Wanna tell you a story…

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Simon Tait’s Mews – No.6

If you’ve been following the Magic of Cabaret day by day you’ve got some idea of the range of what CMT does, and elsewhere on the site there’s a bit of history, but I think you ought to know the real story about how the whole thing came about, and that’s Sue Jackson’s story. I warn you, though; it’s a breathless roller coaster we’re boarding.

The journey starts in Falmouth in Cornwall, where Sue had been a student at the art school. Now she’s a young mum, children off hands at school, husband Peter running a small reasonably successful antiques business. She decides to open a shop of her own selling, well, whatever she wants: Victorian dolls, feather boas, interesting objets d’art. There’s a large shop in town she thinks they could all live above, and from which they can run their two businesses (the shop was hat shop called Clara Reid) but Sue’s beaten to it and the new owners open a wine bar called Oscars. Within a year, though, one of the owners is in Sue’s shop suggesting a straight swap by deed of exchange Sue was delighted but when she told Peter he was in dismay, “but its now a wine bar” he said.
“Ok then so I’ll run a wine bar” Sue replied.
So there it is. No money has changed hands, but several lives have changed. Sue tested her creativity in the kitchen, and turned Oscar’s into a bistro selling only fresh produce – no freezer, no microwave. Sue put a large notice on the door stating that ‘Everything on the menu was homemade except the butter’.
She wanted live music so she turned to pianist, Julian, the local printer and magical tinkler of the ivories, he agreed to play for ‘as much wine as he could drink’ while he played!
So Oscar’s became the only eatery in town to have live music plus an extra vegetarian dish cooked fresh everyday.
Sue invented a strawberry shortcake that becomes so popular people have to book their slice the day before; Despite all this Sue still found time to write poetry – she’s read at the National Theatre – and got widely published in Ambit a well known quarterly Magazine.
But after a whole year of hot melting cooking the restaurant had lost its charm, Sue decided to try opening Oscar’s at lunch times only, she chose to turn it into a creperie, travelling to Brittany to buy expensive new equipment. A brilliant idea, as she says, except that Cornwall had never heard of crepes and the luxurious pancake griddles become burger hotplates.
We’ve arrived at 1980.

Then in a cartoon Ron Fuller, her old classmate at Falmouth School of Art and Design, reminded her – in the best of taste – of where all her best work ended up,
Sue decided to sell the lease, and concentrate her creativity on a new shop. She’s recently seen the 1972 film Cabaret, with Liza Minnelli, she loved it so much she borrowed the name.
She started by selling pictures by local artists, homemade knitwear and hand-thrown ceramics, and paintings, she sold the work of Peter Markey who had recently given up teaching art, she caught up again with Ron Fuller.

Paul Spooner entered the shop whose first offering was a series of boxes with numbered elephants in them. Sue was unable to sell them and talked him into making his creations move, Paul came up with his first Anubis figures. Sue felt sad that she was selling these limited editions of these moving sculptures, and decided to keep one back in every batch to create a permanent show. One frustrated American tourist – probably one of those from the QEII when she got stuck in Falmouth Harbour – who found that everything she wanted to buy was sold out and declared ‘This isn’t a shop, it’s a museum!’ Well, perhaps she said store rather than shop, but Cabaret had become a tourist attraction, frequently appearing in the regional press and on local TV. The Crafts Council got to hear of it, and wanted to put a show on in their then Covent Garden premises. 1984, and the Cornish idyll was coming to an end.

CMT in LondonSue remortgaged the Cornish home and leased Cabaret’s own corner of Covent Garden. The licensing authorities insisted on a particular typeface for the shop titles, and there had to be words in postbox red between the columns of the colonnade, and Cabaret had four columns. So to fill the space it became The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, with letters cut out of wood by Sue with her jigsaw. Family and friends were made to stand outside saying things like, ‘What can this fascinating new attraction be’ – and ‘only £1.50 to get in, a bargain!’ Ron Fuller made her a turnstile, and a figure to stamp tickets, while inside customers found new work by Spooner, Markey and Fuller and now by Tim Hunkin as well, and later Michael Howard. After an appearance on Blue Peter there were crowd control problems.

I could go on and tell you about the Japanese visitors who spent all their gambling winnings, of Sue’s desert safaris with the novelist Geoff Nicholson, or how the sixteen year Covent Garden sojourn ended, how the global challenge was presented and met, but we’ll do that another time.

Sue tells her grandchildren that their New Year resolution has to be to do something ‘new’ each year, they have never done before, a tenet she has stuck to all her life. She has become a mistress of the computer and has created the animated CD’s & DVD’s that are flashing around to an eager international public. As I write she’s busy sewing elaborate little outfits for Cabaret’s little Barecat to appear in the 40 day on-line Christmas Card called ‘The Magic of Cabaret’. This ends on December 21, Sue 71st birthday. By which time she expects to have accomplished her task for 2009: to become a chess master!


War HorseThe fabulous basket cases of War Horse
War Horse has to be the family show of the year, now at the New London having transferred from the National and there are some fine acting performances. But the star for me is the Handspring Puppet Company, and to be precise its co-founder Adrian Kohler. This is the South African company that created the life-size horses out of bent cane and makes essentially a children’s story at least as fascinating for adults, at last giving the lie to the notion that fantasy is only for kids. These basket cases which Kohler has devised are as much horses for us in the seats as if they’d been ridden, snorting and dunging, into the theatre by the Household Cavalry. You don’t have to suspend belief, you do believe.

Back in the swim
Talking about fabulous, the Bowes Swan, the most magical automaton of them all is back. It’s a glorious piece of 18th century folliedom, made by a Parisian jeweller probably in the 1770s and bought by John Bowes at the Paris exhibition in 1867. It’s been delighting kids and adults visiting the Bowes Museum ever since, the silver bird that swivels its serpentine neck to pluck and swallow a fish from the silver pond it is eternally swimming in. It’s been cleaned with horologist Matthew Read taking apart every single of its 1,000 pieces. In the meantime, for the first time the way the thing was constructed 250 years ago is being recorded for the first time. All automaton makers, go to Barnard Castle in Durham and worship.

Simon Tait

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  1. Sergio Pinese says:

    Hello dear CMT team!
    Thank you for the travel through past and present with your Magic Days!
    I looked for the link to download the ‘Free CMT Cartoon History’ from Ron Fuller but didn’t find it. A hint or help how to download the file would be great!
    Looking forward to the next magic days!
    Best regards,

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