At Year’s End, Some Trickery & Whimsy

The Arts

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.

21 comments on “At Year’s End, Some Trickery & Whimsy”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I’m very fond of the ‘Biographic Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit’ short film, narrated by Michael Bentine, and made by Bob Godfrey.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    There is an interesting video about Emmett’s Festival Of Britain railway on a youtube channel called ‘Jago Hazard’, if you want to see just how wonderful it was.
    Emmett also created all the machinery seen in Caractacus Potts’ windmill at the beginning of the ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ movie.

  3. Jan says:

    All a bit reminiscent of the work of Heath Robinson. Lovely stuff, part of the eccentric nature of Britain. Monty Python was almost a full comedic realisation of his surreal world ….

    As an aside there is a Heath Robinson museum in Pinner Memorial Park in the North West London suburb accessed on the Metropolitan line tube. hopefully one day next year this lovely museum will reopen.

    Happy New Year to everyone to you Chris + Peter and to everyone reading and contributing here. Best for 2021!

  4. Roger says:

    Spoiler alert!

    “…and more fucking gondolas… ”
    I quote from memory, but I can still recall the gasp of shock and astonishment and the outbreak of laughter when it first appeared.

  5. Andre says:

    Speaking of trickery,the word of the day on my desk calendar for Saturday was “Lord of Misrule”, seemingly the MC of year-end revelry and festivity. A pretty apt description of Admins role hereabouts on a year-round basis. Merry Christmas to all and many thanks for making the last year much more sane and interesting than it could have been. A good lot to have fallen in with.

  6. Liz Thompson says:

    My recollection of this was it was shown before Life of Brian, which I saw in Huddersfield, my then home of Halifax having banned the film, due, one assumes, to the likelihood of it corrupting the morals of the Halifax residents. The good burgers of Huddersfield spotted the opportunity for profit, and advertised the film in the Halifax local paper, leading to a profit for the bus company as well.
    Incidentally, Emmett had some of his working mechanicals in the Merrion Centre in Leeds. They were removed at one point, ostensibly for maintenance or something, but I believe they are either back there, or due to be so soon.

  7. Tony Walker says:

    If my memory serves, there was an Emmett ship in the Hays Wharf Galleria, back in the early 1990s.

  8. Porl says:

    We have some of the Emett machines here in Leeds, displayed in a tiny shopping centre where I go to the gym! (search Emett Merrion Centre Leeds) – they spring to life every hour – I love them!

  9. snowy says:

    Another creator of things of wonder was Keith Newstead, among his many creations is a very large ‘Gormengast Castle’ filled with automata. Videos of several of his pieces are available online.

    [He also produced a range of moving models that you can buy and make yourself, the ones that were printed as books with die-cut parts that just need a spot of glue can be picked up for a few pounds. Look in the usual places.]

  10. Barbara Boucke says:

    I apologize for this comment because it has nothing to do with the new post – I haven’t yet watched the video – I started to but my cat Ed had other ideas. I wanted to say “Thank you” for mentioning the old 1953 film “The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan” somewhere in a previous post. I was able to get a DVD copy from someone here in the states at a very reasonable price and it arrived yesterday. What a delight! It is a wonderful complement to “Topsy-Turvy”. I keep singing along with the bits from the different operettas, which fortunately no one can hear me doing. So thank you again and Happy New Year to everyone!!!

  11. Peter Dixon says:

    Wasn’t there another ‘inventor’ called Wilfred Makepeace Lunn who used to turn up on TV shows in the 70s with his bizarre robots?

  12. Lyn Jackson says:

    Thanks Chris for another interesting article.I’m glad I discovered this blog. There is always something interesting from admin. and / or the other readers for me to look up and /or think about. Happy and safe new year to you all.

  13. Jim Devlin says:

    There’s a photo at the Smithsonian museums website:

    “S.S. Pussiewillow II by Rowland Emett as it appeared on display circa 1980 in the Flight in the Arts gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. This indescribable kinetic work became a favorite of adults and children alike. The object was taken off display in 1990, but visitors with long memories still ask about it.”

    I remember seeing it there; I didn’t know it was gone…

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    With the video. Balham gateway to the South springs to mind, originally from a radio series Third Division and covered by Peter Sellars. There is a longer version with video and stars Robbie Coltrain. Though the daddy of them all is the a straight version, Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham, …’ and here is a sight that almost took my breath away.’ the roads get several mentions, especially the control centre. Th Harold Baim series are priceless, TS even looks at Portsmouth.

    Wayne.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – Wilf Lunn made things for various TV shows. He published a fascinating book, full of mad things to make – ah, here’s the clever part – each item taught a skill in metalwork, or carpentry, or electronics, and things like how to solder, or make a dovetail joint, or bend glass. The latter was demonstrated in the chapter: “Make A Starting Handle For A Goldfish Bowl” Genius.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Wilf Lunn made machines on the extraordinary BBC TV show ‘Vision On’. He also wrote a book, in which were instructions on how to make various odd things. Each item taught a new skill in carpentry, simple electronics, metalwork, etc. My favourite item in the book was a tutorial on how to bend glass tubing. It wasentitled:
    “Make A Starting Handle For A Goldfish Bowl.” Genius.

  17. John Griffin says:

    The musical clock in the Victoria Centre in Nottingham used to gather crowds for years. I used to take the kids in the Viccy Centre to see it and have a doughnut. I took my (3rd and final) wife to see it, to discover it gone, though I’m sure it was before 2010…..

  18. Andrew Holme says:

    Back in late September 1980 I started college in Prescot, outside Liverpool. The Everyman Theatre had a ten week season of The Warp, a sci-fi time travel extravaganza by the late, great Ken Campbell. Ten two hour shows, running a week a show. You went along to each show on the same night of each week. Brilliant. You got to see each mind blowing episode with the same audience. Every show finished with a rave up by the house band ( encore was a rousing Paint It Black). On my night – Thursday – one of our audience was Wilf Lunn. Such a lovely, open man, eager to talk and listen, and of course with the best moustachioes this side of the 1880s.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Balham, Gateway to the South. Finally mentioned, so I can die happy.”That’s off, luv.”

  20. Ian Luck says:

    The voice of the late, great Ken Campbell is the default voice in my head for Arthur Bryant when I read the books. I’m sure that, in the Bryant and May universe, Arthur Bryant would know of Ken Campbell. He was one of those brilliant, utterly irresistible people, who knew things, did things, had a humourously intelligent opinion of things. Things that mattered, and things that did not, but were fascinating, and that Ken thought that more people should know about. The urbane, and the absurd, all were part of Ken’s way of thinking. There are too few people like him about these days, and that saddens me.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Pleased to report that Wilf Lunn is still alive. A picture of him on Whackypodium or whatever it is, shows that his moustache is still as splendid as ever.

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