A couple of weeks ago, a brand new attraction opened in the heart of Holborn. It's only small, and Tudor House isn't somewhere you'd accidentally stumble across, but I was pleased to find the place packed out when I visited at the weekend. That's Tim Hunkin's Novelty Automation, on Princeton Street (close to Theobalds Road), a unique collection of inventive and experiential slot machines.
As well as being a cartoonist and engineer, Tim's been making unusualautomata for years. Many of these have appeared in public, for example he designed the Secret Life of the Home gallery at the Science Museum, but Tim's main coin-op collection has always been on display at The Under The Pier Show on Southwold Pier. If you're ever on the Suffolk coast, it's an enchanting attraction to poke around. Now after several years of inventing he's started running out of space there, hence the decision to open a second outlet in London so that even more of his peculiar machines can be enjoyed by even more people.
Novelty Automation takes up the ground floor of a backstreet building, so is about the same size as the downstairs of a house. In good news, an awful lot's been packed in, and in better news, admission is free. What you pay for are tokens to bring each of Tim's machines to life, currently a pound a time, purchased from the smiling member of staff at the main desk. And once each slot is filled you can then stand back and watch to see what unfolds, or better still join in.
I counted at least six arcade machines altogether in the front room, from a Wallace-and-Grommit-like box to settle the destiny of a lamb, to an armchair you sit in and then get jolted through a Microbreak foreign holiday. In another exhibit you get to Test Your Nerve by placing your hand inside an iron cage containing a mechanical hellhound, and see how long you can hold it there while the thing growls and slobbers. Most popular on my visit was the Money Laundering machine, a bit like one of those grabbers you find outside a seaside amusement arcade, but in this case where users have to try to sneak money into the City of London without its shadowy regulators catching sight.
Even more machines have been crammed in further back. I was particularly taken by the Instant Eclipse, a box you climb inside and then watch the animated Sun slowly disappear above your head. But families with children were more interested in the larger interactive fare, particularly the giant Autofrisk whose rubber arms reach out to give you an automated patdown. Another large booth takes a strip of photos if you climb inside, the quirk being that "parts of the booth may move unexpectedly", providing a variety of facial expressions entirely unsuitable for a passport. I didn't see anyone risk placing their foot inside The Chiropodist, a machine originally housed in Covent Garden, but one teenager couldn't be prized away from his extra-terrestrial encounter with the Alien Probe.
The variety and inventiveness of Tim's automata is impressive, with some clearly all-out entertainment, and others more artistic and thought-provoking. And while you can just come and watch others using the machines, the experience works best if you interact. Better still bring a group, be that your family or just mates, to join in together on the larger button-pushers or to share a grin as each display plays out. And expect the unexpected, that's all I'll say, as some of Tim's machines climax with the odd unheralded action.
I hope that Novelty Automation gains the attention it deserves, and the buzz last weekend suggested that several punters have already discovered its charms. It's open from 11am on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, generally closing at six but with an extra late-night hour on Thursday evenings. If you can't get there, Tim's website is fascinating enough to poke around, or you can keep a visual eye on the place via Twitter. But how charming to have a new central London attraction that's inventive, creative and fun, and as Tim says, "a (coin-op)portunity not to be missed."