Bruce Lacey probably won’t be a very familiar name to most people. But even a cursory glance at his idiosyncratic, multidisciplinary approach to what is an uncategorisable and wide-ranging artistic output spanning five decades of strangeness and tomfoolery, soon places him at the very centre of just about every single major post-war British cultural trend going -- even if he only ever now occasionally gets remembered as a mere footnote to most of them. The sheer scope of his involvement in British cultural life from the ‘50s onward is staggering: from his early experiences as an amateur student filmmaker in college, Lacey came to know graphic designer John Sewell and animator Bob Godfrey (the latter later created the much loved children’s cartoon “Rhubarb”) -- appearing in several of their first films. Both were key figures in the early development of graphic design at the beginnings of television in the mid-‘50s. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Lacey worked at the Granada props department and made props for The Goons’ TV shows and for Michael Bentine’s “It’s A Square World”. He also appeared with the comedy musical duo The Alberts (brothers Dougie and Tony Gray) who lent their satirical Edwardian variety chic to several of Spike Milligan’s first TV outings.
Lacey’s prop making and performance skills, together with his involvement with The Goons and The Alberts, led to a residency at Peter Cook’s Establishment club (where he was quiz master for a bizarre Dadaist quiz show) and an acclaimed theatrical revue entitled “An Evening of British Rubbish”, both of which were a huge influence on the style of absurdist freeform comedy later developed by the Monty Python team. The Alberts sometimes took their performances out onto the streets to accompany the first Aldermaston marches organised by CND, where they gathered together their numerous musician friends under the banner the Massed Alberts and dressed up in Victorian capes and deerstalkers and military garb, performing alongside old props such as penny-farthing bicycles while playing tubas, euphoniums and other Victorian instruments. It’s a style which greatly influenced everything from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band to the pop art collage of Peter Blake and the dressing-up-box Granny Takes a Trip fashion styles of sixties Victorian-psychedelia which crops up in shows such as “The Avengers”, “The Prisoner” and “Adam Adamant Lives!”. The connection with The Alberts in turn led to Lacey’s association with film director Richard Lester and a role in The Beatles’ film “Help” where Lacey played the part of George Harrison’s gardener, appearing with clockwork chattering toy teeth which he uses to cut the indoor lawn in Harrison’s house! Lacey’s eccentric persona derives from a maverick identity as a sort of indefinable combination of experimental musician, dotty inventor-Professor and absurdist satirist; he was a science fiction nut who brought an obsession with aircraft and spaceflight with him into his performance practice as an artist. At various times since the 1950s he was alternatively an actor, a vaudevillian performer, a painter, a sculptor, a propmaker, a filmmaker, a lecturer and an educationalist; come the eighties he became involved in the fringe, neo-pagan festival movement, performing his own elaborately constructed and deeply personal ‘Earth Rituals’ to the Earth Goddess while documenting the British landscape in homemade films surveying the Celtic and Saxon history which lingers on in the form of its ancient standing stone circles.
It might seem an odd place to end up for an ex-National Service boy who went to Art College after taking up drawing in hospital as therapy while recovering from TB contracted in the Navy, but the one thing that connects the vast fragmented narrative that is Bruce Lacey’s output as an artist during his lifetime, is its abiding concern with the ritualistic aspects of everyday modern life and the similarities to and opportunities for performance contained within it … although he might term what he does as being simply a form of ‘playing silly buggers’. Today, in his eighties, Lacey continues to appear on stage and to take part in public artistic performances in and about the Norfolk village where he now lives. His remote farmhouse is cluttered with a lifetime’s worth of props, bric-a-brac devices, models, paintings and films which together commemorate the fact that Lacey was a performance artist way back before anyone had even thought to define such a term.
If one is minded to doubt the vital role this great British eccentric has played in influencing the course of both the popular and the counter-cultural British arts scene since the ‘50s, then one need only take a look at a newly released 2-disc DVD compendium of Bruce Lacey on film now released by the BFI in conjunction with a major retrospective season of screenings at the BFI Souhtbank, which is being held throughout July, and an new exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre entitled The Bruce Lacey Experience -- which is running from the 7th July – 16th September. The set contains twenty seven films which feature Lacey variously as an actor, an artist or as documentary subject, with the boundaries between all three roles increasingly becoming blurred across each project, as he tended to re-incorporate his diverse film work into many of his subsequent, sometimes controversial, performance pieces which were often toured around art colleges back in the seventies. To round off the set, there is a 72 minute 2012 documentary by Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams, who visited Lacey at his Norfolk farmhouse in an attempt to capture a flavour of this hugely diverse and creative talent, although both their efforts and the free-ranging selection of works included here, inevitably only just scratches the surface of a life lived in its entirety as one long-running artistic experiment.
The set sub-divides and positions Lacey’s work under five, broadly (but not quite) chronological headings.
At Hornsey Art College, Lacy formed Mark Films with fellow students Edward Dicks and John Rolf, and in 1951 took the starring role in their 19 minute short “Head in Shadow”, directed by John Sewell. He plays a blind beggar man who, given a white stick picked from the pavement by a small boy, makes his way staggering through an evocative, bruised & bomb-scarred 1950s London landscape in which he meets a variety of street-life as he attempts to discover the contents of a paper-wrapped package he stumbles upon in the gutter of an Islington high-street. The original reel-to-reel soundtrack was lost, so new music was added to the film by Lacey in 2003 for the Tate’s screening series, “A Century of Artist Film”, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere with cascading patterns of synth notes that sound like the spiralling clang of church bells. The film invokes the importance of texture for its sightless somnambulating protagonist, gliding across images of crumbling pavements, broken masonry, shallow puddles, fallen leaves and rickety fences. The conjured image of a tatty 1950s London, with its peeling post-war advertising hordings and dingy emporiums, now resonates with history, and Lacey displays his capacity for physically based performance for the first time.
Lacey, Sewell and Dicks all later attended the Royal College of Art, where Lacey studied painting and also began his vaudevillian music hall-influenced collaborations with The Alberts. During this time he appeared and provided ‘décor’ for another of Sewell’s amateur films, this time with an Arabian Nights theme, in which a cast made up of the students’ friends dress up garishly as oriental grotesques, and turn a dilapidated South London shooting location into an oddly convincing slice of Arabia. Running at 29 minutes, “Agib and Agab” features its young cast as a menagerie of toothless hunchbacks, blacked-up hooked-nosed guards and effete princes, and plays like a tongue-in-cheek parody of an Imperial Boys’ Own adventure narrative that accentuates the foreign stereotypes inherent to the film’s subject matter.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Bruce Lacey supplied props for a number of TV shows that can be viewed as being among the fledgling medium’s very first attempts to transfer the anarchic lunacy of The Goons’ radio show to the small screen. Working on many of these series, which starred the likes of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine, was a young director called Richard Lester, who would later become synonymous with some key examples of popular British sixties cinema, such as The Beatles’ film “Help!” and the comedy “The Knack”, as well as the offbeat “The Bedsitting Room”, the latter two both starring Rita Tushingham. Many of these comedy shows featured filmed inserts, and a 1960, 10 minute short, directed by Lester and shot on Peter Sellers’ own 16 mm camera in a field, was a personal project made very much in the same vein and which mainly constituted re-worked versions of older sketches. “The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film” was never intended as a commercial venture but ended up being picked up for distribution by British Lion and nominated for an Academy Award for best live-action short. It features Lacey performing alongside Sellers, Milligan and a young Leo McKern in a series of under-cranked surrealist comedy skits, shot in a field across several weekend filming sessions designed to look on film like an old silent movie -- sepia tinted in the style of early Victorian photography. Lacey provided props such as old gramophones and plate cameras and the small interior set the gang built in a field was lit using the battery from his van.
In a similarly madcap vein is Lacey’s collaboration with Bob Godfrey, also included here: a prototype music video short for Lonnie Donegan’s “Battle of New Orleans” (4 mins), made by Godfrey’s advertising filmmaking outfit Biographic Films,in which Lacey, Godfrey and Joe McGrath appear as a musical trio (fiddle, piano and cello) who begin miming along to the Donegan track wearing just top hats and old fashioned long johns and vests with Union jack badges while stood in an estuary mudflat (located in Leigh-on-sea in Essex), and who soon resort to flinging mud at each other as their performance rapidly collapses into anarchy. Shot with a hand-cranked camera to mimic the speeded up style of silent movies, the interest in spontaneity and classic era slapstick, together with the urge to mock authority, is becoming ever more apparent.
Another 1960 project, “Everybody’s Nobody” (18 mins) saw Lacey appearing in front of the camera once again for his old college pal John Sewell, in a short which, although emphasising once more Lacey’s capacity for physical performance comedy, also had more of a pronounced satirical intent behind it. Lacey plays the automata known as M.A.N. (Mobile Absurd Nonentity) and the film takes the form of a pastiche of industrial marketing promos in which Sewell provides a voice-over, explaining the virtues of this latest robotic creation while Lacey acts out a mime performance piece. As Stuart Heanley points out in his short piece on the film (included in the accompanying DVD booklet), the film ‘foreshadows Lacey’s later career as a performance artist,’ and is ‘an early signpost of his absurdist music hall sensibilities seguing into the use of solo physical theatrics.’ Lacey appears in a number of scenarios, his body contorted and arranged in bizarre positions as he’s fed punch tape (used to programme early computers) to equip him for a variety of different life jobs. The film implies a deep association between social conformity and disposable consumer society, and gains its satirical bite by treating normal life patterns such as one’s social position or the desire to have a family etc., as though they were programmable functions designed to provide benefit for the mysterious buyer of such a model.
Lacey’s involvement with the musical comedy troupe The Alberts led to important and invaluable contributions to British comedy, satire, pop culture and music, but very little of his work with them has been captured for posterity on film. For example, none of their stage show revues were ever filmed, and all that remains are a couple of shorts shot for George Harrison Marks -- a name more usually associated with sleaze and pornography magazines, as well as one of the first British naturist films, “Naked as Nature Intended”, which he directed for British Compton under the directorship of Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger. Marks also fancied himself something of a comedian though, and always had a taste for old style music hall pratting (as evidenced in the dreadful but hugely successful sex film he later directed, “Come Play with Me”). A 5 minute short called “Uncle’s Tea Party” which Marks wrote, edited, produced, directed and photographed (in ‘glorious grey and white, with the latest dustcoated bi-focals’) on flimsy studio sets created by Tony Roberts, captures something of the bearded Albert brothers’ crazy variety slapstick act, and once again showcases Lacey’s physical dexterity, but is a minor foray into areas covered better elsewhere. Much more vital is Bob Godfey’s touching 11 minute live-action short “One Man Band” (1965), which captures the bleak bedsit milieu central to much British sitcom comedy of the era. The film starts by evoking mid-sixties London in much the same way “Head in Shadow” captured the capital of the early fifties with Lacey playing a down-at-heel one man band who dreams of conducting at the Royal Albert Hall, miming to a gramophone record in front of a poster of his hero, the orchestral conductor Sir Lance Corporal (Valentine Dyall), which is pinned up on the wall of his dingy bedsit. In a typically surreal series of events, Lacey’s offbeat character is catapulted to fame (a montage of photographs of sixties celebrities flurries onto the screen depicting him crudely pasted into shots featuring everyone from The Beatles to Mao Zedong) but then plummets ignominiously back to the bombed out London streets from which he was originally plucked.
HUMAN BEHAVIOUR FILMS
Parallel to his career as a performer on film and a maker of props and assemblages for TV shows, Lacey’s art school leanings also came to the fore in a series of gallery exhibitions where he put his background in sculpture and painting to interesting use by combining it with his interest in sci-fi and electronics, creating a series of motorised robots from old junk, odds and ends, bits of machinery and old Victorian toys. The subsequent blurring of boundaries between performance and art installation was none better illustrated than when he sent one of his robots on stage in his place at the famous 1965 poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall: an event often credited with cementing the establishment of the London underground scene of the 1960s. His machines’ simple repetitive programmed actions could be contrasted with the ritualistic aspects of human behaviour. But Lacey’s ramshackle mechanised assemblages -- oblique comments on the dehumanisation of man (springing from the same unease at body part surgery and the encroaching mechanisation of everyday life which led to the creation of the Cybermen on “Doctor Who” and the Cybernauts on “The Avengers”) were but one aspect of his career as an artist.
For he also brought his previous experience in the world of film into his art when he embarked on the creation of a series of ‘human behaviour films’: these pieces highlighted how, for Lacey, the very act of making a film could itself be the subject of a piece of artistic expression; and he would later combine and re-imagine his older works, either as an actor or artist, in lecturers which frequently took on the unpredictable character of one of his many performances or ‘happings’. The four works under the Human Behaviour banner included on this DVD were made with the conceit that they should function as historical documents detailing the processes and rituals involved in the living of everyday life, should alien anthropologists one day discover the last vestiges of human existence and wish to know how we once lived, something Lacey fancied would not be covered by Hollywood films, etc. The period coincided with his marriage to his second wife, Jill Bruce (née Smith) -- the best man was one of Bruce’s robots at the ceremony -- and initiated a new distinct phase in which the boundary between life and art was broken down in an extreme way that seems particularly prescient in this age of reality TV, which often includes live streaming of mundane events packaged as entertainment.
“Kissing Film” (1967) is a black & white filmed demonstration of two instances of the act of French kissing, performed by Bruce and Jill. The camera is fixed on an unvarying close-up of their two mouths engaged in a fervent kiss, with a segment of orange fruit introduced into the play later on and passed between mouths in the latter stages. In the second demonstration a chocolate and cream éclair turns the apparently clinical act into something approaching the flan-flinging finale of “Uncle’s Tea Party”, starting by aping the austere, dry educational tone of a medical film but then piling on absurdity and grossness with the introduction of a splattery cream filling. “How To Have A Bath” (1971) takes the previous pastiche of the public information film to even more extreme levels, contrasting the unparalleled intimacy of its images with a slavishly po-faced and clinical approach to the depiction of Bruce and Jill’s willingness to (literally) expose themselves to such an extreme form of public scrutiny. With its blackboard captions (which split the mundane act of taking a bath into a series of step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions) heralding a demonstration of each point in both male and female versions (followed by a shorter ‘mixed’ version in which Bruce and Jill are shown taking a bath together), the viewer notes the contrast between the impersonal nature of the instructions and the extremely personal nature of the surroundings (a tiny hip bath placed in a small and cluttered-looking family kitchen), not to mention the performance aspect encompassed by the couple’s awkward nakedness, which brings together Lacey’s concern with everyday ritual and staged performance in a provocative way, since the film’s very structure makes a natural everyday act into a titillating piece of semi-comedic slapstick.
“The Lacey Rituals”, at 63 minutes, is the longest of the pieces here, and is by far the most engrossing and often just plain enjoyable; it’s unexpectedly funny throughout and warmly charming, as well. Shot in 1973, while Bruce and Jill Lacey were living with their four children at an artists’ studio complex in which Bruce was employed as the live-in caretaker at the time, the film was conceived as a home document of the everyday habits, rituals and obsessions of the Lacey family, and featured all six members recreating the business of going about their day-to-day lives while filming each other’s doings on a super 8mm home cine-camera (even the youngest, three-year-old Saffron, was given control of the camera in some instances). The camera is allowed to role until the film runs out in each scene (after about three minutes), and each scene features one or more members of the family engaged in re-creating an everyday act they enjoy partaking in, or else just a normal necessary ritual such as making a cup of tea, reading a book, brushing one’s teeth, shaving or even picking one’s nose! The key to unlocking what makes the resulting work so utterly winning is that this project, unlike most modern ‘reality’ TV, is not purporting to be ‘fly on the wall’ documentation that seeks to capture its subjects unawares when they’ve forgotten they’re being filmed; instead, the Laceys’ acute awareness and total engagement with the act of filming each other is precisely what makes the piece so delightful and funny -- as it forges its art out of the vain attempt to contain real-life within the strictures created by the amateur filming process.
The children are the ones that really make the project come to life -- with their amusingly guileless attempts to ‘act natural’ when the camera is rolling being frequently witnessed on-screen to fail dismally, leading to mini tantrums and instances of ‘playing-up’ which threaten to unravel the whole process and yet makes something far more original and uniquely entertaining out of it instead. The stars of the show in this regard are the couple’s two infant daughters, Tiffany and Saffron -- one of whom interrupts a demonstration of toast-making with an impromptu song and dance routine while, on another occasion, one of the girls starts crying during an attempt to film the two settling down to sleep after they’ve just been put to bed for the camera, because the bright light used during the filming is shining into her eyes. One particularly hilarious sequence involves the older girl overseeing her sister taking a bath with one of her dolls (‘are you having a nice time in your bubble bath, Saffron?’ says Tiffany, in a not very convincing attempt to sound natural) but the need to squeeze the whole process into the three minutes it takes before the film runs out threatens to undermine the effort when little Saffron refuses to play ball and come out of the bath to be towelled off when instructed to by her dad from behind the camera, leading to increasingly frantic calls to ‘hurry up or we won’t catch it!’ while Saffron just sits and nonchalantly grins back into the lens.
In the last of the four behaviour films, a 3 minute piece from 1975 entitled “Double Exposure”, the Laceys explore the intimacy of the sex act in a bizarre performance in which they simulate lovemaking in a totally black room (with the bed also covered by black sheets and pillows). Each participant has been filmed separately, simulating their part of the act, and then the two films have been superimposed to create a ghostly choreographed echo of their physical union, accompanied by eerie synth drones. Despite Bruce Lacey’s obvious erection throughout this film (thus earning the DVD an 18 certificate from the BBFC for ‘strong sex’), neither performers are, of course, in reality physically touching. This film comes from a period in the mid ‘70s when Bruce and Jill were working as a performance duo and touring art colleges giving lectures during which they would show various edits of Bruce’s films alongside the other behaviour-documenting works seen in the rest of this section. This is when Lacey’s film work became re-contextualised as part of an evolving performance -- life and art constantly being reconfigured and re-thought as part of his view of his practice as a form of playing and dreaming in a ritualised context. It’s interesting to compare this piece with his later earth ritual ceremonies, shot when his relationship with Jill was breaking down.
PERFORMANCES AND DOCUMENTATION
The first document in this section takes us back to 1965 -- several years before Bruce and Jill married. “The Flying Alberts” is a nine minute tongue-in-cheek documentary record of an event sponsored by the satirical magazine Private Eye and originally conceived by Bruce Lacey, in which Lacey and his cohorts at the time, The Albert brothers satirised antiquated notions of British industrial and military superiority founded on the country’s vanishing heritage as a ‘great’ Empire. The event was held on Hampstead Heath, was attended by the public and filmed by director Roger Graef, the results falling somewhere between film record of a live performance event and a satirical short film in which Private Eye satirists John Wells and Willie Rushton play the roles of starchy BBC TV commentators, covering this attempt by bumbling ‘Professor’ Lacey and his flag waving colleagues to thrust Great Britain into the centre of the space race with, to quote the hyperbole of the Victorianesqu display poster: ‘an amazing demonstration of aeronautical skill’. This display turns out to involve attempting to fly across a small pond in a cardboard plane while the ‘pilots’ pompously flap their arms in full expectation of becoming airborne. Jill Smith plays the role of nurse, dressed in wartime uniform and on hand to provide first aid for spectators ‘overcome by heat or excitement’ as well as to give the three-man piloting team a last minute physical examination; the massed Alberts (which include Neil Innes and Rodney Slater of the Bonzo Dog Doh-Dah Band) dress as Edwardian military band and perform “There’ll Always be An England” during the ludicrously portentous build up to the flight, and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” when it’ comes to a soaking wet end as the fallen team attempt to swim back to the bank while sternly blaming the debacle on a mixture of sabotage and Lacey’s incompetence: ‘he only had to provide the bloody propeller and the damned thing fell off!’ complains a dejected co-pilot while still vainly attempting to keep a stiff upper-lip. With its emphasis on bizarre, unworkable contraptions (made from props provided by Lacey) and its absurdist Goons-style humour, this film fits in with the early works already showcased while anticipating his cabaret-cum-performance pieces of the future.
At the same time as he was taking part in such comedic public stunts, Lacey’s robot assemblages and camp remote controlled junkyard creations were being displayed in London galleries, and were starting to become incorporated into many of his more outlandish performance pieces – for they remained beguiling works of strange, Dadaist, mechanical bric-a-brac art in of themselves. Some of these odd, amusing, sometimes disturbing mechanical creations can be seen in a 7 minute film shot by John Sewell in 1965, when they were displayed at an exhibition at the Marlborough New London Gallery in January of that year, entitled “Humanoid Race”, while the short piece “Universal Integrator” (2 mins) is a record of a re-configurable robot alien Lacey created for the British Steel Corporation‘s stand at the 1971 Ideal Home Exhibition. “The Laceys at Home” (5 mins) records another attempt to turn the rituals of everyday family life into what Lacey termed ‘live sculpture or living theatre’. Similar in intent to their behaviour film, “The Lacey Rituals”, this was a live event in which Lacey, his wife and the couple’s four children, lived inside a specially constructed room without walls, attached to the outside of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, becoming in the process ‘a community arts group’ for exhibiting the mundane rituals of family life (watching TV, cooking dinner, eating breakfast) as an art ‘happening’ which the passing public could gaze upon from behind guide ropes for as long as it liked. The idea originally came from wartime memories of seeing families whose houses had been devastate in the blitz, sitting down to their family meals while exposed to the world in homes which had their outer walls missing because of bomb damage.
“British landing on the Moon” is a 3 minute extract from a 1973 documentary made by Patrick Krell, in which Bruce and his family are shown watching a new staging of a piece he and Jill first performed in 1969 to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing. It brings together the satirical intent of “The Flying Alberts” with Bruce’s enduing fantasies about an alternative life he could have lived as a pilot and, perhaps, an astronaut -- as well as imagining his behavioural pieces being staged on the moon’s surface. In home-made astronauts’ suits on a fabricated moon surface set, the two raise a Union Jack and, surrounded by numerous examples of that quintessentially English ornament the garden gnome, attempt to hold a picnic. Another 6 minute extract from another outside documentary on Bruce and Jill’s ‘70s educational work with children is also included, this one produced by the National Film School in association with the Arts Council of Great Britain. “Outside In” reveals Lacey’s interest in adapting interactive experimental theatre as a means of encouraging the imagination of children. It includes footage of the Laceys’ touring children’s show “Journey Through a Black Hole to a Coloured Planet” -- a multimedia experience housed in a giant inflatable, in which children were encouraged to experiment with various pieces of equipment in order to create their own forms of entertainment. Lacey held the common view (in the late 60s/early70s) that education had become a means of institutionalising the individual and preparing him/her for a life of conformity. With such works as their surrealist exhibit ‘The Incredible Whatsit Machine’, the Laceys aimed to create a safe zone in which children could exercise freedom of expression, unencumbered by rules forced upon them in much of everyday life. The ethos behind such ventures tapped into Bruce Lacey’s conception of art being about the practice of ‘doing’ rather than aesthetic appreciation; and of play being a form of art which liberated the mind from preconceived notions of reality.
Such notions are also evident in the last two pieces for this section: from 1996 “R.O.SA. B.O.S.O.M.” is a 3 minute history of Bruce’s beloved remote controlled robot creation, whose name is an acronym for Radio Operated Simulated Actress, Battery or Standard Operated Mains! Originally created as a stage prop for one of his 60s shows with the Albert brothers, the contraption later acted as the best man for Bruce’s 1967 marriage to Jill Smith and was entered for the Alternative Miss World Contest, which it duly won! This short document features Fairport Convention’s tribute to Bruce, ‘Mr Lacey’, written by Ashley Hutchings from the “What We Did on Our Holidays” album. Finally, we come forward to 2002 and a 2 minute video of Bruce (then in his seventies) performing a version of a sketch originally included in the revue show “An Evening of British Rubbish”, where the original’s intermixing of film and live performance is given extra poignancy from the fact that the film elements which the older Lacey interacts with during the course of a performance of the old music hall song “If I had a Talking Picture of You” (2 mins) contains a version of himself that’s forty years younger, imbuing the piece with an added resonance that speaks to the artist’s determination to keep the playfulness of his imagination alive and retain the state of childlike play he associates with freedom of expression and thought.
This short section consists of two short filmed pieces which were originally screened as part of live stage performances. “Heads, Bodies and Legs” (2 mins) comes from Jill and Bruce’s final 1973 collaboration with The Alberts – the stage show “The Electric Element”. This saw Lacey moving away from the camp Edwardian whimsy and music hall variety pastiche which had always previously characterised his relationship with The Alberts, into an interest in science fiction. The film appeared during a section of the stage show in which the characters enter a machine which jumbles up their body parts. The two-minute piece features cardboard cut-out versions of each performer (including a totally nude Jill Lacey) having their limbs and torsos rearranged in wild configurations. The second film here was made for an experimental theatre production entitled “Stella Star and her Amazing Galactic Adventures”. Shot in 1974 and running for just 4 minutes, the piece was never intended to be shown outside of its original stage context but, even with its camp, space-age Barbarella erotic stylings, the film’s bucolic woodland setting already hints at the couple’s turn towards more shamanistic outlets for their interest in play, performance and ritual.
EARTH RITUALS AND LATER FILMS
The final section on this DVD set documents Bruce Lacey’s involvement with the New Age neo-pagan movement of the 1980s. This is perhaps the hardest group of films to appreciate at first hand unless you happen to be the type of person who enjoys watching an old man stripping naked in a field, prancing in front of a bonfire and daubing himself in body paint; but once you place this phase of Lacey’s ‘career’ (for want of a better word) into its proper context, amid all the other works exhibited and documented elsewhere in the collection, it somehow seems fitting that a lifelong obsession with ritual as performance, and visa-versa -- both the mundane, everyday sort not usually reflected upon in life, as well as the kind born from artistic visions of a mechanically moulded future – should wind up in this meditative, personal odyssey which imagines a form of lost ritual from a distant prehistory which has nevertheless left such a profound mark on the British landscape through the heritage of its circles of standing stones, which Lacey proceeds to re-contextualises in a series of self-generated earth rituals performed at a number of pagan fayres he was involved with throughout the eighties. “Awakening of the Earth Goddess, Rougham” (13 minutes) is a film record of Lacey’s performance at one such event in 1982, and might also be seen as an oblique companion piece to “Double Exposure”, where the reflective internalised notion of a fertile earth replaces the physical presence of another human as the object of sexual reverence (not un-coincidentally, Bruce and Jill’s marriage was apparently on the point of collapse by this point). The elaborate gestures performed as part of this piece seem like public expressions of personal emotional readjustment as well as exercises in pseudo shamanistic ritual; the change of context and venue is the main difference between Lacey’s work here and his previous attempts to create a performance space for actions developed and taken outside of their usual habitat to become remade as art spectacle. In the two super 8 films made with Jill in 1982 at several stone circle sites (“Castlerigg + Wales Stone Circles”), Bruce wields the portable camera like an impressionistic paintbrush in order to create an elaborate, textured reconstruction of his personal encounter with the surrounding landscape, orchestrated in real time (7 mins & 15 mins respectively). These impressionistic portraits on film almost feel like they belong alongside the very first film Lacey was ever involved with – “Head in Shadow” – in which an urban landscape was the object of veneration through thoughtful exploration with the texture of images.
“Breaking Away to Come Together” (9 mins|1984) is a one-off collaboration with video artiste Natalie Hayes using music hall mirror techniques to morph the faces of both artists, and dissipating gender, identity and finally ego in an array of kaleidoscopic abstraction. “The Re-Awakening of My Ancestral Spirit” is another filmed earth ritual, this time a video piece directed and photographed by Kirin Davids, in which Lacey once more revels in his own self-created mythology, supposedly commemorating his Viking ancestry and his dead parents through the manipulation of selected props in a performance which marries spiritual solemnity with the playful nature of the artist’s performance technique.
THE BRUCE LACEY EXPERIENCE
The 72 minute documentary, by Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams, about Bruce Lacey’s life and experience, is the perfect way to round off this voyage into the outer limits of British eccentricity, which also turns out to be a pretty fine history of the cultural life of Great Britain since the war. Lacey’s personal journey is just one possible route through that history -- and a highly idiosyncratic one at that; but it takes in many more diverse sights than most. The unexpected resonances still to be discovered between such disparate interests and practices as are documented throughout this film collection, in the cross-pollination of art happening, anti-establishment satire, art education, slapstick variety and gatherings of counter-cultural networks (such as the Fayre movement) becomes the main lesson to be taken from the trip (and it is indeed a very ‘trippy’ trip to take!). The filmmakers were originally attracted by the offbeat diversity and the playfulness of Lacey’s work: visiting the eighty year old in his cluttered Norfolk farmhouse where he now lives alone, surrounded by reminders of all the various transitions his career has undergone in the form of props, old robots and rooms full of tattered scripts, posters, paintings and photographs (the man clearly has never thrown anything away in his life!), they find him still taking part in art happenings but in the peaceful retirement village surroundings he now frequents, and still giving lectures accompanied by demonstrations of his robot installations and showings of his old films. Here we get a more personal context from which to view the pieces contained in this set: Lacey’s autobiographical account of his life in art, in which almost all aspects of his life – his daydreams, fantasies and wishes – have been made part of the on-going project at some time or another. For Bruce Lacey, living life is an art experience that can best be appreciated through play. This DVD collection from the BFI not only has this engrossing documentary to help us fix the spiralling diversity of Lacey’s work, but also an excellent forty-five page booklet featuring an introduction from the man himself and a very worthwhile essay overview by curator William Fowler. There are also short pieces on each and every film included in the set, written by a plethora of contributors.
Lacey is described in the introduction to Fowler’s piece as a Zelig figure -- and this phrase seems to sum up best how he’s managed to play an important role in just about every major development in popular and underground culture, in a manner few others have been able to imitate. This is a meandering, diverse but very fine introduction to that oddball legacy, collated with characteristic flair by the BFI. An interesting and rewarding find.
Read more from Black Gloves at his Blog, Nothing but the Night!