By Tim Hunkin









 There are quite a few collections of old arcade machines on display. In the UK, there are also several talented artists who produce new one-off coin-operated machines as collecting boxes for museums and hospitals – but I’m not aware of any UK alternative ‘arcades’ operating at the moment other than The Under The Pier Show. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, which had its arcade in Covent garden from 1984 to 1999, was a wonderful meeting place for artists interested in the coin-op idea – and it certainly inspired me to start The Under The Pier Show.  

Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret, was running a gift shop in Falmouth when she started encouraging craftsmen like Paul Spooner and Peter Markey to make working models. So obviously a success with tourists she boldly moved her collection to Covent Garden in 1984. One or two of the models were coin operated but the basic idea was to pay £1 to enter the ‘museum’ of models, each one activated by turning a handle. To preserve the models, electric motors had to be added to turn the handles more gently – so the public just pressed buttons to start the motors. When Sue moved to London several more artists, including Kieth Newstead and myself became involved. 

I made several slot machines to stand outside Cabaret and draw the public inside. At the time Covent Garden was so flourishing and busy that I could almost live off my 50% of the twenty pences put in my three machines outside! Cabaret’s success encouraged writers like Rosemary Hill to describe the collection as a new art movement which she named ‘modern automata’. The name stuck and ‘modern automata’ was almost fashionable for a few years around 1990. 

It didn’t last. Fashions in art always change rapidly, but the demise of modern automata was probably accelerated by art galleries’ lack of technical expertise – visitors to exhibitions of modern automata were often faced with nothing actually working. Even when everything was working, the humour and accessibility made it easy to dismiss modern automata as ‘whimsical’ – not to be taken seriously as art. 

Cabaret itself finally closed its Covent Garden arcade in 1999, - still successful, but unable to cope with the spiralling rents. There maybe no arcade, and modern automata may not be as fashionable as it once was, but individual artists continue to make brilliant stuff in this vein and their work is highly collectable - worldwide. Cabaret regained control of some of the collection – so visit their site www.cabaret.co.uk  for the latest news. 


These are the alternative arcades I know of:

       Thursford, Norfolk UK (a steam museum with old fairground rides and some old slot machines)

Wookey Hole, Somerset, UK (a collection of old arcade machines – mostly a bit neglected, but the
chinese execution model works well)

Paris, automata museum – (never been here either, but I think there maybe some 'modern automata') Musée des Automates - Hôtel Arturo Lopez12, rue du Centre - 92200 Neuilly-sur-Seine – FRANCE

Musee Mechanique, San Fransisco (good collection of old arcade machines including a galloping art deco horse. I particularly like the Junkyard crane where you see how many wrecks you can pick up and the black light 80s driving game.

Marvellous Marvin’s arcade, Detroit USA. (Manic collection of anything that moves, old and new – great fun)

Cabaret mechanical Theatre, Covent Garden London UK. Cabaret sadly closed in 1999 but continues to put on temporary exhibitions. See their website for current details. www.cabaret.co.uk

Museum of Soviet arcade machines, Moscow.  I've never been but there are some great youtube videos of it. http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g298484-d2342320-Reviews-Museum_of_Soviet_Arcade_Machines-Moscow_Central_Russia.html

A small collection of old machines in Milestones museum, Basingstoke:

Some of the Basingstoke machines are now in the cafe at Bursledon Brickworks museum

The Merrivale model Village in Great Yarmouth has a good selection of old machines, worth visiting
(The model village is great too)

I'm grateful to Kevin Sims who wrote:

The café at the end of Southport pier has a fine selection of bandits & old gaming machines, and I’m sure there were working models too, all taking old pennies (10 for a quid). 

 Cafe at Herne Bay , with a huge selection of mostly 1p machines, but to my great regret totally modernised a few years ago. 

Rumours of a cafe somewhere in The Isle Of Wight (Shanklin)?

Rye tourist office, which has a selection of playable old penny machines and working models.   

Please e-mail me with addictions or corrections!