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5 Minutes With Steve Bagley

13 May 2011

With just three weeks to go until the opening of our Summer exhibition Coming Of Age At The Ace Cafe, we dug Head of Collections Steve Bagley out from under the mountain of books, videos and photographs that he has been buried in for the past few months while putting the exhibition together, and sat him down for a quick chat about how it’s going:

What did you set out to do in putting the exhibition together?

Steve: The exhibition is about the Ace Cafe in London, but in reality it’s about an awful lot more than that. We were approached by the Ace to do an exhibition, and we wanted to explore what the Ace was in a cultural sense, what it stands for today and what it stood for in its heyday in the late 50s and early 60s. So when they asked us to put an exhibition together we didn’t just want to build another Ace Cafe, we wanted to explore how the cafe had become a cultural icon – that was our starting point.

When we started looking at it, it became fascinating – that for a very short period of time, for a very few people the Ace became a centre for them – as much as being a meeting place it became a symbol of youth and rebelliousness, in a sort of typically British way. It wasn’t inherently violent, it wasn’t really antisocial – the guys who went there were normal working class guys with 9-5 jobs and they’d go to the Ace to let off steam.

Then it became really fascinating to me to explore why those guys went, why they became rockers, leather boys or whatever you want to call them, and from that point I began to expand the exhibition into being about more than the cafe itself and what it stood for.

What kind of research have you been doing?

Steve: I’ve been researching very specifically about Rockers, cafe cowboys, leather boys – a group that grew out of the teddy boy group and were what we typically think of today as ‘rockers’ – all motorbikes and leather. A lot of my research has been done online, and through a number of books, films and of course Mark Wilsmore at the Ace has been an absolute font of information.

I’ve been trying to put together not just these guys’ time at the Ace, but their backgrounds, where they came from and to some extent the phenomenon – what they were as a group and the subculture we now know as rockers. I’ve tried to link the idea of the rocker subculture nationally and how it fitted into British society at that time and then link that specifically back to the Ace, to show how the Ace became a symbol of that culture.

Have you made any exciting discoveries through your research?

Steve: Yes – it’s a funny thing but this whole subculture that I’ve been exploring has fascinated me, and I think that what I’ve discovered is the Ace. It’s one of those places that you go to it and it captures the essence of something – although it isn’t Warwick Castle or any of the great houses around the country, it’s still this really strong part of our culture. If you go to an important building you feel something – at Hampton Court you almost ‘feel’ Henry VIII – you go to the Ace and you can still feel these guys and get the sense of what it was like back then.

So what I would say is, the most exciting thing I’ve found is the Ace. At the end of the day it’s just a caff – you go there, the food’s nice, and there’s all sorts of people coming in – but there’s a thing about this place - it’s a really interesting part of our culture, and I have to say it has fascinated me.

With three weeks to go until the exhibition opens, how are you feeling?

Steve: I’m actually not worried that the exhibition won’t come together – it will come together because it always does. What always worries me about putting an exhibition together is the detail – whether it’s going to look right, whether it’s going to capture that essence of the cafe we’ve talked about, and what we’re trying to say. The real cafe is a busy place and I hope we’ve managed to convey that and that it will all look right and feel right – and be a fun place to visit!

What do you hope that visitors will feel when they have seen the exhibition?

Steve: I hope they’ll feel the same as me – a fascination with the Ace and that subculture, and a better understanding of what went on at that time. And I think they will enjoy it too – it’s going to be a great fun exhibition, as well as motorbikes and leathers there’ll be jukeboxes, pinball machines – and lots of interactives too. Of course it will attract bikers but the exhibition will have a broad appeal – people always enjoy visiting a recreation of a building and that’s what we’ve tried to capture with this exhibition. I think it’s going to be very special.

Coming Of Age At The Ace Cafe is at Coventry Transport Museum from 3 June to 2 October 2011. Tickets are £5 on the day or £4.40 in advance, with concessions and family tickets available. Find out more and book online at

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