Very rude mechanicals

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The Independent Culture
In the Adam and Eve pub, the landlord and landlady are naked. Her breasts light up and flash. He handles a beer pump suggestively. A biker in a Viking helmet makes a V-sign as the parrot on his shoulder squawks an obscenity. Auto-suggestive, you might call it. The satirical pub-as-paradise is one of 20 automata whose rhythmically pulsating parts form the Ride of Life, the biggest, wittiest, rudest - and least seen - extravaganza ever constructed by Britain's automata-makers.

It was commissioned by property developers as a permanent attraction at that temple to consumerism, the Meadowhall shopping and leisure centre in Sheffield, where it would have occupied 15,000sq ft. They invested pounds 1.3m in it - then had second thoughts. For four years the entire ride (which was inspired by the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in London's Covent Garden) has languished in a warehouse, suffering decay and vandalism.

The developers intended that the fairground-style ride of 20 flying sofas would transport happy shoppers on a tour of the finest and funniest automata - products of a craft developed by 19th-century French clock-makers which in Britain has become an art- form with its own idiosyncratic humour. They may not have anticipated the gibes at suburban manners - and consumerism - that inevitably emerged once Cabaret's artful automatists got on the phone to one another.

Now the Adam and Eve pub has been briefly resurrected by Andrew Hunter, curator of Gainsborough's House in Sudbury, Suffolk, for an exhibition of the work of its maker, Ron Fuller. Fuller was paid pounds 3,000 to repair it, which took two months. The denizens of Suffolk are clearly not easily shocked: Hunter has had no complaints. But when some of the automata made their debut at a gallery in Preston, Lancashire, shortly after their completion, a local Liberal Democrat by-election candidate, Joe Fitzgerald, called the Adam and Eve "a pornographic monstrosity".

Other automata were made by Paul Spooner, probably our most renowned maker, and Tim Hunkin, best known for his Secret Life of Machines TV series. Among Hunkin's teasing creations for the Ride was a "consumer research centre" - actually, experiments in enforced retailing - that would have assailed real shoppers queuing for the flying sofas. Having been blinded by bright lights, they would have been offered sunglasses by a vending machine; blasts of compressed air would have reduced sales resistance to hair sprays.

The 15 makers were paid pounds 20,000 or more each. The work took most of them two years. When they realised the automata were not going to see the light of day, they assumed it was because they had become too anarchic, too offensive to consumers' sensibilities. But Paul Swales of the Meadowhall developers denied this: "It is a bit risque, but our main doubts were whether, having ridden on it once, people would keep coming back."

He said his company was willing to sell the Ride, but according to Hunter it needs major repairs. Fuller, meanwhile, is praying that his newly restored pub will remain in good enough condition, after he waves it goodbye again, to be "ready to go" if bought.

As yet, though, there is no buyer in sight. It looks as if the Adam and Eve may have become the Ride of Life's Last Chance Saloon.

! Ron Fuller's automata are at Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, Suffolk, 10am-5pm Tues-Sat, 2-5pm Sun, until 6 October (tel: 01787 372958)