At Year’s End, Some Trickery & Whimsy
Rowland Emett was an inventor who found fame in the 1950s. He said, ‘The first principle in science is to invent something nice to look at and then decide what it can do.’
His fussy, whimsical automata were exhibited at the Festival of Britain and became hugely popular. He designed clocks and trams, trains and boats, was a fine cartoonist and creator of kinetic sculpture. Somehow his spindly, colourful designs caught the mood of the early 1950s. Above is his kinetic sculpture, A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley.
When Emett was just 14 he took out a patent on a new gramophone volume control. He studied landscape painting and exhibited at the Royal Academy. He worked at Punch magazine and saw his mechanical cartoons come to larger-than-life on the stage, which encouraged him to make more 3D sculptures, many with silly names like The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine.
In 1973 his water-powered musical clock, the Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, turned up in a Nottingham shopping centre and remained there until 2010. After languishing in unfashionability his works became very collectable. Emett was one of a group of whimsical creatives who found fame in the 50s. Michael Bentine was busy building his flea circuses, Ken Dodd was creating Doddyland, Maurice Richardson was writing the surreal exploits of Engelbrecht, Ronald Searle was drawing baroque macabre fantasies and Gerard Hoffnung was playing musical tricks over at the Albert Hall.
I often think that in crime fiction at least my job is that of trickster; to confound, confuse and surprise. It’s hardly surprising that I ended up in such a spot, having been raised on a diet of Monty Python and its various predecessors like At Last The 1948 Show.
It’s easy to forget in a post-modernist world that Python did it first. Just as Gerard Hoffnung tricked the Albert Hall audience into standing up for a National Anthem that never happened (the long drum roll turned into an entirely separate piece of music) so Python confused with books printed the wrong way up, fake record sleeves and a brilliantly conceived trick album which played a different Side Two depending on how you set the needle down. A double groove had been cut on one side of the record so that the needle could slip into it, but no mention was made of anything unusual on the album sleeve, so you were truly bamboozled.
Similarly, before ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ started in cinemas the above 12 minute unbilled short went out first. It looked and sounded like one of the boring, clichéd ‘Look At Life’ films we had to suffer through before the main feature, and worked because the joke is held back until very late on in the film, with just enough going on earlier to make you start doubting its veracity. John Cleese’s voice was slowed down a little to prevent the audience twigging.
Nobody had ever done anything like this before. Had the era not smashed to a halt with the grim realities of the recession, one senses that this could have become a full-blown movement.