MY STORY The show goes on

The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre was founded by Sue Jackson in 1979 in a small shop in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where she turned the vVctorian diversionary craft of automata-making into an art form and eventually a global success. Following Sue’s sudden death in April this year aged 77, Cabaret is taking on a new lease of life under the guidance of her daughter, Sarah Alexander. The Crafts Council’s exhibition, A Curious Turn: Moving mechanical sculpture will celebrate 40 years of British automata and opens on September 15 at Habitat’s King’s Road Platform Gallery as part of the London Design Festival before a two-year nationwide tour. it was a project Sue had helped plan, but never witnessed and is dedicated to her memory


How did Sue start Cabaret?

She’d been running Oscars, a successful restaurant in Falmouth,
for three years but had become disillusioned and wanted a more permanent outlet for her creative talents, so she leased it out while continuing to live there and opened
a small crafts shop on the first floor with a window on the street. An art school graduate, she encouraged her artist friends to contribute their work.

How did the craft evolve and who were the early artists?
Our school art teacher, Peter Markey, was the first automata maker and Sue sold his wooden mechanical wave machines. Paul Spooner produced ingenious automata using the Egyptian god Anubis while Ron Fuller, Sue’s teenage sweetheart from Falmouth Art School, created traditional wooden toys.

As the automata became more popular, Sue decided to keep one of each design and created a permanent exhibition which cost just 50p to enter. The artists were then inspired to make larger, more complicated designs and coin-operated pieces, which employed more sophisticated science and technology but were still hugely entertaining and appealed to the whole family.

Cabaret took on a new dimension when it opened in Covent Garden in 1985 and was a popular attraction there for 15 years. Why did it close?

We’ve never been a business to stand still in the face of adversity, but we came under pressure from the three Rs: rent, rates and restlessness. Writer Rosemary Hill described Cabaret as “a triumph of the imagination over accountancy” but sadly it was the latter that prevailed.

What happened to Cabaret next?

Cabaret moved to the Kursaal amusement arcade in Southend for six months, but it was sadly mis- managed and we faced financial ruin. Then, in the best Hollywood tradition, we got a phone call from Los Angeles promising fame and fortune. Sue and I flew over in good faith, but despite our American partners’ best intentions and their belief in Cabaret, a series of mishaps and legal wrangles ensued and the deal fell through. But we survived the disappointment, regained control of our exhibits and focused on touring shows. I’m pleased to say that we now have an excellent relationship with galleries in the USA, most recently with the San Francisco Exploratorium, and from this autumn we will have a regular annual exhibition there.

Is there a foreign appetite for aesthetic mechanical toys?
Most definitely. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre has a global audience and we have permanent collections in the USA and Japan with touring exhibitions in China and Germany. We have also shown in Thailand, Australia, France, Spain, Denmark, South Korea and Abu Dhabi with constant interest coming from other countries.

Cabaret automata are now treasured collector’s items. Who owns them?

Sir Nicholas Goodison, former chairman of the Stock Exchange has more than 800 pieces while astronaut and games designer Richard Garriott and writer Anthony Horowitz are all avid collectors, as was the late composer James Horner. Many collectors have become great friends and patrons over the years.

Has the art of automata-making died out?
Absolutely not. There is more interest now than ever before, especially with social media groups on Facebook, such as Mechanical Adventures started by artist Keith Newstead that focuses on the processes involved in making automata from new and recycled material, and the Automata/ Automaton Group, (www.facebook. com/groups/automata) started by USA maker and writer Dug North, ( which has around 3,000 members interested in learning about mechanical automata, gizmos, games and contraptions.

How are you reviving Cabaret now?

While keeping automata at the core I’ve been working on more themed touring exhibitions, such as the Mechanical Circus in collaboration with Museum Boerhaave in Leiden in Holland and The Mechanicals, a partnership with Science Projects, a UK-based organisation specialising in building interactive exhibits, ( have a new exhibition with a fairy tale theme, currently in development with the House of Fairytales, a UK-based charity for children run by Deborah Curtis and Gavin Turk. I’m also co-founder, with artist and maker Stephen Guy, of Fire the Inventor, (www., a not-for-profit company that encourages “crafting, making and tinkering around with automata” and is now included in our touring exhibitions.

Are there other partnerships you can make?
The Craft Council’s touring exhibition A Curious Turn celebrates 40 years of automata and reflects on the roles played by Sue Jackson and makers Sam Smith, 

Paul Spooner, Peter Markey, Melanie Tomlinson and Ron Fuller in its revival and enduring success.

Working with partners in Europe and across the world is now more important than ever. We need to build bridges with host venues and enable them to engage with an audience
for this eccentric, curious, endlessly fascinating world of automata.

Automata were a phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries revived with Sue’s help and the Cabaret artists in the late 20th century. Can they evolve for the 21st century? 

I think 3D printing is a very exciting development in terms of making automata. Entire mechanisms can be produced in one print, which function immediately and can potentially enable artists to create and share complicated designs more readily. The world is a very different place now than when we started over 30 years ago, but it’s still important to inspire people, and let them discover that they can create with their own hands.

What are your future plans/ vision for the future of Cabaret?

I would like to see Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in a permanent venue within the next five years. That way we can pull together all our activities under one roof, and create a legacy for embracing and encouraging automata as an art form.

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