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Preservation Man, The (1962)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Preservation Man, The (1962)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 20/5/1962, black and white, 16 mins
Directed byKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC TV
CommentaryHuw Wheldon

Featuring: Bruce Lacey

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A portrait of the artist and junk collector Bruce Lacey.

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Ken Russell's third Monitor documentary from 1962 is both a development from and inversion of the first, Lonely Shore (tx. 14/1/1962). In that, an alien presence surveys a stretch of coastline strewn with assorted objects from early 1960s British lifestyles and tries (and mostly fails) to divine their meaning or purpose. The Preservation Man is also set in a series of object-strewn settings, but here they're part of the artist Bruce Lacey's collection of random junk, and their original function is irrelevant. Sensibly, Russell and commentator Huw Wheldon keep analysis to a minimum, preferring to use the film as an excuse to spend quarter of an hour in Lacey's amiable company.

Lacey was Russell's most eccentric and flamboyant subject since Spike Milligan in Portrait of a Goon (tx. 16/12/1959), but The Preservation Man is more successful as a film. This was partly thanks to Russell's increased confidence as a director, but also because in Lacey he found a kindred spirit, a celebrator of the kind of homespun surrealism that can be found in every home if one has the wit to seek it out. Tellingly, Lacey's six children seem entirely unfazed by the ever-changing Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, taking turns for pretend rides on a stuffed camel, or finding an ancient doll concealed behind a portrait of Queen Victoria.

There's a small amount of back-story, with Russell restaging Lacey's account of how his parents allegedly met in Catford at a roller-skating fancy-dress ball. His father was a frustrated performer, volunteering for all manner of audience participation acts at the Lewisham Hippodrome (including the recipient of the attentions of a knife-throwing act), and Lacey regards himself as an equally frustrated prop man.

Russell spends most of the film thoroughly immersing us in Lacey's peculiar universe before giving us a sense of the creative uses to which Lacey puts his objects. The spokes of a penny-farthing bicycle are plucked and hit to create a home-made Harry Partch-style musical instrument. "Electric men" are constructed Frankenstein-style from abandoned machinery and shop window dummy parts - one has a bubble machine installed to accompany a recorded rendition of 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles'. As Wheldon's commentary points out, Lacey is particularly interested in objects that are too old for everyday use and yet not venerable enough to become authentic museum-pieces, and Russell's film occupies a similar hinterland between the serious arts documentary and flamboyantly surrealistic fantasy.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Absurd nostalgia (3:29)
2. In the blood (2:44)
3. Musical interludes (2:16)
Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)
Portrait of a Goon (1959)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Wheldon, Sir Huw (1916-1986)
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years