encapsulated an invitation to step out of the everyday world for a while: ‘Journey through a Black Hole to Another Planet’. Children would dress in colourful costumes before crossing the threshold, adding a sense of ritual, and encouraging them to leave their customary selves behind them. It sounds like a development of the Space Place built up by Maurice Agis and Peter Jones in 1964, another cocooning environment designed to stimulate the senses and encourage creativity, which has evolved into the Colourscape modular mazes which are inflated on Clapham Common and elsewhere on a regular basis and play host to all kinds of innovative music, as well as activities for school and pre-schoolchildren.

Creaky swinger - Boy Oh Boy Am I Living
Another work, The Bedsprings TWANG in OUR House, is a rather sinister assemblage, a rusty bed frame stood on its end with male and female dummy figures attached to its coiled mesh in a form of household crucifixion. The woman has targets for breasts, and a boxing glove, clock case and dismembered doll are embedded nearby, all of which gives off a disturbing atmosphere of claustrophobic tension and incipient domestic violence. It has some of the sour odour of despair also to be found in the spyhole installations of Ed Kienholz. In fact, Kienholz provides a good point of comparison with Lacey’s assemblages and automata in general, his work tending to lack the touches of humour and absurdity that leaven the dispiriting air of angry despair. Other pieces on display here were more amusing, if no less caustic. If Lacey were to be likened to any one of the Goons with whom he worked, it would definitely be Spike Milligan, whose humour was often underlaid with a fierce and occasionally misanthropic sense of moral anger and disgust, laughter tinged with a hint of desperation at the absurdity of the human condition. Superman from 1963, is a freakshow metallic man of the future, caged within scaffold boxes, with its skull contained in a weighing jar, false eyes probing about on the end of extended stalks, and wooden hands held rigidly outward in an imploring gesture. Boy Oh Boy Am I Living, from 1964, is again contained within a boxlike frame (shades of Francis Bacon), his big flushed head a round orange ball with false teeth, nose and eyes attached. To its solid tea urn torso is strapped a couple of artificial legs, bent at the knee, one of which swings back and forth, cutting a creaking, clockwork caper.

Man as automaton - Everybody's Nobody
Such repetitive movements, reducing the human to the mindlessly mechanical, are also acted out by Lacey in John Sewell’s 1960 film Everybody’s Nobody, in which he plays M.A.N., the servile Mobile Abstract Nonentity, a passive and programmable cybernetic entity which embodies the fears of dehumanisation within a technocratic and market-driven society. The Politician, from 1964, is notable for its wide, circular megaphone mouth, rimmed with pearly rows of even, gleaming teeth. If the politician is designed for loud oration, the miserly Old Money Bags (1964), now a part of the Leeds Museum and Art Galleries’ collection, is activated by shouting rude commands into its speaker grille. Its internal coin circulation system is transparently contained within a tailor’s dummy with cut-away abdomen. As Barry Miles explains in his history of the post-war counterculture in the capital, London Calling, ‘Lacey used to bellow “get to work, you bastard” and the cogwheels would spring into action, moving two-shilling pieces through the “heart” like white blood corpuscles’.

The Womaniser
In the centre of the room reclined The Womaniser (1966), a kinetic sculpture now owned by the Tate. A disturbingly perverse autoerotic figure, its torso takes the form a large bolster (a punch bag?) of orange plastic, which lies back on the peeling remains of a dentist’s chair. Tin false legs protrude from the bottom, with a small, syringe-plunger penis peeping perkily up between. Its transparent plastic head cast relaxes on the chair rest, the pink and beige material with which it is stuffed giving it a flayed look, with exposed eyeballs staring ahead with abstracted fixity also reflected in the small smile on its mouth (provided by a fold in the material). On the torso is laid another transparent plastic cast, this one of a triple set of breasts. Pink rubber gloves at the end of plastic tubes are poised over each one, and the occasional blast of condensed air causes them to inflate for a self-pleasuring fondle. It’s a mutant figure, no longer human but not yet wholly alien (although its eight limbs lend it a slightly arachnoid aspect), a monstrous evolution of the polymorphous desires which rose to the surface during the sixties, extrapolating from the present in the manner of HG Wells in The Time Machine, with his far future division of humanity into Morlocks and Eloi. The anatomy of the womaniser certainly suggests that it has reached a stage where it is no longer likely to rise from its couch for any prolonged period of time. Perhaps, given its title, it could also be seen as a Bosch-like purgatorial transmutation for a serial adulterer. Whilst the sculpture has an amusingly pervy comical element, it also points to a lingering element of traditional morality in Lacey’s character, a remnant of his upbringing in an ordinary (in the sense of being neither extravagantly bohemian or well-off) pre-war English household. And there, of course, in the corner was dear old R.O.S.A., almost a part of the Lacey family herself; static and lifeless but still exuding an aura of star power.

The grain of 8mm time - Castlerigg
The final room took us through Lacey and Jill Bruce’s retreat from the future in the 1970s and 80s, and their absorption in an intuitively developed sense of ritual rooted in an exploration of the granite bones of Britain. They travelled around the country visiting megalithic sites, as documented in their atmospheric super 8 films Castlerigg and Wales Stone Circles which, as the booklet notes for the bfi dvd attest, bear a certain relation to, whilst being quite different in approach from, Derek Jarman’s Journey to Avebury super 8 film. Having connected with the children of Camden in the early 70s, having gained funding from the council to take their play environments to various locales within the borough, they made their own family the subject of scrutiny in both theatrical and cinematic contexts. The Laceys at Home was a 1972 piece of performance art installed in (or rather outside) the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, in which the family went about the ordinary business of daily life in a three sided living room, as if they were human specimens in a zoo. The everyday and seemingly unremarkable was transformed into drama through the act of being observed. Lacey and his family (Jill, Kevin, Tiffany, Saffron and Fred) also turned the camera on themselves for the 1973 film The Lacey Rituals, each taking their turn behind the lens. Again, ordinary activities (taking a bath, eating a meal, shaving, putting on make-up, riding a bicycle etc.) were foregrounded, making us look at them anew from a Martian viewpoint. This focussing on the minutiae of domestic and familial life could be seen as Lacey’s assertion of the need for a settling into a more responsible way of life after the chaotic experimentation and social upheaval of the 60s. The desire for a simple life, which seemed to go alongside a more general ‘back to the garden’ migration from urban centres in search of a rural idyll, reflected the countercultural tenor of the times. The films and performance also expanded the radius of his self-fascination and use of elements of his life in his art (or use of his life as art). Such self-documentation, and the exposure of ‘ordinary’ life to an observing public, cannot help but invite comparisons with later trends in reality TV programming. Lacey’s films include a deliberate acknowledgement of their own artificiality, however, with unedited directions, clapperboard takes, countdowns to cuts and shots of the soundman dispelling any illusion of authenticity.

The Theatre of family life - The Laceys at Home
Another performance from this era, Stella Star and Her Amazing Galactic Adventures, put on by the Galactic Theatre (there’s a poster for it in the gallery) in 1974, had an accompanying film, included on the bfi dvd. This provides a bridging link between the futurism of the 60s and the search for a rural arcadia in the latter half of the 70s and the 80s. Its science fiction fable of the elemental Manichean struggle between the intergalactic adventuress Stella Star, the feminine force of light and life (Jill Bruce) and an embodied black hole, a voracious, predatory void of negative ‘dark matter’ and spirit (played by a black-robed Lacey) is played out (with more home-made dressing up) against the backdrop of an ancient British woodland. The space operatics are brought down to leaf-mouldy earth. Lacey and Bruce’s involvement with the free festival movement in the 80s saw them creating Pagan rituals, which avoided new age insipidity through the intense personal investment which they brought to them, an intensity which could give them the same slightly unnerving, unhinged quality which the Alberts’ performances possessed. They were rites which admitted the destructive aspect of the elements, and the presence of death within the Arcadian summer festival garden. The ritual room contains relics from these festival happenings. A central pentagram formed from wooden sticks was laid out on the floor, the sort of thing which would have acted as the focus for one of Lacey’s fire rituals. On the wall, more costumes were hung. Lacey has evidently always had a strong sense of the importance of costume, which goes hand in hand with the self-dramatising and –revealing aspects of his art. Changes in life are marked by changes in costume, old skins shed and new ones created. The costumes here are brightly coloured, tie-died capes, pegged out like flags which pledge allegiance to the late-flowering hippiedom of the 80s travellers. Occasionally, Lacey would cast aside costume altogether, stripping naked to perform rituals daubed in paint and mud, as in the heartfelt Awakening of the Earth Goddess, 8mm footage of which can be seen on the bfi dvd.

A film playing on a TV mounted at the corner of the room had Lacey and Bruce and other participants chanting the Om Nama Shivaya mantra, incorporating it into actions deriving from their own intuitive notions of the sacred, in the manner of new age syntheses – Indian mysticism blended with the romance of the Celtic twilight and the genius loci, or spirit of place, of the ancient English landscape. There’s something of the spirit of neo-romantic artists like Paul Nash and Cecil Collins to these imaginative dramas; an attempt to evoke, in an unsentimentalised, way, the power of the natural world and of a particular geographic locale, and to place humanity within rather than outside of it, an intrinsic and inseparable part of its cyclical processes. The super 8 films themselves possess a grain and have accrued a surface detainling of cracks and speckles which serves to enhance the feeling of antiquity in the landscapes they survey and the rituals they record. Such influences can also be found in the paintings hung in the room, which marked a return to the form he’d studied and practised at art college. These depart from tradition through being created on sackcloth stretched out within metal frames like rough hides, giving them more of an American Indian look and feel. The large circular mandalas Lacey has painted on their dusty backdrop represent a vision of life and matter on a micro and macroscopic scale. Some resemble cells or spores magnified under a microscope, some the colourfully banded surfaces of gas giant planets, and some planar representations of the galactic core. They seem to be reaching out to some grandly intuited sense of the unity of all creation, a quest which puts him in the visionary tradition of Blake and his descendants, and well beyond the radar of modern art trends. Cecil Collins’ Cells of Night, The Joy of the Worlds and The Great Happiness and others, with their similar interposition of cellular and astronomical forms, are further points of connection with the neo-romantics of the inter-war years, as are the symbolic lunar and solar landscapes of Paul Nash’s later Wittenham Clumps paintings from the forties. This connection with a mystical tradition of interior landscapes and symbolic natural forms suggests an attempt to regain a pre-war sense of completeness, perhaps even something of the lost idyll of childhood.

Replica sun machine - solar recorder
Physical records of Lacey’s observance of solar and seasonal cycles were present in the form of arced strips of paper with burnt lines extending in varying lengths along its curved surface. These recording strips were attached to a frame around a spherical glass filled with water, which acted as a refractive, light-focusing lens, tracking the sun’s progress across the sky and recording it, and the passage of clouds across its surface, on the paper. The device looked something like a scrying ball, used to write the unique solar script of each chosen day (the dates written down on the paper at the end). Lacey’s recording of the details of his own life seemed to have been absorbed into the creation of a more universal record, the observance of a wider pattern into which he would eventually disappear. In the meantime, he has landed in the county of Norfolk, in the rump of the British Isles, where he curates the vast archive of his own life and work in an old farmhouse, emerging for the occasional retrospective and working with community arts projects in the area. One such local appearance, at the Norwich Arts Centre in 2011, was commemorated in the most recent poster in the corridor gallery; a performance entitled Bruce Lacey: A Silly Bugger Artist’s Life at the Taxpayer’s Expense, some of which is captured on Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams’ documentary The Bruce Lacey Experience. The acknowledgement of the country’s cash-strapped state and its low opinion of the importance and active hostility to the public support of art and artists implicit in such a billing shows that Lacey’s sense of humour, at once anti-establishment and anxiously self-questioning, is still fully functional. Long may the silly bugger continue.

Friday, 26 October 2012

New Worlds Old and New

Old New Worlds - Eduardo Paolozzi's Cover for issue 174

New Worlds is born again. In the 60s, it became a locus for experimentation and iconoclasm for writers of a new generation and interested members of the old who wanted to take science fiction in new directions when Michael Moorcock took over editorship from Ted Carnell. Strongly associated with the counterculture in London, it also attracted adventurous writers from America such as Thomas Disch and John Sladek who were attracted by the freedoms it offered. And through Brian Aldiss (who had worked in the book trade) and JG Ballard, it also brought in writers from the wider literary avant garde, with experimental poetry by the likes of DM Thomas and George Macbeth (a participant in the much mythologised 1965 Albert Hall poetry Olympics). Criticism was also raised to a new literary standard, with writers like John Clute and M.John Harrison having no truck with the cosy consensus of an insular SF world. There was a general sense of wanting to sweep out the old and outmoded and introduce a new generic hybrid which took into account the influence of the visual arts (pop art and surrealism in particular) and the styles and techniques of literary modernism. William Burroughs in particular was a key influence. Art and illustration took on a greater prominence, with impressive work from artists including Eduardo Paolozzi and Mal Dean. The latter provided a distinctive New Worlds look through his covers and illustrations for Michael Moorcock and other’s Jerry Cornelius stories, and also drew a Cornelius comic strip. Paolozzi, a friend of Ballard’s, was a great supporter of the magazine, and was for a time listed as its ‘aeronautics advisor’. It was a patent absurdity, but the mere presence of such a notable name from the art world impressed members of the Arts Council, and alongside Brian Aldiss’ diplomatic negotiations, helped secure a grant and, for a time, the future of the magazine. Paolozzi also provided a cover for issue 174, making it something of an art collector’s artefact now. There was an exhibition earlier this year at Manchester Metropolitan University, curated by David Brittain, editor of the New Worlds-minded Savoy Books (much troubled by puritan police chief James Anderton in the 80s), which looked back on Paolozzi’s connections with and work for New Worlds. Moorcock also tried to encourage a greater contribution from female writers to the magazine (and by extension to the SF genre as a whole), publishing authors such as Pamela Zoline, Emma Tennant and Hilary Bailey. Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe is one of the finest stories published in New Worlds, and could stand as the perfect example of all that they were trying to do.

New New Worlds
It has to be said that this new New Worlds, an online venture, is a very different beast. Moorcock has lent his name to it, but it in no ways attempts to emulate the New Worlds of old, seeking instead to create its own identity. This is rather more conventionally generic in terms of its artwork (principally a selection of paintings by Jim Burns), fiction and reviews. There is an interesting selection of videos recorded at last years British Library SF exhibition Out Of This World, however. Alan Moore is interviewed by Stewart Lee, both commenting on the adventurous nature of some SF in the 60s, and the dilution of that promise that has come with the ubiquity of the fantastic genres in the present day. Both are amusing and insightful. A panel with Moorcock, Aldiss, John Clute and Norman Spinrad, moderated by Roz Kaveney, discusses the literary impulses behind the New Worlds adventure, with Aldiss shamelessly namedropping as he recalls going in to see TS Eliot, then an editor at Faber, in his office. Spinrad recalls the questions which were asked in parliament after New Worlds serialised his scabrous novel about the modern mediascape Bug Jack Barron, and seems a little disgruntled that the fulminating MPs couldn’t even recall his name. Moorcock also talks in another interview about his relationship with Mervyn Peake and his wife Maeve Gilmore. Peake, whose illness had by this time taken hold, had entered a period of critical neglect, and Moorcock (along with Langdon Jones, who worked on a corrected and definitive version of Titus Alone from the original manuscript) did much to revive his reputation by publishing stories and illustrations and including essays in New Worlds. There’s also a bit from the panel on Robert Holdstock, entitled Heartwood: Robert Holdstock and Telling The Matter of Britain, with authors Lisa Tuttle and Stephen Baxter, critic Paul Kincaid, Foundation editor Graham Sleight and Dr Donald Morse, editor of the academic essay collection The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock. They discuss the early SF novel Where The Time Winds Blow, Baxter relating its ideas of the confluence of landscape and the human psyche to the later Mythago books, through which Holdstock reconnected to his own Kentish childhood. There’s also an entertaining piece of polemic in which Iain Banks takes Ayn Rand and her ‘objectivist’ philosophy of self-interest to task, decrying its influence on a certain strata of free market proselytisers. He lets fly with the unfettered and verbose spleen of the pub philosopher, his invective reaching fiery peaks of sardonic anger as he defends the idea of altruism and fellow feeling which the Randites would do away with in the name of a self-obsessive brand of libertarianism. Stirring stuff, if essentially, by its very tone, tending to preach to the converted. Through its lack of fear of expressing a fiercely partisan view, it breathes some of the air of old New Worlds.

Bruce Lacey at the Camden Arts Centre


Bruce Lacey is one of those characters who has seemingly moved in the peripheral vision of British popular and counterculture for several ages. His name many not be widely known, but once noticed, you find yourself recognising him in the background of or exerting his influence upon all manner of significant movements, from the 50s up until the present day. I first became aware of him in his professorial role (his self-awarded title of ‘professor’ Bruce Lacey fitting the mad scientist role which he adopted) in the 1967 George Melly scripted film about the not so fab 60s, Smashing Time. An electrical mishap unleashes his self-built robots on a helpless art gathering at a Roundhouse style venue, and he looks on with manic, gesticulatory glee from behind a lectern. He looks for all the world like Rotwang, the robot-builder in Metropolis, throwing silent movie shapes. This scene is probably still the best way to see his remote controlled robots in action. They’re hilariously inventive and at the same time a little bit threatening, as mechanical facsimiles of the human form generally are. I had also heard of him through Fairport Convention’s song Mr Lacey, which also sang a song of praise to his robots and his ‘loving machine’. The latter presumably referred to his orgasmatron-style sensory stimulator which he manufactured for the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ICA in 1968. This was an encapsulating pod in which the willing entrant was exposed to ‘non-specific erotic images’ whilst being massaged and caressed by an automated system of rollers and soft pads. It was a device to set against Kafka’s mechanical punishment machine from his story In The Penal Colony, one devoted instead to the fulfilment of the pleasure principle. There was an element of criticism or moral questioning behind the surface fun, however, as there was with many of his madcap actions and inventions – a constant assertion of the authentically human over the mechanical or simulated.

Knowing his place - Lacey prepares to gnaw George's lawn in Help
Had I but realised it, I also knew Lacey from his brief appearance in The Beatles film Help as the resident yokel gardener in the fab four’s surreal pad, trimming their artificial lawn with the aid of two pairs of nibbling false teeth. The Beatles’ patronage puts him in the lineage of other British oddball artists such as Ivor Cutler (who sometimes appeared on the same bill as Lacey in the 60s) and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, both of whom featured in The Magical Mystery Tour. Lacey’s connection to the Goons no doubt endeared him to John Lennon, but it was probably his previous association with Dick Lester (he’d appeared in his Goonish short The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, for which he also designed the props) which led to his presence in Help.

Lacey has received renewed attention recently on account of The Lacey Rituals, a new 2-dvd collection from the bfi of his film work, both as director, performer and prop builder, and an attendant exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, which looked back on the entirety of his profligate and restlessly mercurial creative life. I went and saw it on its last weekend in mid-September. The first of the gallery spaces you entered on the first floor was a spacious, light-filled corridor on whose walls a good number of framed posters and flyers were hung. These formed an effective and visually absorbing survey of Lacey’s work and appearances over the six decades, as well as offering an incidental insight into the changing styles in graphic poster design from the 50s to the present day. The range and mutability of Lacey’s activities soon became apparent through this introductory display. He was part of a Goonish vaudevillian troupe in the 50s and 60s called The Alberts. It was a name entirely apposite for their aesthetic of scavenging and using with irreverent and at the same time affectionate and sincere humour the junkshop flotsam of Victorian and Edwardian England. Their colourfully antique style anticipated the tatterdemalion motley of swinging 60s and summer of love fashions. The confusion and rapid changes between space-age futurism and a nostalgic resurrection of Edwardian and Victorian formal finery is also reflected in Lacey’s work – his robots and rockets set off against top-hatted, one-man band buffoonery.

Pre-punk graphics - The Alberts' lost album
Centred around Lacey and the Gray brothers, Tony and Douglas, the Alberts’ enthusiastic demolition of early jazz and novelty tunes, gleaned from the cracked and dust-filled grooves of rediscovered 78s, paved the way for The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Roger Ruskin Spear’s kinetic robots and automata, and the many theatrical props incorporated into the Bonzo’s stage performances, may also have drawn on Lacey and The Albert’s example. The Alberts, whilst remembered with great affection by those who witnessed their unpredictable, chaotic but energetic and committed shows, endure as an obscure footnote to 60s London pop culture. This is largely due to the lack of any substantive documentation of their performances. In the new documentary on Lacey, The Lacey Experience by artist Jeremy Deller (who also co-curated the Camden Arts Centre exhibition) and film-maker Nick Abrahams, included on the bfi discs, he reveals that The Alberts recorded an LP for EMI, produced by George Martin. EMI objected to the cover, a union jack with torn out lettering from adverts ornamenting the red crosses of St Patrick and St George. As Lacey elucidates out in the documentary, he regarded the flag as representative of the lingering arrogance of British imperial attitudes, and the messages mischievously attached point to its negative associations and paint it as a redundant symbol. The ‘ultimate toilet paper’ byline suggests a possible alternative usage. The rough, collaged graphics and provocative use of the flag resemble Jamie Reid’s God Save The Queen cover for The Sex Pistols, and punk graphics in general, to a striking degree. Lacey refused to compromise over the cover, and the album remained in the vaults (although Lacey states that he has a copy in his possession too). George Melly, in his 1970 book on Swinging 60s London, Revolt Into Style, offers his own perspective on why the Alberts were destined to obscurity. ‘As to why they have survived in the shadows while those they engendered swam out into the light’, he stated, ‘I believe the reason is that they are totally serious. Surrounded by extinct musical instruments and ancient machinery, dressed in daily life as if they were Victorian lifeboat skippers or First World War German pilots, they preserve a grave courtesy which holds mockery at bay, but at the same time worries people’. Melly also makes a prescient connection with the punk generation to come when he describes Lacey as being ‘barely in control of his hatred for whatever seems to him to be unloving or morally dead…with his rolling eyes and filthy Edwardian evening clothes…he gives off an aura of real if ludicrous menace’. This sense of underlying violence, of a savagely satirical and slightly despairing outlook on the dehumanising aspects of the technologised post-war landscape, counterbalances the charmingly whimsical and childlike aspect of his creations.

Flight of fools - doomed Hampstead launch
A hint of the barely contained anarchy of their performances can be found in the short film The Flying Alberts, included on the bfi disc. This documents and attempt, clearly doomed from the outset, to launch a rocket from the slopes of Hampstead Heath, piloted by a gasmasked Lacey with the brothers Gray in tweedy tow. The whole endeavour ends in sopping ignominy in one of the nearby ponds, and can be seen as a tribute of sorts to the hopeless dreamers whose inept early attempts at flight are captured in bathetic turn of the century film footage. A celebration of British failure. The marching band whose ragged fanfares give them a wavering send off includes future Bonzos Neil Innes and Rodney Slater, revealing an even more direct link between Alberts and Bonzos. Perhaps The Humanoid Boogie, Innes’ infectious automaton pop number for the Bonzos, was influenced by Lacey’s robots too. The film also displays Lacey’s skill at making imaginative props out of whatever he could lay his hands on, props which were often treated in a less than gentle manner (shades of Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, violently impinging on popular culture via Pete Townsend at about the same time). Lacey had made or found props for Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine’s post-Goon TV shows, and props from his personal hoard (kites, spyglasses, Victorian cameras, amusing hats etc) can also be seen in Dick Lester’s short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. This was made in 1960 with a half-Goon cast of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, Leo McKern acting as a more than serviceable Secombe stand-in. Lacey himself himself appears briefly as a music lover, laying his chosen LP down onto a treestump ‘turntable’, producing an old gramophone arm and stylus connected to a trumpet speaker, and running around the stump in a giddy circle, pressing the needle into the groove and the speaker against his ear.

Lacey's DIY gramaphone method - The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film
Lacey’s antic role within the Alberts’ set-up is hinted at in the poster for the 1950 Carnival of Jazz held, appropriately enough, at the Albert Hall, and headlined by Chris Barber with the late Ottoline Morrell. The design is a simple two-colour textual delineation of the bill of artists, with an announcement at the bottom that it will be ‘compered by The Alberts and interrupted by Professor Bruce Lacey’. The Alberts staged a number of shows which pre-empted criticism by announcing themselves as ‘An Evening of British Rubbish’. It’s a billing which manages simultaneously to fly the flag and make a mockery of it. As they used to proudly declare when the whole thing shambled to its conclusion, the smoke of exploding dummies drifting from the stage, ‘I know it’s rubbish, but by jingo, it’s British rubbish’. The rubbish could also be the Victorian detritus, wartime surplus equipment and health service cast-offs which Lacey cobbled together into comically grotesque anthropomorphic automata (junk people) or Heath Robinsonesque props destined for noisome destruction.

ROSA on the rampage - Smashing Time
Lacey’s professorial qualifications were self-bestowed, and indicated his penchant for rubbish dump invention and mad scientist affections (a disconcertingly intense and abstracted gaze, manic glints of sudden inspiration, disarrayed clothing and electrostatically charged hair). This culminated in the multi-purpose robots he created in the early to mid-60s, powered by old aircraft voltage motors and lent limbs and extremities by courtesy of the NHS. These made their appearances at various countercultural London hotspots in the swinging summer of love 60s – places like the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm and the Middle Earth club in Covent Garden. His star robot was probably R.O.S.A B.O.S.O.M. (that’s Radio Operated Simulated Actress, Battery Or Standard Operated Mains), who was best ‘man’ at his wedding to Jill Smith (Lacey’s regular collaborator under the name Jill Bruce). It’s fairly typical of Lacey’s refusal to make a distinction between life and art that he should turn his wedding into another performance. As he tells it, he simply couldn’t leave her at home, regarding her as an integral part of the family. ROSA can also be seen trundling about the Middle Earth dance floor in a short film on the dvd, Lacey discretely manipulating the antennaed control box from the shadows. She went on the rampage (along with a battalion of Lacey’s other robots) in the 1967 film Smashing Time, menacing our Rita (Tushingham) with big wet smackers from her extendable red sponge lips. Lacey observes the mayhem his mechanical offspring cause with hysterical, bug-eyed delight, playing the mad scientist to the hilt. Showing little signs of her age, ROSA also ended up winning the Alternative Miss World Contest in 1985, snatching a crown usually claimed by an outrageously inventive drag queen.

ROSA was initially created for the theatrical show The Three Musketeers at the Royal Court in 1965, where she, Lacey and The Alberts appeared alongside the likes of Valentine Dyall and Rachel Roberts. A mutated version of The Alberts, genetically re-engineered (in name if not dress and outlook) for the times (1967 by the looks of it), appeared at The Marquee with the pre-Kraftwerk robots in what the psychedelically bedazzling poster styles as ‘An Antique Freak-In with Pink Albert’s Collapsible Orchestra, Bruce Lacey and the Red Army Combo’. Having mocked the lingering tatters of British Imperial bluster, Lacey and the Alberts were happy to extend the privilege of being the target of their piss-taking to the linguistic affectations of the counterculture. With an evening of such unpredictable delights in prospect, tickets were a steal at 6/- for members and 8/- for guests.

Lacey’s artistic credentials were given substantial recognition through several appearances at the ICA from the late 60s onwards, including participation in the Cybernetic Serendipity symposium in 1968. Our backstreet, homegrown professor took his place amongst the heady company of Professor Herbert Brun, Professor Lionel Penrose and the avant-garde composer, mathematician and architect Iannis Xenakis. The ad for this august gathering was in the style of Polish surrealist film posters, with the central image definitely based around Lacey’s robots. A 1975 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery suggests that he was now firmly established, earning a career retrospective looking back on ’40 years of assemblages, environments and robots’. That forty year span makes it clear that Lacey traces his creativity back to his childhood, and makes no clear distinction between mature and ‘juvenile’ work, valuing early efforts as much as the work of his adult years. He was born in 1927, in the South London borough of Lewisham, so counting back from 1975, the Whitechapel exhibition would include things he made when he was 8 years old.

A Robot Lilliput reproduction
The first room of the Camden Arts Centre exhibition proper (if we regard the poster hall as a prelude) looks at his early work, life and influences, and is perhaps best summed up by the declaration, included in the introductory remarks, that you should endeavour ‘never to lose the child within you’. Various relics of Lacey’s childhood were on display, precious personal artefacts safely encased in museum glass. At the far end of the room, by a window which lent it backlit prominence, a wooden fort was placed on a table, with a note from Lacey telling us that it had been built by his dad. It was the perfect stage for a young boy’s imagination, and a demonstration for him of what could be created from the sawn-off discards of the lumber yard. Its placement at the rear centre of the room made it a natural starting point for a journey through Lacey’s life, a progenitive object which sowed the creative seed in little Bruce’s imagination. Also present were some of his childhood toys (part of Lacey’s art lies in a natural hoarder’s tendency to curate their own lives). There was Robot Lilliput, an early Japanese version of the wind-up tin robot toy, one of the first to be produced; and an Indian doll (of the Native American variety) which, as he told us on one of the neatly handwritten cards he placed beside each artefact, ‘I took to bed every night as a young boy and cuddled’. Here in nascent form, in these objects placed side by side, were two of the enduring, counterbalancing poles of his artistic obsessions – visions of mechanical men and the space-age future, and an instinctive embrace of a pre-industrial worldview as filtered through popular culture, and re-interpreted in personal terms. A 1953 sketch of ‘my ventriloquist dummy’s head Tommy’ suggested an early facility (or need) for adopting alternative personae, and also forged a link with fellow eccentric spirit, explorer of personal mythologies and stubborn follower of his own path Ken Campbell, who would carry out his own distinctively interrogatory ventures into the ventriloquial arts in his latter years.

Art as impulsive therapy - 1980s Earth Rituals
Costumes from childhood gave a foretaste of a life spent dressing up and playacting. Indian, harlequin and clown outfits hung from the wall next to a red post-box one-piece, an early indication of a sense of the surreal and the absurd. The centrality of wartime mythologies and the dreams of flying were represented by his Uncle Jim’s helmet and goggles from the First World War. Lacey himself went into the Navy in 1945, his one brief voyage largely spent in cramped conditions below decks, where he contracted tuberculosis. He was confined to a TB ward, where he was rendered immobile for a period, and witnessed the confinement and decline of others whose cases were far worse than his. Some of his later assemblages using health service odds and sods, crutches and body-covering plaster casts draw on his experience of this time. It was in the ward that he started seriously sketching and developing his interest in art, as several sketches of his immediate surroundings, and of ranked skeletons attested. He also set up an episcope projector, which could throw magnified pictures of his fellow patients’ photos onto the walls. Again, the roots of his future gadget building ingenuity and improvisatory instinct for going beyond the standard boundaries of ‘serious’ art and entertaining and surprising people through whatever means were available or came to mind were plain to see. Lacey, in the documentary on the bfi dvd, talks about having taken up art in the ward as a kind of therapy, and there’s something of that therapeutic impulse which has persisted throughout his life. Certainly, when he talks in the documentary about the ritual to the Earth Goddess he performed at a festival in 1982, which was a naked (literally) public act of ceremonial rebirth after the end of his long-term partnership with Jill Bruce, he is still palpably emotional about it. It was his way of coming to terms with a great disruption in his life, creating a performance piece almost as an incidental side-effect. The experience of war and of the drawn out death of the TB ward is reflected in his truly horrific assemblage Wartime Marriage from 1965, in which two bodies are tied onto a camp bed with lengths of string. Their skin is covered with sores and open wounds, and parts of limbs have been messily snapped off. The woman’s face has become fused with a gasmask, and the man’s arm is raised, as if in a futile gesticulation for help. They look like fossilised Pompeii-esque relics from the far future of a post nuclear catastrophe. In a wartime gas ‘cradle’, a baby’s face can be seen peering innocently out; another of Lacey’s disturbing uses of dolls. This is a work which amply demonstrates that Lacey, beneath (and sometimes coexistant with) his whimsical and madcap persona, could draw on and give powerful expression to deep-seated personal and political fears, anxieties and terrors.

On the near wall hung some of the paintings he produced after leaving the Hornsey College of Art to study at the Royal College of Art from 1951-54. They are surprisingly subdued, even drab in tone, and realistic in their depiction of everyday scenes and landscapes. Their rather depressing air of brownness is maybe a reflection of a general disaffection with the shattered, weary world of post-war austerity Britain. Or maybe the paint has just faded and lost its colour with time. Suspended above all of these representative markers of his childhood and youth was a sculpture which spanned most of the upper space beneath the ceiling. A large prick in a spectrum of primary colours was outlined in framework form by broken, bent and rejoined hula hoops, ceremonially bedecked with ribbons to add a ritualistic air. White tubes issued from its tip to swirl and spiral out across the room’s upper expanse. Baby girl dolls of varying size and shape were attached to these looping pathways at different intervals, new life launched off into the world. Just as Lacey’s story begins below, they are setting off to create new stories, and to build up their own personal mythologies along the way. It’s a cyclical symbol of generative forces, the straight male member issuing its brief cannonade before giving way to circular forms with their conjoined female travellers – the daughters of Albion flying away into a new world very different from the one laid out below them.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Michael Chabon and Scream Queens on the Radio

There have been some interesting things on the radio over the past few days. On the BBC Radio 3 programme Night Waves on Monday Michael Chabon joined presenter Matthew Sweet to discuss his new novel Telegraph Avenue (it’s about seven minutes in). A reading from the book focussed on the character of Mr Nostalgia, a peddler of collectible ephemera, bubblegum cards in particular, selling people encapsulated fragments of their past. This led to a discussion about nostalgia and retromania, and the power of certain artefacts or pieces of popular art (songs or movies) to briefly bring about a sense of completely inhabiting a recollected past. As Mr Nostalgia reflects, the reverently preserved relics of throwaway culture, the bubble gum cards, model kits and spin-off boardgames he casts his slightly worldweary eye over, whilst they have no intrinsic value other than what people are prepared to pay for them, offer the possibility that what has been lost (a past which has acquired an Edenic aura in the mind) can be restored, if only for a briefly ignited moment. Chabon likens the powerful talismanic artefacts and mantric sounds which Mr Nostalgia and his Telegraph Avenue record shop proprietors seek out and sell to drugs, allowing the individual to access a layer of consciousness beyond the day to day awareness of the temporal instant, to defy the conveyor belt of linear time. As with any drug, it can prove addictive, its effects dangerously alluring. Sweet points out that nostalgia used to be classified as a medical condition up until the 1870s or 80s, the ‘algia’ part having its Greek roots in the word ‘algos’, or pain.

Chabon confesses that his own perspective on collecting and pop cultural obsessiveness is one of ‘helpless approval’, not to mention active participation. He goes on to discuss Doctor Who with Sweet, and the two immediately hit it off, sharing their in-depth knowledge of the series in the very manner which Chabon celebrates in his essay The Amateur Family, included in his recent collection Manhood For Amateurs. The word geek is avoided, as Chabon notes its negative connotations and contemptuous usage in his essay, and he’s not comfortable with the way ‘fan’ suggests an indiscriminate and narrowly uncritical focus, so he settles instead on the notion of enthusiastic amateurs. The essay also charts his Doctor Who obsession, which sprang from his love of the new series and his inherent need to then go on and discover the entire history of its fictional universe, watching stories all the way back to William Hartnell’s first appearance in 1963. He shares his extensive explorations of this expansive world with his children, who are soon sporting Dalek and Cybermen t-shirts, and they all enthusiastically engage in a conversation with a fellow fan in a museum, cued by his question ‘is that a Dalek?’ Reflecting on the way that fandom allows this intense and detailed enjoyment of a popular artwork (as he refers to it) to be shared with others, he comes to see the link between it and family life. Both are the domain of the passionate amateur, in which a shared world is explored and discussed, its limits tested and its familiarity alternately cherished and challenged. They provide a model through which the wider world can be better understood.

Holmesian Who - Tom Baker in The Talons of Weng-Chiang
Sweet asks Chabon who is his favourite Who from the past, and he opts for Tom Baker, apologising for the obviousness of the choice. Baker was the actor who most notably impinged on the American consciousness, and appeared with the greatest regularity on their screens, so he is partly drawing on youthful recollection. Harlan Ellison provides a good American perspective on the series in his 1979 introduction to the US editions of the paperback novelisations, noting that ‘we’re only now being treated to the wonderful universes of Who here in the States’. He remembers being introduced to it in 1975 by Michael Moorcock, the first year in which Baker took on the role, so he could even have begun with the classic Genesis of the Daleks story (than which he could have had no finer introduction). He testifies to his wholehearted conversion, calling the show ‘the apex, the pinnacle, the tops, the Louvre Museum, the tops, the Coliseum, and other etcetera’, and praising it as being ‘sunk to the hips in humanism, decency, solid adventure and simple good reading’. The Doctor, he suggests, has the same universal appeal as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Superman. Chabon holds up the Baker era as the one in which the greatest balance between between whimsy and pleasurable terror was struck. He specifically expresses his enjoyment of a Sherlock Holmesian adventure set in Victorian London, which Matthew Sweet immediately and enthusiastically identifies as The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Sweet too has come out as a Who fan, and provided a witty and well-informed documentary for the Invasion of the Dinosaurs dvd, a 1974 Jon Pertwee adventure which he puts into its wider political and cultural context (the birth of modern environmentalism and the fear of right-wing coups by private armies). ‘We’re on the same wavelength, Matthew’, Chabon remarks, ‘a nightwave’.

Night Terrors - Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad
They also discover a shared interest in the ghost stories of MR James (who is also mentioned in the previous article, about the worrying plight of the ash tree). Chabon has written an essay on James, included in his collection Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, and taking into account his enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes (who is the subject of another essay in the collection), there appears to be a definite Anglophone tendency to his literary tastes. Sweet suggests that Chabon’s record collectors and dealers in ephemera are like James’ antiquaries, with a similarly single-minded absorption in their quest, which leaves them vulnerable to attendant dangers, whether psychological or supernatural. Chabon insists upon the blamelessness of James’ scholarly protagonists, suggesting that part of the horror of the stories lies in their moral arbitrariness. These harmless dabblers (more enthusiastic amateurs) do nothing to deserve the terrible fates which befall them. Sweet mischievously points out that Professor Parkins, the amateur archaeologist of Chabon’s favourite James story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, does earn the terrifying visitation of the spectre which forms itself from his bedclothes, since he mistranslates the Latin inscription on the bronze whistle which he unearths from an old Templar site on the bleak East Anglian shore. Or rather, it is an omission of scholarly thorougness. As ST Joshi points out in his annotated Penguin Classics edition of James, the inscription Quis Est Iste Qui Venit is adapted from Biblical verse (Isaiah 63:1 to be precise) and is correctly interpreted by Professor Parkin as meaning ‘who is this who is coming’. But he neglects to decipher the further marks etched into the ancient metal, Fur Fla Bis Fle, before impulsively blowing the whistle, producing a sound with ‘a quality of infinite distance in it’. Joshi alludes to the varying interpretations of the word fragments by literary scholars before opting for the Latin phrase ‘Fur, flabis, flebis’ as the most apposite. Translated, it means ‘Thief, you will blow, you will weep’. Undue haste and overeager carelessness in drawing conclusions are certainly academic sins, but the mind-cracking supernatural encounter which Parking suffers as a result certainly seems incommensurate with the original infraction.

Sweet and Chabon also discuss the notion of crossover characters, fictional creations who migrate from one story world into another. Science fiction and fantasy seem particularly adept at such wholesale import and export of established figures. Chabon continues to use Doctor Who as an exemplar, citing Captain Jack’s appearances in the new series, after having been established in Torchwood, and the Doctor’s in the Sarah Jane Adventures. He also proposes that Barack Obama is essentially a fictional character in the manner he and others have constructed his persona and presented itself to the American public, and that his appearance in Telegraph Avenue is therefore in the nature of a crossover. The grey parrot who crops up in Telegraph Avenue has also crossed over from Chabon’s short novel The Final Solution. This is a subtly devastating story which (as the title cryptically hints) conflates a portrait of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (never actually named, but readily identifiable to anyone who knows the Holmesian oeuvre) coping with physical and mental decline and the terrible, bureaucratic logic of the European death camps, whose spectre places him in a very different world from the Victorian and Edwardian environs he once surveyed with an all-encompassing eye. The new Moriarties have come aboveground, developed a political philosophy and taken control. The grey parrot, chattering out seemingly random sequences of numbers, holds the key to the mystery, one last case for the great detective to solve – a solution which will swallow up the last vestiges of his old world in a dark moral abyss. Sweet points to the fact that Chabon’s literary universe now contains both Sherlock Holmes and Barack Obama. Chabon makes the intriguing observation that the two have some affinity, a reference perhaps to the president’s perceived cool intellectual aloofness which has not proved popular with the portion of America which expects a more bullish assertiveness from its leaders. Who knows where this interest in crossover characters within his fictional worlds will take him. It’s started with a parrot, maybe it will develop into the kind of vast, teeming multiverse of Michael Moorcock’s fictional worlds, with their increasing retrospective ordering of an initially chaotic profligacy of genre-migrating characters, and the occasional appearance of ‘real’ people. Chabon can also be heard talking to Alex Fitch down a slightly distorted phone line on the Resonance FM Book List programme, the conversation starting about 40 minutes in.

Delphine Seyrig - Daughter of Darkness
On Tuesday, Reece Shearsmith presented the Radio 4 programme Scream Queens, looking at the role of women in horror films over the decades, but particularly in the golden age of British horror from the 50s through to the early 70s. The League of Gentlemen writer and performer isn’t the only one to have paid homage to his love of classic horror. Mark Gatiss made an excellent, very personal three part history of British horror films for BBC4 a couple of years age, and is soon to present its follow up, which will focus on the European horror film tradition. This single 90 minute film, called Horror Europa, is being previewed at the bfi on 28th October, with Gatiss present for a Q&A session afterwards. The bfi programme summary promises that the documentary will range from ‘the nightmare visions of German Expressionism to the black-gloved killers of Italian Giallo movies, from Belgian lesbian vampires to the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War’. So it sounds like we can expect a lineage tracing Murnau and Dreyer (Nosferatu and Vampyr) to Mario Bavo and Dario Argento, Harry Kumel’s deliciously decadent Daughters of Darkness (and possibly also his wonderfully surreal and dreamlike Malpertuis) to Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Shearsmith’s approach is a little more flippant than Gatiss’, the latter managing to combine an evident affection for the films with an essentially serious approach to the material (which doesn’t preclude him having a bit of fun with some of the film’s more preposterous elements).

Barbara Shelley - Dracula Prince of Darkness
Shearsmith’s documentary, light and a little frivolous though it may be, does offer the pleasure of gathering together several actresses from British horror films of the 60s and 70s, Hammer and otherwise. It was particularly good to hear from Barbara Shelley, who recalls that her unpretentious desire upon becoming an actress was to entertain and amuse. She was initially wary of the horror roles she was offered, before coming to realise that these films achieved precisely that aim. She seems proud of her status as a Hammer icon, and claims that horror roles were in many ways more demanding than ‘normal’ ones. She recalls doing more research (in this case being into Greek mythology) for her role as Carla/Megaera in the Gorgon (one of her finest performances and a rare leading part) than for any other. Questioned about her dual role in Dracula Prince of Darkness, in which she is transformed by the Count’s infectious kiss from a primly repressed Victorian lady into a sensual vampiric temptress, she admits that she actually preferred the more ‘starchy’ parts, since they required a more restrained form of acting. But it’s this very restraint, the subtly conveyed air of a character holding some part of herself in, which makes her transitions into wild abandonment so compelling. Her wailing levitation under the influence of the pulsating force of the awakening Martian pod in Quatermass and the Pit is absolutely electrifying. These transitions can be equally powerful in reverse, too. She cites her death scene in Dracula Prince of Darkness as the moment in her film career of which she is most proud, her wild, hissing, animalistic ferocity instantly receding into peaceful repose as the stake is forcefully hammered in (an uncomfortable scene which has often been likened to a sexual assault).

Innocence and Experience - Madeleine Smith and Ingrid Pitt
Shearsmith also talks to Madeleine Smith, who came to Hammer quite late and featured in such films as Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. She talks, with the amused tolerance of someone remembering water which has passed under and well beyond the bridge, about the indignities she was obliged to put up with in an era in which Hammer was beginning to expose more flesh, and to make a sexuality which had been left largely implicit emphatically explicit (although not as emphatically as some of its seedier rivals, it has to be said). She puts this new emphasis on sex down to co-financing of The Vampire Lovers by AIP (American International Pictures) and the arrival of producers Michael Style and Harry Fine, who she says followed her around everywhere in order to ensure that they were getting the kind of film they envisaged. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) head John Trevelyan was sufficiently bothered about the script’s lesbian content that he contacted Sir James Carreras, the well-connected father figure of the Hammer ‘family’, asking him if he could try to temper the excesses of these upstart newcomers and ‘keep this film within reasonable grounds’. Carreras played the literary adaptation card, pointing out that the lesbianism was present in Le Fanu’s source story Carmilla (who lent the central character her name, if nothing else), which Trevelyan seemed to accept. A reading from Le Fanu’s story in the programme reveals that it does indeed possess a heady, narcotised atmosphere of decadent eroticism, remarkably so for the time of its writing (1872). Madeleine Smith professes to have been completely naive at the time the film was made, which helped to see her through, and her obliviousness to what was going on, and the nature of the parts she was required to play, gives her characters an authentic and affecting appearance of innocence. There was no such reticence or naivety about Ingrid Pitt, whose rich Eastern European accent is heard in an archive interview (hearing it makes you wonder why on earth her lines were overdubbed in Countess Dracula). She had no problem with nudity since, as she proudly proclaimed, ‘I had a wonderful body’.

The cult of Linda - Blood On Satan's Claw
Linda Hayden, who had to do a nude scene in Blood on Satan’s Claw in which she attempts to seduce the village vicar (as played by Anthony Ainley, later to exchange the cloth for the villain’s black of The Master in Doctor Who) in his church, also professes to have been unabashed at such a requirement, partly due to her respect for director Piers Haggard, whose work on the film she unreservedly praises. Despite its lurid title, Blood On Satan’s Claw is a haunting, beautifully shot evocation of a pastoral England infected with a malign spirit which seems to distil the cruel and vicious elements of the natural world. Hayden is chillingly effective as the leader of a rural cult in an isolated woodland village, her possession by a devil churned up piecemeal from the ploughed over earth signified by a wolfish thickening of her dark eyebrows Hayden is also very good in the 1969 Hammer film Taste The Blood Of Dracula as the daughter of one of a trio of Victorian ‘gentlemen’, seduced to the dark side by Christopher Lee’s Count in a story which exposes the hollow hypocrisy of their moral authority. Hayden embraces her vampiric nature with wholehearted abandon, fully conveying the sense of liberation from Victorian strictures which it brings.

Ingrid as Le Fanu's Carmilla - The Vampire Lovers
Madeleine Smith and Pauline Moran, who played the Woman in Black in Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s short novel, both decry the lack of leading roles for women both in horror and in the acting profession in general. Moran works for the actor’s union Equity, who have recently been working to redress this imbalance. Horror, whilst it frequently reduces women to the role of sacrificial victim or predatory vamp, has also provided some excellent opportunities for female actors. The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula may have been born out of Hammer’s attempt to compete with the exploitation market, but Ingrid Pitt puts in towering performances in both, bringing a touch of pathos and longing to her monstrous characters which earns them a degree of sympathy. She reflects that she was probably best suited to horror films, and that if she somehow strayed into a romantic comedy ‘I would probably kill him’. Leading female characters such as Irena in Val Lewton’s Cat People (played by Simone Simon) and Miss Giddens, the governess in The Innocents (played by Deborah Kerr), trailers or excerpts from both of which are heard in the programme, are richly ambiguous and psychologically complex, offering challenging and demanding roles for the actor (and both Simon and Kerr give fine performances).

Gloria Holden - Dracula's Daughter
Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (a neglected minor gem in the Universal canon) and Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein are also held up as exemplars of women who have created memorable female characters in horror films. Lanchester’s bride may be onscreen for only a few moments, and she doesn’t so much scream as hiss and spit, but her impact is unforgettable. Holden brings an unworldly, deeply melancholic quality to her cursed character, bringing a tragic dimension to the story. It’s interesting that both she and Irena in Cat People are subject to the interrogations of a psychiatrist looking to find the true subconscious origins of their afflictions – the underlying metaphor of their monstrous natures laid bare for a few moments. Irena ends up killing her psychiatrist in leopard form, however, which clears up that case. As a more modern example of a complex female protagonist, neither victim nor one-dimensionally feisty and all-competent heroine, Shearsmith mentions The Awakening, in which Rebecca Hall plays Florence, a sceptical ghost hunter. Shearsmith offers the intriguing insight that an early draft of Stephen Volk’s script revealed this character to be Flora, the little girl from The Innocents, all grown up but still working through the trauma of her experiences.

The Woman In Black - Pauline Moran
Pauline Moran’s performance as the hateful spirit of The Woman In Black, a revenant bent on revenge, was extremely effective. As she points out, she is only seen five times in the course of the film, but each appearance makes an indelible impression. She recalls the scene, which Shearsmith remembers as being possibly the most terrifying he has seen on any television programme, in which the woman in black descends on the hapless solicitor, marooned on his sick bed. She floats impossibly through his window and approaches him in a glide which seems to bring her looming endlessly forward without ever quite arriving. Moran reveals the mechanics of the filming of this spectral visitation, and the effect her appearance had on the normally fairly hardbitten crew; they all instinctively leaned away from her as she was pulled towards them on the dolly tracks, the wind machine blowing her hair and black cloak back behind her. She produced her bloodcurdling scream not as a full-throated bellow, but as a long-drawn out ‘eeeeeeee’ from the front of her mouth, held in a rigid rictus; a terrifying sound which seemed to draw on ancestral Celtic memories of banshee death wails in the dead of night. It was still utterly hair-raising even just coming out of the radio. Moran, Madeleine Smith and Barbara Shelley were united in their dislike for modern developments in the genre, which they see as having becoming coarser and more explicitly violent. Moran sees no reason why classic period horror shouldn’t find a place in the modern cinema landscape, however. The recent success of the revived Hammer’s version of The Woman In Black, for all its flaws (and they are, to my mind, manifold) shows that there is an appetite for such fare. And perhaps Hammer is the studio to provide it once more.

Scream Queens is part of the Gothic Imagination series of programmes on Radio 4. This week also saw the start of a new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s hugely influential novel Dracula. There is an immediate sense of redundancy to such an undertaking. The story has been told so many times before, and by now there’s a definite sense of strain in the search for a new way in which it can be approached. This is actually a fairly straight ‘classic’ interpretation, acted with period drama correctness, and offering little that is new. A degree of familiarity is almost assumed here, and the narrative appears at times to be unfolding with a retrospective air. The limitations of radio are exposed at times, or rather are not sufficiently overcome. Parts of the action are awkwardly conveyed by characters pointing them out: Lucy commenting on the Demeter’s dramatic storm-tossed beaching n Whitby Harbour (‘look, there’s a man on deck – he’s lashed to the wheel’, etc.) and Dr Seward’s ‘Ah, you’ve cut me’ in reaction to a knife attack from Renfield. Dracula is obviously a difficult role to take on, with the temptation to fall into the mannerisms of renowned Counts from the past hard to resist. He is presented here as an old man with a long white moustache, a welcoming, slightly creaky East European who seems disarmingly ordinary. The sexual nature of his predation on Lucy, which is brought out by lines such as ‘you must ask me to enter you’, and by the breathy moans which accompany his supping of blood, is rather undermined by this initial image of an ageing, slightly avuncular figure, full of mild complaint. It makes this Dracula seem more of a dirty old man than a dark seducer of the Christopher Lee variety (or even a stage mesmerist in the Lugosi mould). The sound design for the scenes of blood drinking is also decidedly odd, with an exaggerated ripping sound followed by a loud, stickily fluid bubbling. Perhaps it is intended as an expressionistic effect, but it verges on the inadvertently ridiculous, Dracula sounding like a loud and messy eater. Similarly, Renfield’s lapping up of blood from the floor is done with such an emphatic slurp that it sounds like he has produced a handy straw from about his person to hoover it all up. The action so far has reached Lucy’s death. Again, overfamiliarity has rendered the repeated attempts at reviving her through blood transfusions a little tedious. We know she’s not going to survive, so the whole process seems a little drawn out. Don’t let me put you off entirely though. There are also things to enjoy here. The performances are solid and the script a clear and faithful rendering of Stoker’s story (Christopher Lee would approve). The interjection of moments of interior monologue give depth to characters who can appear a little one-dimensional on the page, and make them more sympathetic. Dracula will be followed by an adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Given that her novel is far less familiar to the modern reader, this may prove more fruitful material for adaptation. Perhaps, for now, it’s time to put the Count to bed. He’s earned a long, long sleep.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Open House London 2012

The city awaits - from the top of St Pancras Waterpoint
For the last 20 years, the Open House London organisation has arranged for buildings of all descriptions to be opened up to a curious public, for many of whom this will be the only opportunity to see places otherwise closed off to them. That public has been steadily growing in number, and this year, perhaps boosted by the publicity London has received in the Olympic spotlight, interest was at a peak. The online pre-booking system couldn’t cope with the volume of eager users hoping to get a place on some of the more exclusive tours, and packed up a number of times before giving up the ghost completely, to be replaced by a lottery system. This meant that my hoped for exploration of the refurbished St Pancras Grand Hotel was not to be. I had looked around it some years before on a previous Open House weekend when it was largely derelict and in the state in which it was left by British Rail, who’d converted it into offices – exuding a more Romantic and mysterious atmosphere, perhaps, than it does in its new bright and bustling aspect. A boat trip up the River Lea was also now out of the question, the lottery offering a slim chance indeed given its promised views of the new Olympic park developments. But the vast majority of places needed no pre-booking (more so than in previous years, in fact) and the lack of a restricting timetable allowed for a more relaxed and flexible criss-crossing of the city. Even so, some high-profile buildings attracted large crowds, who snaked out from their entryways in meandering queues, and which entailed lengthy waits. Over six hours in the case of St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin. Incidentally, having puzzled as to why it’s been given this now standard nickname, given that it bears no resemblance to the pickled delicacy in question, I recently learned that it’s because it was illuminated from within by green light when it was first opened, creating a memorably colourful vegetal contrast with the glassy City towers it now rose above. The idea of queuing for so long to get inside this admittedly iconic part of the post-millenial London skyline, whose architectural impact is almost wholly calculated to create an outward impression, must cause wry bemusement amongst the office workers who make the wearying journey every day to toil away in its fairly commonplace open plan interiors.

Looking out to Granary Square and St Pancras
We began our day within the environs of Kings Cross, a convenient step away from the station which was our point of disembarkation for the city. This is an area which has been transformed (and is in the process of being further transformed) in recent years. A curving avenue, slightly ostentatiously named Kings Boulevard, leads north from the station’s rear exit, bordered by barriers which are lined with pictures and information boards detailing aspects of local history, and drawing the attention away from the building sites beyond. There is a small viewing window about half way along so that you can keep an eye on progress, but from the looks of it there’s a fair way to go yet before the inevitable mix of office and retail space and residential flats springs up. Some of the housing will be ringed by the resurrected red and black Victorian ironwork of the old gas towers which have greeted people coming in to Kings Cross or St Pancras for so many years. The bruised innocence of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster gazes out at us from one of the panels, a reference to Mary Shelley’s link to the nearby St Pancras Old Church, where she used to rendezvous (when still Mary Godwin) with Percy Shelley beside her mother’s grave. We shall this pitiful face again later, in a much darker place.

St Martins - the outside inside
The avenue leads up to the new St Martin’s College of Art, housed in the old Great Northern Railway goods buildings – the old granary storage shed and two transit sheds where freight was loaded and offloaded. Granary Square in front has a patterned grid of pin-point fountains which spout out in shifting, rhythmic patterns and seem to cry out for a formation dance routine to burst out around them in order to complete the effect. The interior hallway is the old exterior façade covered over – the outside brought inside to enchanting effect. To the side, access is given via the canopy of the old goods siding where fish was unloaded to be carted over to Billingsgate market, with a further canopy angling on to the side of that where potato wagons once unloaded many a sackful. There’s easy access to the Regent’s Canal, with paths which will take you to Camden, Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park and London Zoo, Little Venice and Paddington. There’s also a promise that the sooty old brick buildings of the Fish and Coal Offices, which wall the waterway and in which GNR clerks once scratched away on parchment paper, will be converted for future use.

Aesthetic engineering - the St Pancras Waterpoint
To get to the old Victorian Waterpoint cistern, which is just by the Camley Street Basin of the canal, you have to take a small diversion along the Goods Way roadside, however, passing the charming and tranquil pocket oasis of the Camley Street nature reserve. The compact red brick structure of the water tower, a fine example of the Victorian brickie’s craft, was erected in 1872 alongside the raised platforms of St Pancras to provide a handy reservoir of water for the many steam trains coming into the station, built in 1886-8 as the London terminus of the Midland Railway line. It was saved from being knocked down by the incursion of the channel rail links loop round into St Pancras by being bodily moved, section by horizontal, sheared-off section, on a mobile transporting platform the short 750 yard distance to its current site. In a similar fashion (although intact and on a more primitive system of rollers) a 15th century timber-framed merchant’s house was eased downhill in Exeter in 1961 in order to save it from road-widening destruction, earning it the self-explanatory if prosaically unimaginative name ‘the house that moved’. The water tower now plays host to the St Pancras Cruising Club, a genial bunch, one of whom confessed that this was where they got pissed on a Friday night. They even made cake. The old cistern, with its swollen ballcock now permanently drooping at half-mast, is now a rooftop viewing platform which affords fine views along the canal in both directions, over the tracks to the old St Pancras churchyard, along the rails to the arching canopy of St Pancras station, from which the new javelin trains which shuttled people over to the Olympic site at Stratford periodically shot out, and south to the familiar outlines of the cityscape – the post-office tower, St Paul’s, the gherkin (and now, of course, the inescapable shard). It’s the kind of view (if at a rather more acute angle) that residents once enjoyed from the roof gardens atop the old Culross Buildings in Battlebridge Road, built for railway workers in the late nineteenth century and a recent victim of the new development of the area. Cinematic scenes in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and Michael Palin’s The Missionary, as well as Paul Kelly's video for the Saint Etienne single Hobart Paving, give a glimpse of the rooftop vista they once offered.

Top of the world - the Victorian waterpoint and gas towers from the Battlebridge Road flats in High Hopes (1988)
Heading back past St Martin’s along Goods Road, we had a brief nose around the Kings Place arts complex, a cavernous space of cold stone with a very large atrium, one level above and one below the ground floor space, with concert halls and galleries opening off here and there. It was still fairly empty at this early hour, and you almost expected someone to walk briskly and purposefully towards you across the length of one of the polished floors, heels creating a ricocheting echo like Rachel in the Tyrrell building in Blade Runner. The glass doors at the back opened onto another basin of the Regent’s Canal, the Battlebridge Basin, this one housing the London Canal Museum, with a row of colourful barges neatly lined up around its perimeter.

Berthold Lubetkin
Cutting across the once infamously sleazy Caledonian Road, we headed towards Collier Street and the Priory Green Estate, the first of three estates in the area built by Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton architectural collective for Finsbury local council in the immediate post-war period. Lubetkin had arrived in London in 1931, initially with the purpose of seeking out suitable architects for a competition to design the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. Born in 1901 in Georgia, then a part of the USSR, he had enjoyed a post-revolutionary education in Moscow and Petrograd before leading a peripatetic life of study and work which took him across Europe, from Berlin to Warsaw, Vienna to Paris. He lived in Paris for six years before moving to London, initially hired by the Soviet government to supervise construction of plans taken from Konstantin Melnikov’s drawings for a pavilion for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs which was held in the city.

The London Zoo Penguin Pool
This building had a formative influence on his own architectural ideas, its cylindrical form reflected in the first building he complete in England, the gorilla house in London Zoo, with its sliding outer frontage providing shelter or sunlight as the seasons dictated. He also got to know le Corbusier, the towering figure of modernist architecture, whilst in Paris and absorbed many of his ideas and theories. Le Corbusier would later express approval of Highpoint, Lubetkin’s elegant 1933-5 block of flats in Highgate which imported the continental moderne style in to North London, and he was not a man profligate in his dispensation of praise. Modernist architecture was treated with suspicion in Britain however. Lubetkin himself expressed the rather disgruntled view that it was ‘about fifty years behind, as though locked in a deep provincial sleep’. Having found Tecton (the Greek for carpenter, or builder) in 1932 with a group of enthusiastic and similarly minded young British architects (it was never in any doubt who was really in charge, however) he had initially to be content with housing the birds and the beasts. After the completion of the gorilla house in 1935, Tecton built thirteen more zoo buildings (and created the new zoo at Dudley in the midlands), including the innovative penguin pool in London Zoo. This was designed in collaboration with the Danish structural engineer Ove Arup, who showed Lubetkin how concrete could be used to create suspended, seemingly weightlessly unanchored curves and waves – as demonstrated by the theatrical double-spiral sweep of the penguins’ ramps, which provide a stage for the Chaplinesque birds to perform for onlookers. The clean, white, sun-reflecting surfaces favoured by European modernists, and adopted here by Lubetkin, also incidentally prove perfect for offsetting the black outline of the penguins’ plumage.

Highpoint One
A child of the Russian revolution, Lubetkin was a lifelong communist, but his social ideals were not fulfilled in his grand interwar buildings, Highpoint One and Two (built in 1935 and 1938 respectively). The wonderful Highpoint flats (which I’ve visited a couple of times on previous Open House days, and are probably my dream home) were initially commissioned by office furniture magnate Sigmund Gestetner as potential low-cost accommodation for his workers, but they ended up housing a more affluent, middle-class breed of city worker. Highpoint Two was designed for luxury and for the well-heeled from the outset, with tradesmen’s entrances and a separate system of stairways and access corridors for servants (whose quarters were hidden away on the ground floor, with access at the rear) to keep them out of sight as much as possible. Lubetkin also built a spacious penthouse spanning the top of the block, which he promptly moved into himself with his wife, designing its furnishings to provide a model of expensively modish living. An Open House guide in Highpoint 2, an architect to judge by his use of language, got rather tetchy when I asked about the contradiction between Lubetkin’s design of a separate circulatory system for servants in a building and his provision of penthouse luxury for himself and his wife and his communist beliefs. Don’t question the infallibility of the architectural guru, his terse manner seemed to imply, but it seemed a fairly obvious point to bring up.

The Finsbury Health Centre
Perhaps his work for the Labour Finsbury Council immediately before and after the war can be seen partly as an act of expiation for these materialist sins, an attempt to reassert the fundamentals of his social and architectural ideals. The socialist leader of Finsbury Council, Alderman Harold Riley, proposed to radically restructure his borough, which was hugely overcrowded and blighted by extreme poverty and the kinds of sicknesses which both brought. He developed what came to be known as the Finsbury Plan, which envisaged the area as becoming ‘the housing centre for London’, with integrated health, educational and communal facilities easily accessible for all. Riley had admired Lubetkin’s work on Highpoint, and hired him as the architect to give the plan concrete realisation (literally so). The first step was the building of Finsbury Health Centre from 1935-38, a place which was designed to make the whole process of going to the doctor more informal and less intimidating – just a part of the everyday routine. This was done by having a large and open entrance space with no reception desk, fronted by a glass-tiled wall which let in plenty of light; a place where people could mingle and meet. This drew on Lubetkin’s entrance space in Highpoint, which had a similar informal communal aspect, and expressed his belief that buildings should have a more generous transitional area between inside and outside – a place halfway between the private and the public. Murals on the wall were both cheerfully and colourfully decorative and served as a pictorial guide to gaining and maintaining a state of good health. Doctors’ surgeries were incorporated to the sides, with a lecture theatre in the centre and, on the roof, a solarium to bring local residents the benefits of sunlight denied to them in their crowded back to back housing, and thus counter the effects of rickets and other diseases caused by the lack of vitamin D.

Dreaming of the new Jerusalem - Abram Games' 1943 poster
The Health Centre is another building I have visited in previous Open House years. It’s still used for its original purpose, and the murals are still extant, although the lecture theatre has been turned into offices and the solarium closed down. The upper floor now pays host to the Michael Palin centre for stammering children, a new addition which is wholly in keeping with Lubetkin’s design for flexibility of use over time, his anticipation that some facilities would be superceded and demand for others created incorporated into his plans. The ideals behind the Health Centre and the Finsbury Plan in general are summed up in Lubetkin’s pre-emptive response to potential criticisms of the extravagance and expense of the building, ‘nothing is too good for the ordinary people’. They are given powerful graphic form by Abram Games’ 1943 poster in which the clean white curve of the Health Centre’s glass-tiled façade is depicted as a protective screen covering and by implication bulldozing aside slum ruins with their abject, stooped and sickness-hollowed inhabitants which lie behind. It’s a piece of progressively minded propaganda of the highest order, the visual language of advertising put to a noble use. And, of course, to some this was seen as a dangerous threat to the prevailing order (Churchill hated, and initially banned it).

The Priory Green Estate
The Priory Green Estate was the next stage in the realisation of the Finsbury Plan, a mass housing development drawn out by Lubetkin and Tecton in consultation with Riley and his fellow councillors in 1937. It was designed to replace the dilapidated Victorian back to back housing of Busaco Street with a complex that would incorporate all the amenities needed by its residents: A communal laundry, a refuse system, central heating, bicycle and pram parks, a playground, a nursery and, of course, a pub. There was even the adaptive addition of a deep shelter between the blocks of flats for wartime, which could be converted into a car park when the war was over. The Slum Clearances Act of 1936 allowed for full subsidising of new buildings only if they provided an equivalent population density to that which they replaced. The Busaco Street area had been greatly overcrowded, so the Priory Green Estate had to accommodate a significant number of flats within its limited area. The local Labour news circular The Finsbury Citizen announced the scheme in 1938, declaring the plans for ‘227 flats on Busaco Street site…all modern conveniences…maximum sunshine: separate access: up to date amenities’. Not all of the promises of the plans survived the stringencies of post-war austerity, although the premature slum-clearance carried out by wartime bombing provided an increase in the extent of the proposed site.

The Finsbury Plan evaporated in the chilly post-war climate, and Alderman Riley quietly ousted from his position. But whilst the ambitions he and Lubetkin had harboured to create a supportive and socially cohesive environment had to be scaled back, with budget cuts imposed by the supervising Ministry of Health, his Finsbury estates still carry some of that spirit of pre and immediately post-war optimism and progressive intent. The two larger eight storey blocks of flats and four smaller four storey ones are arranged around a central square of tree-dotted gardens, with looping paths guiding you around a circular well containing a small playground. The blocks are positioned so that they can each catch the maximum amount of daily sunshine, and follow the lines of the old streets. The entry space used to be decorated with murals by the artist Feliks Topolski depicting scenes of London history and local life, but these have unfortunately not survived. There’s now a new gateway building with a communal space above, in which a group of young girls were enjoying a lively dance class whilst we were there. The place has a pleasant and relaxed feel, sheltered but not entirely disconnected from the streets beyond, with the buzz of life going on all around the central area, but unobtrusively so.

A brief alliance - bringing Lenin back home
Across busy Pentonville Road, you come to the next of Lubetkin’s Finsbury estates, Bevin Court, just off the neat and picturesque Georgian surrounds of Percy Circus. Bevin Court was built on the site of Holford Square, where Lenin once lived at number 30 during his brief period of exile in London at the turn of the century. From here, he presumably walked south to Clerkenwell Green, where he worked on his revolutionary paper Iskra (The Spark) from an office upstairs in the old Welsh charity school building in which the socialist Twentieth Century Press had set themselves up. Lenin’s shared office is now reverently preserved more or less as it would have been in what is now the Marx Memorial Library. Lubetkin was commissioned to design and build a memorial to Lenin to be erected on the site; not by a collective of well-connected radicals, but by the Home Office. When it was unveiled, important establishment figures attended, including foreign secretary and future Prime Minister Antony Eden. The reason for this sudden and momentary official concern for the London legacy of the founder of Russian Communism lay in the ongoing siege of Leningrad in 1942, and the desire of the government to make some gesture of solidarity. Lubetkin set a bust of Lenin within a sheltering, freestanding frame, a canopy extending over his balding bonce to protect him from the elements. It didn’t protect him from vandals, however, who defaced it shortly after its unveiling. Worries over the cost of guarding the memorial against the further attacks which would inevitably ensue (some of them coming from the lingering rump of the British fascists) or of the need for constant repairs and renovations led to suggestions that it should be removed. In the end, Lubetkin took matters into his own hands, he and a few colleagues digging the whole thing up and ceremonially burying it in Holford Square. Lenin’s head is probably there still, exerting a talismanic aura like a latterday King Bran for trenchant lefties. Lubetkin suggested developing an estate on the Holford site, which was bombed during the war, and naming that after Lenin as a permanent and less easily damaged memorial. The estate was built, but under the name of the Labour foreign secretary in Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government Ernest Bevin, whose bust stood in for Lenin’s (who, it’s fair to say, hardly lacked for iconic representation elsewhere).

The front of the building presents two white-painted blocks set at a welcoming obtuse angle facing Holford Street, linked by the entrance hall. Another block extends from the central hub to the rear, so that the whole structure has the shape of a three-bladed rotor from above. The flats are embedded in the pleasant green surrounds of Holford Gardens. One of the most impressive features of Bevin Court is its central stairwell, which translates the lessons Lubetkin learned from Ove Arup in his creation of the winding, cantilevered penguin pool ramps. It hangs down like the suspended peel of an apple peeled in one go, spiralling around with graceful, lightly anchored weightlessness. This, along with the white paint in which everything is washed, makes it the estate which most closely resembles Lubetkin’s 30s buildings and animal houses, even though it was the last to be built (opening in 1954). Even the red-lettering above the entrance door spelling out Bevin Court has an oddly 30s look to it, a period font. The building wasn’t actually included in the Open House weekend this year, but it seemed a shame not to pay it a brief visit and include it in the Lubetkin set. Of course, we couldn’t get into the lobby, which is accessible only via a resident’s electronic fob, and quite rightly so. Peering in, we could see that the stairway is currently undergoing renovation (this is now a grade II listed building), its curves obscured by a rectilinear cage of scaffolding. We could get a glimpse of the mural, painted by the East London-born artist and architect Peter Yates, which stretches along the wall of the entrance hall, rooting it in a particular period with its muted 50s colours and pictorial style. It’s an odd, surrealistic assemblage of distinct and seemingly unrelated images with mythic resonance: a grail-like cup, a domed, sacred building, a sword, a winged and horned heraldic beast, a twisting thread of stream and several cavorting dolphins. No doubt there is some unifying symbolism underlying the whole composition, but it somehow seems preferable to leave it in all its strange, unexplained mystery.

The Bevin Court stairwell
The last of Lubetkin’s three Finsbury estates we visited, the Spa Green (1938-46), lies a little further to the South East, on the northern boundaries of Clerkenwell, opposite the Sadlers Wells dance theatre on Rosebery Avenue. It conforms more closely to the pre-war vision of the Finsbury Plan, partly because it was already under construction by 1947, when austerity cuts were imposed on development of new housing projects by the Ministry of Health. The blocks of flats are approached by an arcing barrier of thin concrete, by now a characteristic Lubetkin signature, making use of Ove Arup’s revelation of the plastic possibilities of this seemingly hard and unyielding material. The use of concrete was also an economical choice in the post-war era, with widespread shortages of more traditional materials. The Spa Green Estate consists of three blocks of flats, two of eight storeys and one of four and five, the latter given a wavelike curved form, as if it has been frozen in the midst of a shivering ripple. It is also built to conform to the sloping aspect of the site, just as Highpoint had been in the 30s. The level of the roof is thus not uniform, and also uses curved concrete as a functional and decorative cap. The roofs were intended to provide a communal drying area for washing, with an aerofoil shaped ‘tunnel’ formed by the overarching concrete shelter funnelling the wind to play over the clothes lines. The deliberate avoidance of dispiriting uniformity extended to the creation of irregular patterning on the building’s façade, with flats spaced to break up the usual squared-off grid. Windows and other features such as air vents were also arranged to pleasing aesthetic effect, whilst still retaining efficient functionality, and the whole exhibited Lubetkin’s continued fascination with the carpet and tapestry designs he’d studied in Vienna in the 20s. He once more emphasised the communal aspect of the entryway, making it a generous transitional space between the private interiors and the public exterior – a place for residents to meet and linger a while.

The Spa Green Estate
The flats were slightly more luxuriously appointed than those at Priory Green, and included the Garchy waste disposal system (also proposed for Priory Green, but rejected in favour of a more economical chute system) which allowed for food waste to be washed down a hole in the kitchen sink and gathered in processing tanks in the basement, from which it was eventually collected and incinerated. This removed the unpleasant prospect of food rotting malodorously in masses of individual bins, potentially attracting rodents sensing a lovely, stinking feast. Play areas, trees, a communal meeting room, and green surrounds were also provided, but as with Priory Green, plans for a nursery school (which had been built into Maxwell Fry’s Kensal House Estate in 1938) were rejected by the Ministry of Health, which decreed it a ‘non-priority building’. The flats were restored in 1980, having suffered from neglect and fallen into disrepair (like so many buildings of their kind), and they now look in good condition, retaining the individual distinctiveness which Lubetkin intended. The construction of all three Finsbury estates outlasted Tecton, with Lubetkin and some of his colleagues completing the job independently. Tecton was dissolved in 1948, partly coming apart due to tensions caused by Lubetkin’s autocratic assertion of leadership, which belied the supposedly co-operative nature of the partnership. Lubetkin himself went on to be the architect and planner of a grand project in County Durham in the North East, the building of Peterlee New Town, a new community designed, with echoes of Port Sunlight and Bournville, to house workers and their families, in this case from the nearby coal mines. He became disenchanted with the direction of the project, however, and the rejection by the development committee of his ambitious high-rise plans, and retired from architecture altogether in 1950. he retreated to his farm at Upper Kilcott in Gloucestershire, where he had lived and worked during the war, and eventually moved with his wife to Clifton in Bristol in 1969, where he died in 1990.

Town and Country - Hampstead Garden Suburb
From Finsbury, we headed North and, having stopped off in Hampstead for a bite to eat in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Parish Church, near the grave of John Constable, took the bus over the hill, past Jack Straw’s Castle and the Old Bull and Bush to Golder’s Green. We along Hoop Lane, bisecting the Jewish Cemetary and the crematorium, and into the tree-lined lanes and circling avenues of Hampstead Garden Suburb. A planned town influenced by Arts and Crafts style and the anti-urban ideas of William Morris, this was a development largely instigated by the indomitable Dame Henrietta Barnett. Alongside her husband Canon Samuel Barnett, she had set up and worked in Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel in the East End in the latter years of the nineteenth century, driven by an idealistic desire for social reform and the lessening of poverty and social division. She was alarmed by the planned extension of the Hampstead underground line to its new Golders Green terminus in 1907, which she believed would result in the rapid growth of an indiscriminate and overcrowded sprawl covering the adjoining heathland. Thus, she pre-emptively bought a large acreage of it up in 1906, and set up a company to develop a new, planned community. She hired the architectural partners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin to design the main body of the suburb, with the evident intent that they should replicate the style and ethos of Letchworth Garden City, which they had built on the foundation of Ebeneezer Howard’s pioneering plans. Howard had originated his idea of the garden city, a self-sufficient and self-sustaining town separate from major urban centres which combined the benefits of town and country, in his 1898 publication Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. It was reprinted under the title Garden Cities of Tomorrow in 1902, and the name and idea really took hold. Howard was influenced by his reading of the American writer Edward Bellamy’s futuristic utopia Looking Backwards, which envisaged the ‘ideal’ society of the year 2000, and he underwrote it first English publication. However, William Morris’ riposte to its mechanistic and centralised urban vision, News from Nowhere, published in 1890, is closer in spirit to Howard’s utopian model.

Parker stayed behind to work on the continuing development of Letchworth, leaving Unwin to concentrate on the building of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. Their plans followed the garden city ideal of a low density of housing, with radial roads spoking outwards from a central hub, and plentiful areas of parkland and green spaces in between. The style of the housing drew on rural town and village vernacular, an anti-modern and hearkening back to a pre-industrial, craft-based society along William Morris lines. Indeed, Unwin, a Fabian Socialist, had been inspired by hearing Morris and John Ruskin lecture in Oxford in his youth. There was much variation in the design of individual houses, but the rural style would become hugely influential on the interwar expansion of suburbia in the Metroland fashion, eventually settling down into the much-mocked mock Tudor look. If the garden suburb surrounds gained their Letchworthian appearance from Parker and Unwin, then the central square which was intended as the heart of the town owed its character to Edwin Lutyens, whom Dame Henrietta hired to design the buildings. Lutyens was no leftist like Unwin, nor areligiously-inspired social reformer like the Barnetts. He would go on from being the Victorian gentleman’s favourite country house designer to becoming the Edwardian Imperial architect of choice. His vision of the town’s centre was a deal more urban than Barnett had anticipated, and there was a certain amount of creative friction as a result. He wanted the buildings to be grand, and to dominate their surroundings in an imposing fashion, whereas Barnett had more of a village green feel in mind.

St Jude On The Hill from Heathgate
This being one of Lutyen’s first big public projects outside of the country houses for which he had become renowned, and with the long-cherished prospect of building a church (indeed, not just one, but two!), he wanted it to be ‘a gathering up of all that man can do’. He may have been obliged to scale down his original plans a little, but the major church, St Jude On the Hill, still presents an impressively imposing spectacle as you approach it up the Heathgate road. Its heavy, foursquare splinter of a spire masses heavily against the sky, dark and solid against the blue on this day. Its steeply sloping roof angles sharply down along its whole expanse, extending until it almost connects the sky with the earth. Lutyens wanted it to descend even further, but Dame Henrietta objected to such an extravagance. The flat, tiled expanse of the roof still predominates and draws the attention of the observer, however, making the building look like a huge, sacred barn. St Jude’s was only supposed to be open on the Sunday for Open House this year, and the reason soon became apparent. It is sometimes used as a venue for classical recording sessions (I remember have an ECM LP of Arvo Part’s Passio recorded here), and one was in progress today. They were having a break, however, and kindly allowed us to have a quick look inside. The aisles were vaulted with timber in a medieval style, whilst the central nave is Romanesque, with a dome over the crossing point between nave, aisles and chancel. The were plentiful decorative and pictorial murals on the ceiling and in the side aisles, most of them by Walter Starmer, created after the first world war. Starmer, who also designed much of the stained glass, painted portraits of several renowned women for the Lady Chapel, including the poet Christina Rossetti, and drew on the style of the Celtic illuminated books for his stations of the cross. There is deliberately cultivated historical mix in both architecture and painted decoration, and this contrasted interestingly on the day with the thickets of microphones and the snaking coils of electrical cables which were temporarily installed. It looked like the set of a Nigel Kneale TV play in which the powers of technological rationalism and an invoked supernatural force come into mutually disruptive contact.

st Jude's spire
Opposite St Jude’s, across the central green square, with its neat rosebeds, Lutyen’s provided a contrasting dome on top of the Free Church, a curve to balance a sharply pointed meeting of straight lines. The dome is set off-centre within another dramatic expanse of sweeping roof. The Free Church was an official Open House, but a wedding had just finished (or perhaps was waiting to kick off), and whilst the ladies in attendance assured us we were welcome to look around, it seemed awkwardly intrusive to linger too long. The building simply doesn’t have the impact of St Jude’s, particularly in its interior, perhaps a deliberate reflection of its ‘low’ status, with its nothing fancy approach to religion. Lutyens provided another contrasting shape with his small clock tower cupola on top of the Hampstead Institute, a red-brick building of civic solidity on the North Eastern side of the square, which exhibits his ‘Wrenaissance’ style in its rear aspect, with two wings forming an open-sided courtyard. He also designed the vicarage and the manse and other houses on the western side of Erskine Hill and North Square, which gives this little area a particular flavour of its own, a distinctive architectural kernel within the larger pattern of the suburb. This Lutyens square, and the Garden Suburb as a whole, seems oddly artificial and out of time, an idealised Trumpton world in which wildly disparate historical periods coexist in incongruous and sometimes uneasy proximity (the preponderance of cars seems particularly intrusive here). Dame Henrietta’s original idea of creating an environment which would harbour a harmonious mix of middle and working class inhabitants and thus serve to reduce harmful social divisions was never realised. It didn’t have the same success as Letchworth in this sense, which staged a Cheap Cottages Exhibition in 1905 to encourage the design and provision of decent but affordable housing for local agricultural and industrial labourers. There is still a wide social mix in the town to this day. The ecclesiastical and associated philanthropic air which the central square buildings exude makes it seem disconnected from most 21st century lives, and it certainly doesn’t feel a natural part of London. Of course, for some, therein may lie its charm.

Forest scene with animals - detail
Doubling back through the proto-suburban streets and past the Jewish cemetery in Hoop Lane, we crossed the charmless Finchley Road and took a short detour down the other branch of the lane to the Golders Green Unitarian Church. The chief attraction here lay in the curving wall of the apse behind the altar, which is painted with a mural by Ivon Hitchens, well known for his semi-abstract colour studies of Sussex woodland and waterside. This is an early work, Forest Scene With Animals, which he first painted as a mural in St John’s Church Maidstone in 1920. The larger copy here was commissioned by a Mr G Johnson as a memorial to his son, killed in the First War, and was completed in 1923. It’s an Edenic scene of natural harmony, with deer drinking from a gently burbling and sparkling brook in a sun-dazed glade. A dove hovering over a small circular pool in the centre radiates shafting beams of light (the emanation of the holy spirit), which glints off golden kingfishers flashing over the water like quicksilver souls. It has an innocent, childlike quality which would make it equally at home on the wall of a children’s nursery; indeed, with its clearly delineated outlines and bold, simple colours, it resembles an enlargement of a plate from an Edwardian children’s storybook, something which might have been painted by someone like Walter Crane, Edmund Dulac or Charles Robinson. To the rear of the church is a stained glass window created by Joan Fullerlove of a celestial city, The New Jerusalem, its domes rising upwards on a hillside above purple, blue, copper and gold trees, a shimmering corona of silvery radiance fanning out behind it; an utopian vision offering hope in the wake of the war’s trail of desolation, death and psychological shock.

From Golders Green, we headed way down South on the Northern Line to Kennington, from which it was a short(ish) walk to the Cinema Museum. This is appropriately housed in the grimly solid red-brick building which was once the Victorian Lambeth workhouse, in which the young Charlie Chaplin was obliged to spend some time after his mother had another of her nervous relapses. Its shadowy interiors now house a fine collection of film and picture house memorabilia, conjuring a different and less oppressive history of darkness, the dimly lit rooms and corridors creating an authentically cinematic atmosphere. The workhouse setting, alongside the Chaplin connection, draws attention to the overlap between the late Victorian era and the early days of cinema. The Victorian past’s persistence into the new Edwardian century is also given concrete (or celluloid) form by the museum’s collection of 80 or so films made by Mitchell and Kenyon, which give such a fascinating and valuable picture of the everyday life of the period. As the museum is run by volunteers, it’s usually only open to look around before the excellent events and screenings which are regularly held there, so this was a good opportunity to explore at leisure.

Up and coming events include interviews with the marvellous Liz Fraser, 50s and 60s star of Carry On and Boulting Brothers films, with Michael Medwin, producer of Lindsay Anderson’s If… and O Lucky Man, and John Krish, the post war director whose brilliant documentaries such as The Elephant Will Never Forget (his 1953 elegy for the death of the trams) and I Think They Call Him John (a heartbreaking and beautiful 1964 study of the loneliness of old age in the brave new high rise world of the period) have recently found a new and appreciative audience through a recent bfi dvd restoration. A week or so ago, on the 10th October, there was a 125th anniversary celebration of the life and career of Boris Karloff with his biographer Stephen Jacobs and daughter Sara. And there’s Karloff once again as the monster, looking out of wooden lobby photo frame with that wounded, heavy-lidded gaze, inviting pity more often than horror. He’s on the wall next to another savage innocent, Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan in all his naked torsoed, wetback haired majesty – the object of Cheetah’s unrequited love if James Lever’s ‘autobiographical’ novel Me Cheetah is to be believed (and it’s probably more truthful than some Hollywood memoirs). There’s a lobby card display of stills from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, its high-art pretensions mocked by the glances of the gurning and eyebrow raising faces of the Marx Brothers hanging next to it. Elsewhere, some of the masks used in another of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘classical’ films, Tales of Hoffmann, are on display.

The Red Shoes lobby display
All manner of cinematic fixtures, fittings and furnishings are on display, from the worn red plush seats from Odeon days of old in the small groundfloor screening room, the phalanx of hunched black projection machines in the lobby, and the wooden programme boards into which films ‘showing today’ were once slotted to the art deco doorways, the old brown bfi sign (a reminder of dotted graphic styles gone by) and the giddily patterned carpets whose swirls prepared your eyes for a different mode of vision. Usher’s and doorman’s uniforms are a reminder of a time when filmgoing was a much more momentous occasion, an evening out in the grand picture palaces which called for such gold-braided ceremonial fripperies. There are numerous posters and star portraits on display throughout, too, triggering memories which span the entirety of cinema’s past. A poster for Campbell’s Kingdom, with Sir Dirk of Bogarde in the unlikely role of an oil prospector in the Canadian Rockies brought back fond recollections of matinee viewings on the telly from childhood. I remember being completely absorbed by it at the time – it’s much more fun than There Will Be Blood, anyway. In some ways, the museum is a cousin to the Bill Douglas Centre down here in Exeter, although you feel the volunteer staff are a little more actively and enthusiastically involved in the running of the place.

Upstairs is a large room where meetings are held, films screened and, on this occasion, tea and cakes served. My heart was immediately won over by the fact that, amongst a collage of British film posters, there was one for Hawk the Slayer! A neglected classic, as Simon Pegg’s character in Spaced would agree. I picked up some good books from the selection they had on sale there: a hardback copy of Ingmar Bergman’s almost parodically self-excoriating autobiography The Magic Lantern, Robin Wood’s 1969 book on the great Swede (well, I am a bit of a Bergman obsessive), John Baxter’s book on Josef von Sternberg (with some great Marlene stills, obviously), and the 60s Studio Vista paperback New Cinema in the USA (surveys written from a contemporary perspective often focussing on films subsequently neglected or forgotten). Although this and a splendid badge, too. As Mr Benn always tells himself at the end of another time and space defying adventure, it will help me to remember.

We headed North through some interesting Lambeth back streets, cutting across a park in the middle of a small residential square in which several families were having a lovely picnic, and had time for a brief look in the Siobhan Davies Dance studios, home to the renowned group which was formed in 1988. These have been converted from an old Victorian school building with more solid red-brick walls, which seem to have been something of a recurrent theme throughout the day – they built to last. It now incorporates office, rehearsal and performance spaces over three floors with a central atrium rising through them all. The main dance space on the top floor is particularly impressive; a sprung floor spreads under a ceiling which curves over it in a series of rippling, wavelike ribbons, their parabolic arcs connecting to the walls at different levels. Skylight windows fitted in between let in light and frame passing clouds. The irregularly arching pattern of the roof gives it a sense of fluid form which inspires the movements of the dancers below. The far end of the room is more window than wall, and gives a view out over the surrounding roads and rooftops, and over them to the sky, lending a natural sense of elevation and lightness which helps inspire the invention of new choreographies.

From here, it was a minute’s walk to the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and ten more to negotiate the bewildering maze of the underpass system to get to the tube station which had seemed so tantalisingly and simplistically near across the impassably traffic-choked road. And then back on to the Northern line and up the iron rails to Bedfordshire. We had planned for another day, with a tour around Stratford’s Theatre Royal, the old home of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where we had enjoyed a splendid talk on the history of the building from Murray Melvin during last year’s Open House weekend, and a look at the Peckham cousin to the Finsbury Health Centre, The Pioneer Health Centre, built in the 1930s and now converted into flats. But frankly, we were washed out, and the forecast for a rainsoaked day put the cap on it. So until next year….