For decades the Emett machines enthralled shoppers at the Merrion Centre. Now, three decades on, they are set to excite a new generation. Interviews by Neil Hudson
When Roland Emmett designed his ‘magical’ machines nigh on half a century ago, they were considered whimsical flights of fantasy but ones which nonetheless had an eye on the future. They were mechanised labour saving devices and machines which would enable people to do things which were at the time, impossible but they always had one foot in the land of make-believe.
Several appeared in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, enabling Dick Van Dyke’s inventor to embrace his role with unrivalled gusto.
Today, the machines look somewhat antiquated but not in a way which would draw ridicule - like the robot from Lost in Space, they inhabit a realm where a romanticised view of the universe persists.
Now, after more than 30 years, the machines are back under one roof and will, once again, go on display at the Merrion Centre, where they first found a home as a collection.
Their return is poignant in that it marks the end-phase of a multi-million pound refurbishment of the Merrion Centre - they will also be unveiled as part of the festivities on Leeds Light Night, which is on Friday.
Edward Ziff is chairman and chief executive of Town Centre Securities, which owns the Merrion Centre. It was his late father, Arnold, who became fascinated by the machines and struck up a friendship with their creator, the artist Rowland Emett.
Indeed, he even commissioned Emett to make one just for him - the lunar cycle.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Edward said: “They are coming home. If they ever had a residential address, then it was here, at the Merrion Centre. We used to have them on display in glass cabinets in the centre and they would always draw a crowd.
“I used to love watching the crowds watching the machines, because there would never be a face without a smile.
“My father loved the magical prowess of the machines and he wanted to share them with many people and often lent them out, they have travelled as far as America and Singapore.
“Fairway Birdie, a golf swinging machine, has even appeared at a British Open. He also thought very highly of Mr Emett and his wonderful imagination and keen eye for detail.
“His creations were amazing and we were all proud to showcase them at the Merrion Centre.
“I am excited that they’re coming back to the centre, I’m confident those who remember the Emetts will flock in to see them and I firmly believe that these amazing machines will captivate a new, younger audience as well.”
Edward revealed it was his father’s fascination and even jealousy over an intricate mechanical water-driven clock in the Victoria Centre, Nottingham, called the Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator, also designed by Emett, which drew him to the inventor’s machines.
For the last six months, some of the machines have been on display in Birmingham but now Edward is keen to find them all a permanent home at the Merrion Centre, which is nearing the end of a £10m refurbishment, which has included a new ‘arena’ frontage.
Edward, who hinted there were some major announcements just around the corner for the Merrion Centre, said: “It was one of the first shopping centres of its kind to open in the UK and there’s 50 years of history here. Right now, we’re doing better than ever, we have more people coming here than ever and I think that says something.”
He said they had also considered plans to develop a vast 12,500sq ft space which sits empty inside the centre and which used to hold a cinema, but described it as a “cart and horse situation”, adding: “We’ve considered all kinds of things for that, from a gymnasium to a conference centre or leisure facility, it has to have the right business.”
In addition, there are plans to overhaul the Merrion House tower block, which is let by Leeds City Council and houses their education department.
It will undergo a two-year modernisation, after which it is understood the council will move back in with even more services being based there.
It’s no secret the north-eastern quarter of the city is undergoing a much-needed revival largely as a result of Leeds First Direct Arena, which recently marked its first anniversary and the Merrion Centre is part of that.
The recent closure of the Cockpit in Leeds may have been a blow for the city centre but its operators Futuresound have already opened up a new venue, the Key Club, in the Merrion Centre.
It’s somehow fitting that the emerging ‘cultural quarter’ cements the links to its past and the Emett machines are an embodiment of that.
After the various machines were removed, the Merrion Centre’s social media channels have received numerous calls for them to return, ranging from ‘Bring back our flying machine’ to ‘My nan used to take us to look at the machine... remember it being a bit creepy.’
Another posted: ‘I used to wait for my hubby here on a Friday after he had finished work to do our weekly shop in Morrisons - lol - it was a treat for the kids to stand and watch the kite in action.’
Their creator, Emett, was born in London in 1906 and went to school in Birmingham. He was the grandson of Queen Victoria’s engraver and became a cartoonist after his education at Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts. One of his works, Cornish Harbour, now forms part of the Tate collection.
Although he worked as a draftsman during the Second World War, he resumed his career as a cartoonist and was regularly published in Punch.
His cartoons were seldom political but found humour in the difficulties of life in the Second World War. His drawings soon started to include railway scenes and he gradually developed a unique concept of strange, bumbling trains with excessively tall chimneys and silly names.
He moved into designing actual machines with moving parts in the late 1950s and 1960s, when he was commissioned to create the inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
His machines use everyday objects like lamp shades and brushes to make up characters and contraptions.
When asked how he came up with his strange designs, Emett allegedly remarked, ‘It is well known all inventors get their first ideas on the back of an envelope. I use the front so that I can incorporate the stamp and then the design is already half done.’
In 1978 he was awarded an OBE. He died on November 13, 1990.
One of the machines is the Featherstone Kite Openwork Basketweave Gentleman’s MK11 Flying Machine, which is constructed using canes, various implements from around the home and powered by a swarm of silver butterflies.
The pilot is ready to fly, as well as autopilot F.R.E.D. who is made up of a cheese grater, spoons and forks.
The Five Emett’s which featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were: the Clockwork Lullaby, the humbug Major Sweet Machine, the Hush-a-bye Hot air rocking chair, the Visivison Machine and the Little Dragon Carpet Cleaner.
His machines may be almost 50 years old but they still have the power to instil wonder into those who see them and if Edward gets his way and if he can find a space, he may even put them on permanent display.
Where and when to find the machines...
The machines will be featured in the Merrion Centre on a rotation basis as detailed below:
Friday October 3 to Friday October 17: Featherstone- Kite, The Clockwork Lullaby, The Hush-a-bye Hot Air Rocking Chair
Saturday October 18–Friday October 24: Lunacycle “Maud”, The Humbug Major Sweet Machine
Saturday October 25 to Sunday November 9: The Fairway Birdie, The Visivision Machine, The Little Dragon Carpet Cleaner
The Five Emett’s which featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were:-
The Clockwork Lullaby
The humbug Major Sweet Machine
The Hush-a –bye Hot air rocking chiar
The Little Dragon Carpet Cleaner