My Last Carnival – Horse Automata and other things


Lots of people have been asking me for more about the progress of our horse automaton for the celebration event around the “My Last Car” project.  This is happening in Bentham and is now being called “My Last Carnival”.

I haven’t written about it for a while because I wanted to wait till I had plenty to tell you.

On the morning that I was due to talk to Ali Jones of Pioneer Projects about it, I came across a video of street arts company Luxe at the St. Patrick’s Parade in Dublin which, funnily enough, contained horse automata.  Ali liked both my ideas, and the ones in the video when I showed her, and she gave me the go ahead to pursue that idea.  It turned out that there was at least one old bike that we could use at Looking Well, (the celebratory arts based healthy living centre run by Pioneer Projects) already.  We also decided that it would be best as a static installation, rather than a working “horse-drawn” carriage that would drive down the road.

I had already spoken to Eddie Knowles, our mechanical expert at Rough Magic Theatre, about the horse automaton idea.  We often collaborate to make interesting props and puppets.  For our push along White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, for example: I came up with the idea, Eddie worked out how to do it and then I did the paintwork at the end.

When he and my husband, Tim, saw the video they were both of the opinion that the mechanisms that Luxe had used looked simpler than the one I tried out with the meccano.  It would therefore be easier to make.  I was a bit disappointed, as I was very keen on the horse like movement of the original mechanism, but I thought I would go with the new simpler idea if it was more practical to make.

Unfortunately, having decided to do that, it was not simply a matter of deciding what we wanted to make it out of, buying it and going ahead.  We wanted, both for ideological, artistic and budget reasons, to make the horse out of reclaimed materials.  This is because in the future there will not be an abundance of new materials so recycling what is around now will be the only option.

We worked out that we would need at least one additional old bike to make the mechanism and some additional lengths of bike chain.  We would have audience members and a driver sat on a bench who would use bicycle pedals to power the horse in front.  Ali had also said, that though we could have the back end of the bus to use if we wanted, it was awkward to get hold of as it was being stored in a barn in the middle of nowhere.  She suggested we concentrate on the horse first and then incorporate the bus if we wanted to and if there was time.

After pursuing a couple of possible local sources of old bikes, we resorted to the scrap metal businesses in nearby Morecambe.  We got one scrap bike but upon investigating a bike shop I spotted, which sold new and used bikes, we discovered a disheartening piece of information.  We asked about old bike chains and explained roughly what we were trying to do.  It was then that we found out that there are two different kinds of bike chains.  Our original bike from Looking Well was the old kind and the scrap bike was a newer multi-gear kind, and the two are not compatible.  So we opted to get some extra lengths of the newer more common type of chain and see if we could still do something with the old bike by swapping some of the parts between the two bikes.

Where we are up to currently, is that this morning Eddie worked out that it would be impractical to swap parts between the bikes because they are two completely different sizes and shapes.  So tomorrow, (one of the few days we will have uninterrupted access to Looking Well’s outdoor workshop) we shall have to take time out to visit the scrap metal places for another bike. 😦 Ah well, such is life!

I have also had many ideas about the performance aspect of the street act.  Some of my earlier ideas involved the people sitting still and scenery on a roll going backwards, or some silly physical theatre involving people walking backwards and moving bushes or postboxes or whatever past the people on the “ride”.  Then Ali suggested it might be easier to do a shadow screen version instead, but bearing in mind the narrow pavement location that had been suggested, it would be difficult to set that up behind the horse.  And if it was in front, no by-standers would get any view of the horse moving.  It is quite important for by-standers to be able to see the horse because anyone actually being “taken for a drive” will only see the back end of the horse, which will not be a good angle to see it moving properly.

Tim suggested that it should be like the Great Exhibition, showing the transport of the future, with one of us being a Circus Ringmaster type M.C. getting the attention of the public and showing off the horse.  This scenario would work well with the fact that the horse does not actually move along, as it would merely be a demonstration model.

At first I was a bit unsure about this, as I thought it ought to be a bit more futuristic than Victorian, but I went through a great many ideas that led on from each other and eventually ended up with the idea of one chap dressed in a boiler suit and waistcoat, flat cap and neckerchief, (the classic Fred Dibner look) who would be the inventor and drive the machine.  Then the second character would be a Victorian style automaton with modern day and futuristic aspects of the Ringmaster type M.C. in Tim’s original idea.  So the M.C. automaton’s job will be to draw the crowds and introduce the horse exhibit, and the Fred Dibner style inventor will wind the clock-work M.C. up at appropriate moments.

I wouldn’t need a great deal of extra costume for these characters in addition to things we have already, but we would need a flat cap and two sets of goggles.  I originally was thinking of mad driving goggles for Tim’s character, (he is going to be the inventor – though he was a bit confused and thought he was the M.C. at first, then I explained how he is the one who is really in charge and he brightened up a bit) but found some fabulous welding goggles which have the right kind of look.

For the M.C. character I wanted something that could either be seen as a monocle or a borg eye, (like in Star-Trek for those who don’t watch sci-fi) so I got a pair of blue swimming goggles that I could dismantle for that.  I ideally wanted to have things that would light up on the costume too, but that is an “if I have time” idea.  I have a tail-coat already, and will make a top hat from reclaimed materials. I also intend to have bits of cogs and chains and things on the costume.


We successfully bagged another bike (from another scrap metal place in Morecambe) that matches the other scrap bike and lengths of chain we have.  In addition, we have managed to get as far as joining the two together in a cunning fashion and this is going to form the driving mechanism.  Tomorrow, we will be making stands to support the structure in the position we want it to be.



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