Within the stylish (for the 1960s) retail complex of Leeds’ Merrion Centre, there used to stand a contraption in a glass case: a bizarre timepiece looking like a pushbike/biplane hybrid with some umbrellas and bunting on. With a Wacky Races-ness to it, when it chimed it came to life, playing a ditty at the same time, and to add to its wonder, it was said to be ‘a Heath Robinson’ too, whatever that was.
William Heath Robinson was born in 1872 in Islington. His father and brothers illustrated for newspapers, journals and books, and William followed suit but less impressively. And despite illustrating various classics, he had a low opinion of his own art skills, probably explaining his seemingly constant struggle for money. Matters did improve when he wrote and beautifully drew The Adventures Of Uncle Lubin, a book very popular across generations. I’d never heard of it until I began writing a screenplay on the life of WHR.
His career really took off during World War One. Radically changing his style, he lampooned politicians and ‘the Hun’, inventing bizarre weapons of war like The Trench Presser along the way. Something of a war hero, an anti-war hero even, weird contraptions (Absurdities) became his trademark. Hundreds more potty ideas were published and he would work with the BBC as well as even having an exhibit displayed at The Ideal Home Show. His odd genius has influenced many an artiste since, notably The Goons, Monty Python and, without any doubt, Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit.
The BBC held a vote for the nation’s top 100 greatest Britons. Heath Robinson wasn’t on the list which suggests to me that many folk deserved a rocket up their behinds. Shame he wasn’t around then (he died in 1944) as I’m sure he’d have enjoyed inventing ‘The Rocket Launching For Multiple British Bottoms Machine’. By the way, that clock had nothing to do with him, it was possibly a manufactured urban myth. I think Heath Robinson would have enjoyed that bit of daftness too.
For more info on Heath Robinson click here.
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