Brief Encounter: Bruce Lacey And His Robot Friends (2012)

This is Rosa Bosom,’ said Bruce Lacey, showing me into the living room of his chilly, cluttered Norfolk farmhouse and pointing towards a seven-foot robot with a tailor’s dummy arms, a chest full of wires and large red lips. ‘Her name stands for Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery Operated Standby or Mains. I built her in 1965 and she’s inspired by the Harrier Jump Jet. She was best man at my second wedding. She gave me the ring, blew confetti and played the bridal march.’ Visiting Lacey was like visiting the lair of a lost Doctor Who that never quite made it into space. Rosa was one of three robots who shared his living space, which also was full of old costumes, large amounts of taxidermy (‘A lament,’ says Lacey, who is a vegetarian) and ventriloquist’s dummies. The other two robots were Clockface, made from a Victorian vacuum cleaner and a grandfather clock, and Electric Man Mark II, a hermaphrodite humanoid who wore a corset and formerly served as the target in the knife-throwing section of Bruce’s cabaret show. Was Lacey an inventor? Sort of. A performance artist? Yes and no. A film-maker? Of sorts. ‘For years, the media saw me as a joke,’ he said. ‘The art world saw me as a performer playing at being an artist, the theatre world saw me as an amateur. I see myself as beachcombing, not through the art world, but through all of life, making connections.’ The overused description ‘Zelig-like’ really did apply to Lacey, who had lived numerous contrasting lives in his eighty-five years on the planet. His late 1950s musical comedy troupe The Alberts were the primary inspiration for The Bonzo Dog Band, and were briefly managed by Lenny Bruce. In the sixties, he played George Harrison’s gardener in Help!, made props for Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers – ‘a very insecure man’ – and played practical jokes with John Lennon whilst filming Not Only… But Also. ‘Do you play that?’ I asked, pointing to a Turkish saz, hanging on the wall of his study. ‘Yes, but it’s broken,’ he replied. ‘Dick Lester, the director of Help!, chased me with it at a party and hit me on the head with it.’ In 1969, Fairport Convention wrote a song about him called ‘Mr Lacey’. ‘It’s true no one here understands now,’ they sing. ‘But maybe someday they’ll catch up with you.’ Lacey argued – showing me a banned Union Jack poster for one of his shows, predating the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen artwork by over a decade – that he was not ahead of his time, he was just ‘of his time’ and ‘people lag behind’. ‘In the sixties, I was already worried about the things we’re worried about now: spare part surgery, food shortage, overpopulation. During the drought of 1976, at the Barsham Faire in Suffolk, Lacey simulated rain with ashes and cotton wool balls filled with water. A thunderstorm ensued. ‘Christians thought I was performing magic,’ he said. ‘I knew I hadn’t but it excited me that I had got into a relationship with the elements.’ A still more dramatic ritual occurred in 1982 when, heartbroken amidst his break-up with his second wife, he painted a seventy-foot woman on the ground at one of the old hippie fairs in Rougham, Norfolk, and symbolically made love to her using a corn dolly as a phallic symbol. ‘Eight of my nine children were there, and my wife’s lover was dancing and drumming for me,’ he remembered. ‘Art is psychotherapy for me.’

Loads more writing about lots of things.

7 thoughts on “Brief Encounter: Bruce Lacey And His Robot Friends (2012)

  1. Very interesting Tom, I’ve met his daughter Rosie Lacey and she often plays at our local music festival in Hornsey, London, and The Crouch End Festival.

  2. What sort of a corn dolly? It would be very easy to make an obviously phallic one, but I wonder if he was indeed that obvious?

  3. I always wondered who ‘Mr Lacey’ was about, now I know and the lyrics make a lot more sense. Thanks Tom! Hope both you and Ralph get better very soon. Thank you for all your delightful writing, you never fail to bring me cheer. All the Bees …!

  4. Hi Tom – have you read Bruce’s ex-wife’s wonderful book The Gypsy Switch?

    I think you’d like it – Jill Smith walked around the UK in the early 80s “on an ambitious series of personal pilrimages in which she sought to become one with the sacred landscapes of Britain” – but that doesn’t really do it justice!

    Jill’s pragmatism (cans of Kestrel, chips, sleeping under a big bit of plastic) combines with descriptions of her ecstatic state and connection with the land. It’s also interesting to read about that time and how people we generally kind and interested rather than suspicious and scared.. Foreward is by Jeremy Deller

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