We need to cherish people like Bruce Lacey while we still have the opportunity. Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere. He’s 80-something and still kicking; baffling the residents of his hometown of Wymondham by attending the local music festival in a mobile flower bed. But really, when he does go, who is going to replace him?
Recently cinema and art has lost some true visionaries and mavericks. George Kuchar, Robert Breer and Jeff Keen have all left us and maniacs like these don’t pop along every five minutes. And I can’t really see where their replacements are going to come from. Multiplexes are full of sequels, remakes and the reimagining of television shows that no-one really cared about in the first place. High Art is mass produced by interns in warehouses and the top selling book is a reversion of erotic Twilight fan fiction. I don’t spot any Bruce Lacey’s appearing from that pool. Everything feels diluted and tired, a weak forgery of itself. What appears to be missing is passion. A passion to annoy, baffle and fail in conventional terms and be delighted by that consequence. A magical quality that renegades like Lacey epitomise.
An artist, musician, filmmaker, performer, robot builder and provocateur, Lacey prefers to identify himself as someone who generally ‘takes the piss’. Celebrated in a new documentary ‘The Bruce Lacey Experience’ by Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller, their film only scratches the surface of this great man who is bafflingly unheralded. Elements such as Bruce working for The Goons, probably worth a whole film in itself, are passed over in a sentence and a still. Not to take anything away from this wonderful film, it’s entirely necessary. As the filmmakers themselves admitted, a full representation of Lacey’s life would run at least eight hours as his life and achievements are ‘epic’. Instead what they offer is a ‘fragmentary portrait’.
Lacey simply considers himself someone who never relinquished the wonder of childhood. This amazement at the world is still raging within him in his ninth decade. His creative career has been a series of metamorphosis’s from artist to actor to prop-maker, to filmmaker, to performer in proto-Bonzo band The Alberts, to robot maker to shaman, to ritualist and beyond. Perhaps the reason he’s not up there on a plinth beside Milligan, Peter Blake and Ken Russell is this constant diversification and a subsequent inability to categorise him succinctly.
Lacey simply considers himself someone who never relinquished the wonder of childhood. This amazement at the world is still raging within him in his ninth decade
This inability to pigeonhole is something that Lacey, not a fan of labels, revels in. His passionate dislike of the ephemera surrounding the worlds he worked in – art, television, showbiz - led him to subvert and highlight the intrinsic hypocrisies they exude. For instance, asked to perform with a group of leading Beat Poets, including Ginsberg, at the Albert Hall, Lacey wanted to smash a replica of the Venus De Milo. The poets rejected this and wanted something that involved ‘the spoken world’. So instead an aggravated Lacey, annoyed by the intransigence of these ‘radicals’ built and released his first robot onto the stage, a virtual poet. A version of this robot, dubbed R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M. not only went on to win the Alternative Miss World competition but was also the best man at Lacey’s wedding.
It’s this series of connections and consequences, such as an annoyance by poets leading to robot building or his destructive art performances leading him to be a West End cabaret star, that excites him. That and an unequivocal and ferocious love of flying. Originally planning to be a pilot, he eventually joined the Navy, which led to a bout of TB and an extended period of bed rest, where his artistic yearnings flourished. Eric Sykes claimed the best way to develop the next wave of creative types would be to reintroduce conscription, as there’s nothing better for artistic development than sitting on your arse for two years. This was certainly the case with Bruce Lacey.
He landed at art school and hated art school. But kicking against those pricks helped fire up his anarchic spirit and recognise the bullshit that the fuels the art establishment. Battling against these societal norms and deflating that pomposity has been the mainstay of Lacey’s work and led to some remarkable collaborations. During the question and answer session at the documentary’s premiere screening, he casually mentioned interactions with figures as diverse as Kenneth Williams, Brian Eno, Bob Monkhouse, The Bonzo Dog Doon Dah Band, Ken Russell and Peter Cook. It was Cook that informed him that the secret of showbiz success is doing the same thing over and over again. Something that Lacey could never be accused of.
And that is what it feels like we’re missing right now. That determination not to compromise, that maverick drive, that passion. The joy of annoyance, relishing an audience full of startled expressions, setting things on fire and blowing things up. As Lacey himself states, the happiness that derives when ‘things go wrong’. That’s what is irreplaceable about people like Bruce Lacey that live to create, subvert, take the piss and then move on regardless of the consequences.
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