Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Worth every penny


My all-time favourite Dracula movie is not the Lugosi original, not Love at First Bite, not even Dracula AD 1972. It is a fascinating short, made probably in England, probably some time in the nineteen-sixties, entitled Dracula and the Spook. The plot is not as inventive as those of the Hammer movies being made at the same time, neither can it boast the same production values. It begins with a burst of eerie music, then we see a coffin lid slowly open and the unmistakable figure of Dracula rise part way from it before lying down again and reclosing the lid. I remember he does this a couple of times while, I think, a ghost flits past a window in the background. It's all over much too quickly, but if you want to see it again, all you have to do is put another penny in the slot.
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Dracula and the Spook was, of course, a penny arcade slot machine. I encountered it on Paignton Pier sometime in the mid- to late-seventies, at a time when it was already beginning to look redundant and lonely amidst a throng of much noisier, shinier machines that gave you the chance to win something. But I always went straight for it whenever we paid a visit, and in all that time never remember anybody but me paying it the least attention. Finally, one year, I discovered it unplugged, stuck round the back in a kind of storage area, waiting for removal and perhaps even destruction. I never saw it again.
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Rye, near Hastings, is one of those achingly beautiful little towns that have somehow escaped the jackboot of modernity, famous for its association with Paul Nash, Henry James and Radclyffe Hall. Worth a visit for all sorts of reasons (loads of old book shops, a beautiful church, winding streets) it also boasts - in its small tourist information centre - a magnificent permanent exhibition of these wonderful penny slot machines.
Not Dracula and the Spook, alas, but some so similar as to give me a shiver of recognition all the same, especially one called Chamber of Horrors made in the sixties by a company called Animated Amusements. (Apparently they also did one called The Mummy's Tomb.)
How strange and poignant it is to wander among them, observing with a clarity quite lost on their original consumers (who went to these machines on exactly the same impulse that draws their descendants to Grand Theft Auto IV) that these are works of genuine imagination and craftsmanship, as well as cutting edge in their technology. What they do is invariably simple in the extreme, but the imagination that went into them, and the fact that successful businesses made their living making them, seems strange and enchanting.
There are several from one Frederick C. Bolland, made in the early fifties, characterised by a strange, sometimes macabre sense of humour and a keen awareness of national archetypes, including The Drunkard's Dream, The Miser, The Burglar and The Haunted Churchyard.
Then there is one from Peerless Enterprises, made some time in the fifties, called The Beauty Contest and peopled with a wholly disreputable assortment of lecherous onlookers observing what, it must be said, are some pretty ropey-looking broads.
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Many of the older ones lack the sarcasm and are content merely to charm and in some cases to baffle: The Bellringers from 1930 is just what it says, with the sound not taped, of course, but actually produced by the bells the figures are manipulating. The Reading of the Will is another unlikely oddity from 1930; again, the title tells all. Elsewhere there is a fire brigade at work, a crying baby, a guillotine and an execution outside a prison: what a freeze-frame of the cultural preoccupations of their day!
What else do we have? Well, there's a laughing Barnacle Bill the Sailor, like the one from Sleuth, dating from 1950, and an amazing fortune-telling Egyptian Pharaoh from whom the future course of your love life is no secret. Also good at prophecy is the mysterious Sidney, who knows, as the placard he eagerly holds proudly claims, and as he will happily prove by telling you what your future career will be for a penny.
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There's even a What the Butler Saw machine, the sort with the magazine of photographs manipulated at high speed (like a flip-book) this one showing the behinds of some enchanting young ladies going for a nude swim. (And not Albert Steptoe filling a bath with milk.)

But the certain gem is Charlie and Mabel in the Park, an original silent-era (almost certainly unlicensed) representation of Chaplin and Normand sat on a bench, he impudently raising the hem of her dress with his cane, she making as if to strike him but in fact just slightly moving her arm in his direction, before thinking better of it and turning back again. Perhaps once upon a time she did wallop him, but it's as well she doesn't anymore: the whole piece looks so fragile it's doubtful he would survive. Finding a lost Chaplin film may be more exciting that stumbling across this beautiful, beautiful artefact, but only slightly.
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Rye is quickly and easily reached from London, and these extraordinary relics of temps perdu are emphatically worth the trip. So give Brent Cross a miss this weekend and give yourself a treat. As its web page charmingly notes (see here for more details), the visitors' centre is "staffed by an expert team of ladies", who will be happy to turn your useless decimal currency into old pennies, thus enabling you to enter this Narnia of lost imagination and mechanical ingenuity.
Or there's a new Batman film out. Over to you.