Thursday, 2 June 2011


I have always been fascinated by automata - toys that move when a handle is cranked or a lever pressed. So when the opportunity came up to help children create an installation for their primary school I jumped at the chance. However, the first hurdle was convincing the interview panel that I was the most suitable applicant. To this end I constructed a machine with a strong musical element.

After some experiment I came up with a construction that, on turning the handle, plays the first two bars of Good King Wenceslas while a Christmas Tree goes up and down. (The interview was in December.) It was an object in need of refinement but held together on the journey to Bedford and performed on the day.

I immersed myself in the project for the next few months, experimenting with designs I hoped would be accessible to 8 and 9 year olds. It was to culminate in a big festival in the school's extensive grounds and Year 4 were to present the installation at this event. The theme was 'White British Culture' and the point we were making was that much of what we think of as quintessentially British, from Fish and Chips to Chicken Vindaloo, would have been unrecognisable to the subjects of King Henry VIII.

To illustrate this we made a large globe set on a turntable, showing where tea, sugar, pizza ingredients etc come from. (This became a very foody take on British culture.)

We built a boat, the centrepiece of the installation, showing how we brought so many British characteristics from overseas. The waves go up and down and sea-life appears and disappears. The sound of the waves was sacrificed to time constraints but I was rather pleased with the ship's bell.

Finally all this wonderful imported food appears at a banquet featuring HM the Queen, William and Kate Windsor, Rod Stewart, Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mr Bean and an unnamed ancient Roman.

The heads of some of these characters moved from side to side while the mouths of others opened and shut, all with levers or cams. (Cheryl was mouthy, Simon big on the negatives while her majesty appeared less than pleased with the company she was keeping. Mechanisms were mounted in carpet tube - very strong but also rather tight on space. The heads were originally to be made of (nice and light) expanded polystyrene but, one of many compromises, ended up being papier mache.

I was lucky to have the assistance of visual artist Abi Spendlove for part of the project. (The Christmas tree had exhausted my repertoire.) Sadly she was elsewhere when the boat was drawn. What should have been an 18th century galleon looks more like a cross channel ferry as a result.