“Poet, Dramatist, Artist, Drummer:” Figgy Fox’s Documentary Feature
Figgy Fox was an artist and drummer whose work forms part of the collection at Museum of the Mind. However, the Museum knew very little about his character, his personal life and history until our volunteer Sophia Gal discovered an episode of the documentary series 'Present Imperfect' that featured him and his second wife, Jackie. In this blog Sophia takes us further into his life and relationships.
Present Imperfect was a series of documentaries that aired on BB2 between 1988 and 1992, exploring ordinary life in Britain at the turn of the decade and the effects of the recession. It took a fly-on-the-wall format, exploring a year in the lives of different individuals as candidly as possible. The series’ first episode explored the life of a Thamesmead man named Steven David Cox - who at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is better recognised as Figgy Fox, the artist behind Welcome to My Psychosis and Portrait of a Depressed Alcoholic.
This episode, titled ‘For Better… For Worse, ’opens with bride-to-be Jackie proceeding to the aisle from her home to meet Figgy at the altar - Jackie with her hair pinned up and bouquet in hand, Figgy with his rocker’s mullet tied back into a braid for the occasion. Figgy had been married once before, Jackie twice, and the newlyweds had eight children between them, two of whom have eczema. Less than two years prior, Fox was discharged from a mental hospital for alcohol and drug abuse. Fox states that he began drinking early at the age of 13, before moving on to harder substances such as cocaine and acid at 16. Like his idol, Keith Moon of The Who, Figgy was “a quiet heminevrin addict.” Jackie was Figgy’s next-door neighbour, and during his institutionalisation, she would send him frequent letters. Figgy had faith that this marriage would bring him the stability he needed. The pair say their 'I Dos' while Figgy gravely narrates that “You’re never cured from alcoholism,” thus setting the tone for the rest of the episode.
From here, we see one year in the lives of Figgy and Jackie. By day, Figgy was a sheet metal worker. By night, Figgy was a heavy metal drummer for the band The Essential Red, and whose greatest influence was the spirit of Keith Moon. Along with bandmates H, Doug and Earwig, we see Figgy rehearse, perform in concert, and participate in radio interviews. All the while, Jackie must manage The Essential Red, booking gigs and negotiating with record companies while tending to the family’s eight children. As the episode title indicates, this story is just as much about Jackie as it is Figgy, and so the thrills of performance are juxtaposed with the struggles of motherhood. Figgy pledges the success of the band to his wife. “If fame goes hand-in-hand with fortune, then I’ll have the fame, and Jackie can have the fortune.” In spite of the apparent disparity in their duties, the couple’s unity and mutual respect are clear. In the kitchen, Figgy proudly shows Jackie’s favourite mug to the camera as he prepares her breakfast. We also see some of Figgy’s visual art that he created while in the hospital: The Tree of Frustration, The Tree of Duality, and Brewer’s Droop, and Figgy explains the significance of each work.
Present Imperfect producer Paul Watson frequently explored the lives of ordinary people in his work, especially those living in poverty. “I make films about real people, about people I talk to in the streets,” Watson states in a 1999 interview. “One of the people I get the most intellectual stimulation from is a builder.” He would be frequently disillusioned with the methods of his colleagues, who would bring in experts (or, “toffs”) to discuss life under poverty at the expense of the people who were living through it. “Why don’t you just get out of the bloody way and let us see it through the eyes of a filmmaker?” Watson’s principles are certainly on display as we see the Cox family’s struggles to stay out of debt. We follow the parents’ typical morning routine of making sure the children are fed, clothed and ready for school, Figgy’s efforts to apply for social security, and even glimpses into what Figgy’s bandmates do for a living. There are no asides for “toffs” to provide context on poverty in Thamesmead or the difficulty of breaking into the music industry, and there is a single line of narration throughout the entire episode. Instead, Watson allows Figgy and Jackie’s daily lives to speak for themselves.
In spite of the candidness of the production, Watson is able to imbue humour into the episode. Sean Macaulay, writing for Punch, draws comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap and London Fields. “This guy [Fox] was definitely two beats short of a paradiddle.” Macaulay writes. Such points in the documentary include Figgy and Jackie embracing in the back garden after he shares the news of his new job, though he is uncertain of his duties - only for the next scene to depict him on duty as a strippergram at a hen party. Additionally, the scene where Figgy explains the reasons for leaving his job (psychological instability and deep fatality syndrome among them) to the social security clerk is one that Macaulay calls “a rich seam of comedy.”
However, this levity is short-lived: Figgy's alcoholism hangs over the documentary. When Figgy gets rejected by a record producer in Soho, he finds himself drunk in his mother’s house having relapsed for the first time since his marriage to Jackie, and his mother manages to calm him down by the time Jackie arrives on the scene. Here, we see a more austere version of Jackie. Though stern and overt about her disappointment in her husband’s behaviour, she is less interested in punishing him and more in making him recognise where he had gone wrong and what she does for him. Though the two make amends, another bout of drunkenness two weeks later convinces the band to let him go, and at their final performance Figgy, red-faced and vociferous, announces that The Essential Red are gone for good. Their final goodbye to one another is unceremonious, and Figgy insists that his bandmates had betrayed him. “There’s H who’s a sheep, Earwig who’s a rat, and Doug who’s a worm. And me? Well, I’m a fox, man, and I’m as sly as a fox. And so we’re all animals together!” When Jackie discovers that Figgy has spiked his bottle of Lucozade she insists that he walk home without her. Alone with the camera, it is here that we get the most insight into Fox’s past as he lays bare about his time in hospital, his childhood, and witnessing the death of his father. After the show, the couple are left to pick up the pieces, selling objects from the attic to make up for lost funds and holding auditions for Figgy’s next project. The episode closes with Figgy and his new band recording a song dedicated to Jackie.
In his review, Macaulay casts doubt on whether For Better… For Worse attains its goal of illustrating life under the 1990s recession. However, what it does do is attain Watson’s broader vision of illustrating the ordinary lives of people in poverty by letting them speak for themselves. Jackie’s frustration in her role as mother, manager, and mediator is just as tangible as Figgy’s ambition for the band and grief at his past. Even though the documentary must condense a whole year into a single hour, the idiosyncrasies of daily life in the Cox household are on display just as much as the tremors that followed Figgy’s relapse. Figgy himself, despite the extraordinary circumstances from which he came, is a down-to-earth character who encounters the same tribulations as us on his misguided journey to rock stardom, and he faces problems with a lilt that is often inappropriate, yet endearing to us viewers. Even through their troubles, the unity and mutual respect between Figgy and Jackie shine through from beginning to end.
Figgy Fox died in 2006, 16 years after the release of this documentary. The fate of his new band is unrecorded, and we do not know whether he and Jackie remained together. The Present Imperfect series, too, is near-forgotten, with little documentation outside of Macaulay’s review and archived TV guides. In fact, neither I nor my colleagues at the Museum of the Mind knew about it until a few months prior to this date. Now, his legacy lies not only in his artworks, but in Paul Watson’s portrait of this turbulent and illuminating year of his life.
Macaulay, Sean. “Vulpine nuts: Sean Macaulay on wildman drummer Figgy Fox.” Punch. May 25, 1990. p. 40.
Present Imperfect. 1990. “For Better… For Worse.” Prod. Jeff Perks and Paul Watson. Aired May 1, 1990. BBC2. The YouTube link we found is here- https://youtu.be/Bk09UgrBufg
Watson, Paul. “Paul Watson.” By Rick Harley and Linda Wood. British Entertainment History Project. June 3, 1999. Video series. https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/paul-watson