Rex, my partner making 'The Secret Life of
Machines' films, died on Monday April 8th 2019.
He was a huge influence on me and many other people - a true genius.
Rex with Casius, his first wedge robot for robot wars
met Rex at a party in 1983. He arrived brandishing a large Bowie knife,
seized my arm and sliced the blade across it, leaving a large trail
of blood. The knife didn’t feel sharp and the blood didn’t look real
but I was thrilled by its ingenuity. The knife handle was a thick rubber
tube which when squeezed, forced the ‘blood’ out of a row of tiny
holes along the edge of the blade. He had made it as a prop for a TV
saw him for the last time in autumn 2017 in a care home, virtually unable
to speak and tearful, his mind ravaged by dementia. I would never have
imagined that it could happen to someone so amazingly energetic like him.
we first met he had already had two glamorous careers. As a teenager he
was a speedway bike champion, sponsored by Riley’s Crisps. He had a
scrapbook of old bike magazines, several with him on the front cover. From
working with his friend Dave Bickers in the early days of 'Bickers
Action', he got into special effects and props for Anglia Television
amongst other companies. One
prop I remember vividly was a severed hand, complete with bone and
arteries protruding from the wrist. This used to sit on his bandsaw table,
sometimes with with fresh ‘blood’ when he wanted to impress visitors.
This career came to an abrupt end when he was banned by a film union
(special effect work was a closed shop at the time). For a while he then
repaired washing machines, but was itching to do something more
first job we did together was a wind powered clock for Liverpool garden
festival in 1984. At his workshop I was amazed at the way he worked. He
attacked everything with reckless speed and quite often threw half
finished things away to start again, cursing and blaming God for the
setback. Despite this progress was amazingly fast. The clock escapement,
using an old car wiper motor and flywheel ring gear, took him only a
couple of days to make. I struggled to keep up, particularly because his
workshop was always chaotic and impossible to a clear a surface to work
on. Having spent a couple of hours polishing a bit of perspex I didn’t
know where to put it so it ended up on the concrete floor. I then promptly
slipped on it - scratching it terminally. Rex enjoyed moments like this
the problems, I learnt an enormous amount just watching him. He seemed to
do everything in unconventional ways. When his guillotine got blunt, he
didn’t send the blade away to be sharpened or even remove it from the
machine, he just ran his angle grinder along the edge. Watching him use
the lathe was particularly memorable. He always ran the spindle too fast
and cut too deep, things I would never dare do myself, but it gave me a
feel for the limits of what was possible. When things were going OK he
always delivered a constant stream of bad jokes.
days were always entertaining, he was so sociable there were always
visitors and lots of tea breaks. Then there were the daily trips to
Sackers, the local scrapyard. Here we would sift through the latest stuff
to arrive at the yard and strip any parts that looked useful. The
scrapyard was central to Rex’s life, he could never resist getting
‘useful stuff’ for free. Long before anyone talked about global
warming and recycling, Rex just thought the scrapyard was a source of
bargains and that companies were fools for throwing the stuff out.
Perfectly working machine tools, full sheets of aluminium and stainless
steel, hi tech factory automation modules, brand new milling cutters –
we never knew what to expect, but there was always something.
visited Sackers almost every day for 40 years. To accommodate the treasure
he constantly expanded his workshop. Eventually it comprised of his
original garage, a 40ft by 30ft extension on the back of the house, a
large poly tunnel and several shipping containers. Every inch of space was
in the care home never to return, his wife Sally decided it was time to
clear everything out and invited me over to see if there was anything I
wanted. His friend Phil was in charge of the clear out, helped by Terry,
Colin and Stephen. I was just expecting to collect a few things and leave
them to it, but I got sucked in and joined the team. We worked almost
every Tuesday for over three months, rescuing everything we could. Even
then there was still so much stuff I lost count of the number of skips we
filled. It was a massive job but curiously addictive. We often found
objects that triggered memories and constantly swapped stories about Rex.
The whole experience was like a protracted wake even though he was still
things showed off his skill and ingenuity. One was the rotting remains of
a full size animatronic rubber shark that had swum underwater for an
advert. At the time I’d been amazed that the windscreen wiper motors
worked completely submerged in water. At first they weren’t powerful
enough to flex the shark’s body but he realised the water kept the
motors so cool that he could run them at 60 volts (5 times their normal 12
volts). This massively increased the motors’ power and the shark then
only trace of ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ tv series we did together
was an old reel to reel tape recorder with a pot of ferric oxide. He
enjoyed showing kids how to make sound recordings using sticky tape and
rust. He had destroyed the huge Van De Graff generator, the biggest prop
we made in his workshop, in a fit of rage, but I remembered the fun we had
getting it to work. At first it produced no sparks at all, but when he
switched the lights off we could see tiny sparks on everything up to ten
meters away. Most of the electronic devices which happened to be switched
on in the workshop never worked again. Around the Van De Graff globe
itself a faint green corona glow showed where the charge was leaking. It
didn’t take long to get rid of the edges and rough patches that were
causing the charge to leak and then it worked as it was supposed to, but
it was never as exciting as that first attempt.
were his ‘Robot Wars’ robots - wedge shaped with a flipping mechanism
to tip over opponents. (I think he invented the wedge, which was copied by
many contestants). Also several ‘Brum’ radio controlled cars made for
a popular kids TV series. These were so complicated, every detail was
radio controlled - doors, headlights, wiper blades, starting handle etc.
These didn’t go in the skip, there’s still a market for anything Brum
related on Ebay.
loved weird stuff, something we shared. He had a gallon can full of
mercury that was too heavy to lift. At some point Sackers had got worried
by the mercury in their yard and offered it to him. I remember what fun it
was to play with – a liquid so heavy is completely counter intuitive.
Because its so toxic it can cost a fortune to dispose of but Phil somehow
found a company that wanted it and even paid him a few hundred pounds.
also had an explosives cupboard. Most of it was gunpowder and fireworks
but Phil thought there had been a lump of plastic explosive. I never found
it but there were some explosive bolts – the sort that separate the
stages of a rocket as it gains height. I have no idea where he could have
got them. He also liked to make big bangs by mixing Oxygen and Acetylene
in bin bags. He used to say it was harmless because the bags didn’t
confine the gases. Then one went off while he was holding it. He didn’t
get badly burned so he was sort of right, but I don’t think he ever
tried it again. Except on a smaller scale, like the day I bought an
explosive gas meter at a car boot sale (no ordinary boot sale but the
Dunstable Downs radio rally sale – at the time a mecca for all things
weird and scientific). Rex
decided to test my meter by filling the rubber bulb with oxygen, adding
tiny amounts of acetylene to get a reading. The dial stayed firmly in the
green ‘safe’ area so we kept adding more. Eventually the rubber bulb
exploded – maybe that’s how it was supposed to work.
were a lot of chemicals and stuff for spray painting. Its not easy to
spray a car perfectly, but Rex was very, very good at it. In fact he was
good at anything related to cars and engines. Soon after I first met him
he bought a crash damaged Toyota Celica sports car to convert into a
pickup truck. He made a beautiful job of it but the DVLA wouldn’t
licence it. He eventually wrote to his MP and astonishingly this did the
trick. What I didn’t know at the time was that when he eventually went
into the DVLA office to collect his tax disc, he demanded to see the
manager. After being stalled for hours the man eventually appeared. Rex
asked him if he was a civil servant and then told him he should in future
try to be more civil and a better servant.
could never cope with bureaucracy and because he was so larger than life,
kept confronting it. Terry and Colin used to work for BT at its Martlesham
research centre so are not bothered by it. Phil, Stephen and I are more
like Rex, but better at keeping under the radar.
clearout also reminded us of stories Rex used to tell us. One I
particularly liked was about his drive home from Scunthorpe after a
speedway event. The car broke down in the middle of the night and he
traced the fault to the petrol pump, which was unrepairable. Instead of
waiting until the morning he taped a plastic petrol can on the roof.
Amazingly gravity was then enough to feed the petrol straight to the
reminiscing and trying to do the best with his hoard were our main topics
of conversation, our amazement at the sheer amount of expensive high tech
stuff that he’d rescued from the scrapyard kept growing and growing.
I’d never been quite so aware of the wastefulness of the modern world. I
suspect that David Dodds, who owns Sackers, was pleased that Rex was
rescuing the cream of the stuff deposited in his yard.
the end of our mammoth clearance I realised we were dissecting the demise
of British industry. In about 1980, when Rex started collecting, Britain
was still a major manufacturer with highly respected products, even if our
prices had become less competitive. The treasures ending up in the Sackers
were the result of successive local companies going bust. So evident from
Rex’s collection was that the companies had invested in the latest
equipment to try and keep up, but it had obviously been near impossible
for them to survive. The decline is still not completely over because
there are still some small marginally profitable companies, trading until
their owner retires.
tried to find good homes for the motors and pneumatic equipment I
couldn’t bear to put in the skip, but it wasn’t easy. Not only is
there less industry but also fewer people who have the knowledge or
workshops to use stuff like this. I absorbed quite a lot into my own
stores. At the time it felt crazy expanding my stores as I am already 67,
so it triggered a mass sort out of my own stuff. Since doing this, I find
I use something of his almost every day. Quite often I curse him – he
rarely tested his finds and many things don’t work. But mostly its nice
to have these regular reminders.
often tell people I learnt more from Rex than from my entire formal
education. Of course its actually more complicated. I got a good grounding
in maths and physics at school, then went to Cambridge and left confident
to pursue whatever interested me (I’ve felt embarrassed by this enormous
sense of privilege ever since). But more of the knowledge I use in my
workshop comes from Rex than from Cambridge.
His own background was very different. His father was a
local thatcher and Rex was apprenticed to a local electrician called Bill
Bunn. Bill recognised his talents and taught him things like electric
motor theory, a subject I still don’t fully understand. Rex used to
enjoy poking fun at me for making mistakes with my posh education.
Although well hidden, I think he lacked confidence in some way and
compensated by regularly showing off. So it was just perfect that at the
height of his career, the university of East Anglia awarded him an
honorary doctorate. He loved dressing up in the robes and going to all the
events. If ever anybody deserved one it was Rex. I hope I will forget his
final distressing years and remember him as the true genius that he was -