Director: Bruce Lacey, John Sewell, Bob Godfrey, Richard Lester and others
Screenplay: Bruce Lacey, John Swell, Bob Godfrey and others
Starring: Bruce Lacey, Jill Bruce, Bob Godfrey, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, The Alberts
Country: UK
Running Time: 365 min
Year: 1951-2012

The Lacey Rituals is the BFI’s generously loaded introduction to the life and work of counter-culture artist, actor, comedian, inventor and all-round oddball icon Bruce Lacey. I say ‘introduction’ because, for most people, that is exactly what this set will be but for those who were already a fan of Lacey’s work, this will be an unexpected and welcome treasure trove, the like of which they’ve been dying to get their hands on for decades.

I myself was only passingly aware of Lacey. I’d heard of The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, I had a distant memory of seeing The Battle of New Orleans somewhere before (both of these films are included here) and, like many others I’m sure, I’d seen Lacey playing the role of George Harrison’s gardener in Help without being aware it was him. But these small glimpses were enough to intrigue me and I began ploughing my way through all 365 minutes of this double-disc release with a mixture of excitement and a hint of wariness. After all, this 60s counter-culture art stuff can sometimes be extremely hard work!

With such a large amount of films to take in, I’d advise viewers, especially newcomers to Lacey’s ouevre, to start by reading the excellent accompanying 45 page booklet that comes with the DVD. In this booklet you’ll find introductions to Lacey, his best friend John Sewell and several of his other collaborators, as well as fascinating mini-reviews of every film on the DVD (27 in total). I’d then suggest you proceed directly to The Bruce Lacey Experience, an enjoyable, feature length 2012 documentary by Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams. Tucked away at the end of disc 2, The Bruce Lacey Experience provides a handy breakdown of Lacey’s diverse career and, as he takes the filmmakers through his personal archives, an introduction to his unique, forthright charm. A key scene in the film shows a slightly younger Lacey advising viewers to follow their every whim and live an unusual and exciting life as a result. With this in mind, it may seem odd to approach such anarchic work by first imposing order on it. However, the work of rebels is meaningless unless we are aware of the context of what they were rebelling against and this, among other insights, is what the booklet and the documentary provide so effectively.

Disc One

Early Films

Undoubtedly the most enjoyable of The Lacey Rituals‘ sections, the Early Films collection that opens disc one is the best place to start after the documentary. It opens, however, with two less representative films from the early 50s, directed by John Sewell and starring Lacey. Head in Shadow, a downbeat, 20 minute ‘trance film’, follows the journey of a blind man as he struggles to pick his way through a war-torn urban landscape and identify the contents of a mysterious parcel. Set to the clanging sound of Morgan Fisher’s Slow Music, Head in Shadow feels very much the student film, particularly its climax, which aims for profundity but feels slightly less clever than it thinks it is. Without the accompanying commentary in the booklet, it’s also not especially easy to tell what’s going on. The same can be said of ‘Agib and Agab’, an extremely odd Arabian Nights style tale which suffers from the poor state of the film itself. It’s often difficult to hear the voiceover narration and the images are simialrly disorientating.

As we reach the 60s films however, the disc hits its stride. These begin with Richard Lester’s The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, an 11 minute amateur comedy shot in a field with two ex-Goons, which somehow found itself nominated for an Oscar! This black and white slapstick film, aside from helping secure the Beatles films for Richard Lester, is retrospectively seen as a hugely important comedy document in that it so clearly influenced the comedy revolution that followed but is often attributed solely to the Monty Python team. While its importance cannot be overstated, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film‘s actual appeal may be limited mainly to comedy buffs like myself. But see how they thread that joke from an earlier sketch through other sketches in the film? See how they create a world both hilarious and unnerving, where sudden acts of violence and indifference to human life add a creepy edge to our intial explosions of laughter? How could you not love this?!!

As much as I love The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, I think I love The Battle of New Orleans even more. One of two rare live-action films by the great (and Great) animator Bob Godfrey that are included on this disc, The Battle of New Orleans sets the titular Lonnie Donegan hit to the image of an anarchic musical trio playing a violin, piano and double bass as they sink into a mudflat. The incongruity of the smartly dressed musicians, the filthy surroundings and the impassioned playing with continual break for mud-fights are all hypnotically hysterical but the real stroke of genius here is the choice of music. The visuals were filmed before the music was chosen and apparently they tried matching it to all sorts of music but nothing was funny. But as soon as that fantastic Donegan song was chosen, suddenly the whole thing worked and, watching the film, it’s almost hard to believe they didn’t have it in mind all along. The importance of the right music is further illustrated in The Bruce Lacey Experience documentary on disc 2 where, presumably for contractual reasons, images of The Battle of New Orleans are set to a generic piece of vaudeville slapstick music and it immediately feels like little more than throwaway cornball antics. Such antics can also be found in the awful Uncle’s Tea Party, a five minute black and white tribute to silent comedy, made by softcore pornographer Harrison Marks and starring Lacey and comedy troupe The Alberts. It’s a frantic mess of truly terrible jokes and under-realised concepts that fails to raise any laughs whatsoever.

Sewell and Lacey’s Everybody’s Nobody is a sharp, cynical satire on the similarities between mankind and flawed, easily-programmable automata. Lacey plays the robot while Sewell provides the fantastically witty voiceover for a publicity film extolling the virtues of M.A.N. (Mobile Absurd Nonentity). Also great is Bob Godfrey’s One Man Band, starring Lacey as the titular phenomenon who attempts to break free of his oom-pah roots but finds they are too ingrained. This set of seven primarily comedic and largely quite accessible films is an appropriate start to the DVD collection and highlights the delicate tightrope Lacey’s work can walk between the overdone and the genuinely spot-on terrific. His penchant for following whims is clear.

Unfortunately, none of the other sections of the DVD come close as a whole to being as entertaining as this first one. But there is still at least one lost (until now) gem to be unearthed.

Human Behaviour Films

Lacey and his then-wife Jill Bruce made a series of human behaviour films between 1967 and 1975. These were apparently designed to be studied by aliens who, if the human race died out, would only have films with which to find out about our daily lives… and films miss out so much mundane detail. The human behaviour films are a neat idea which unfortunately suffer from an inability to stick to their original idea, instead straying into comic exaggeration, often of a sexual nature. 1967’s Kissing Film, for instance, focuses on the lascivious lips of Lacey and his wife as they demonstrate kissing. But were Martians to use this as a guideline, they would come to believe that a make-out session require a trip to the delicatessen pre-smooch! 1975’s Double Exposure takes things a step further, offering us three minutes of Lacey and his wife having sex, the twist being that camera effects allow their bodies to pass completely through each other but never actually touch (hence the title, the best thing about the film). 1971’s How to Have a Bath demonstrates just that and largely sticks to the original intention of the human behaviour films, although it isn’t terribly interesting.

The masterpiece of the human behaviour films, and one of the best things on the set, is The Lacey Rituals, a feature length demonstration of the Lacey families everyday rituals. Sticking closely to the intended purpose of the human behaviour films, The Lacey Rituals has an invigorating spontaneity as each member of the family attempt to demonstrate the art of such diverse everyday acts as making toast, making coffee, nose picking, applying make-up and riding bikes (also included is a colour remake of How to Have a Bath). They do this in the constant knowledge that their limited film stock could run out at any time, constantly checking how long they’ve been demonstrating for. Lacey, his wife Jill and their three children Kevin, Tiffany and Saffron all take turns both in the demonstrations and in operating the camera, never attempting to hide the filmmaking process (which is treated as an instructive process itself, with all mistakes and retakes left in). It’s a wonderful film, partly just for the joy of watching a family enjoying the bonding process of a shared project and partly because our everyday rituals really are more interesting than you’d expect.

Disc Two

Performances and Documentation

Sadly, disc two of The Lacey Rituals is not a patch on the first disc. The documentary aside, it contains very little I’d be inclined to revisit. But the disc does provide a more fully rounded picture of Lacey as a man of diverse talents and the Performance and Documentation section gives us a glimpse of Lacey as a live performer, artist and inventor. Many of the films here, such as Humanoid Race, Universal Intergrator and R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M simply give us very brief glimpses of Lacey’s art exhibitions and there is a sense that, without ectually seeing them in person, you’re really missing the full experience. R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M stands out from these, benefitting from an informative voiceover from Lacey about the history of his famous robot, whereas the other films merely observe their pieces with a reverent silence.

The most enjoyable films in this section are The Flying Alberts and If I Had a Talking Picture of You. The former is a spoof news report on Lacey and The Alberts’ attempt to fly over a pond in a makeshift wooden glider. It’s a chaotic affair which benefits greatly from a witty commentary from John Wells, although Lacey’s own, shorter cut of the film (included here) removes Wells completely. If I Had a Talking Picture of You is a primitively filmed document of an elderly Lacey performing one of his earliest stage routines in which he romances a woman projected on a screen through a series of ingenious visual jokes. It’s a very enjoyable piece, filmed in the same manner as your own school plays no doubt were, but once you’ve seen it there temptation to revisit it isn’t strong.

Performance Inserts

The most redundant section of the DVD, this is strictly for Lacey completists only. The two short films featured were never meant to be viewed as stand-alone pieces but as filmed inserts in longer stage performances. Even with the context provided in the booklet, there’s not a lot of joy to be had in observing them outside the body of the full work. Nevertheless, there are presumably people out there who will be delighted to have them so bravo to the BFI for including them here.

Earth Rituals and Later Films

If Performance Inserts is the most redundant section of the DVD, Earth Rituals and Later Films is the most excruciatingly dull. The films available here collect Lacey’s Super 8 films of his self-devised earth rituals and his visits to standing stones. For anyone who has an interest in this sort of thing, this section of the DVD may have some worth. However, long time-lapse shots of clouds, standing stones and Lacey’s naked cavorting will prove hard to watch for everyone else, particularly since these films tend to be longer than most on offer (the shortest is seven minutes, the longest twenty-two). In amongst these films there is also Breaking Away to Come Together, the sort of experimental film that used to be on a lot back when the UK’s Channel Four was still good. However, this attempt at mesmeric artistry, with intermingling, rupturing images of people’s faces, seems at once dated and humourless, unlike the earlier short films which get away with being more accurately described as ‘of their time’, largely because of the disarming comedy elements.

Final Thoughts

The Lacey Rituals both shattered and lived up to my preconceptions. When you’re dealing with such an unpredictable, anarchic figure as Lacey, one should expect a mixed bag and, although his less entertaining work can be an excruciating watch, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This excellent set leaves you with a comprehensive impression of the man that is Bruce Lacey, offering a rare intimacy in deeply personal projects such as the wonderful film that gives the set its title. While watching it in one sitting may lead to hospitalisation, The Lacey Rituals is a rewarding and fascinating study of a many faceted figure whom most people hitherto only knew for his horticultural chattering teeth that kept the Beatles’ garden in such good order.

The Lacey Rituals will be released on 23 July 2012

One Response

  1. David Brook

    That looks like a mightily comprehensive set!

    I must admit I’ve not heard of Bruce Lacey before. I’m not generally into the whole 60’s avant-garde art movement, I usually find stuff like that rather dated and hard to take seriously. Some of this sounds pretty intriguing though. I doubt I’d buy it myself, but I might keep an eye out for bits and pieces here and there or rent the set.

    Love the epic review by the way!


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