LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Friday, 28 August 2009


For a sneak peak behind the scenes of the BBC's new circus sitcom.

Zippos 2nd tent rebranded as Circus Maestro
for the BBC sitcom Big Top
- filmed in deep winter
As I exclusively revealled in The Stage, the circus in BBC1’s new sitcom, Big Top, was very nearly called Zippos, after the real-life circus where it was filmed.

According to Zippos owner, Martin Burton, “I sent a memorable email saying that might be possible unless there were drunken chorus girls and badly behaved clowns. An equally memorable email came back saying, ‘There’s all of that and much more...’ So I said in that case we’d better not call it Zippos, and we re-branded everything as Circus Maestro.”

Starring sitcom royalty Tony Robinson and Ruth Madoc alongside Britain’s Got Talent host Amanda Holden, who stars as ring-mistress Lizzie, Big Top promises to do for circuses what Hi-De-Hi did for holiday camps.

Producer and director Marcus Mortimer, of Big Bear Films, recalls the origins of the show, which will be the flagship of BBC1‘s autumn schedule.

“We’d just had a lot of success with My Hero, about a superhero living near Greenford, and the broadcasters said they’d really like an ensemble piece for a mainstream audience,” says Mortimer, who‘s other successes include Jonathan Creek.

“Our head of development, Susie McIntosh, came to a meeting and said, ‘How about a circus?’ And we all went, ‘Do you know? That’s never been done before.’ Nobody has done a comedy, or even a drama, in this country about a circus. Which is absolutely extraordinary.”

To script the series, Big Bear turned to My Hero writer Daniel Peak.

“Daniel is one of the best of the best of the new, young writers,” says Mortimer. “And, amazingly, he turned out to be a big circus fan.

“The BBC asked us to do a read and at that read we had Amanda Holden, Tony Robinson, John Thomson, who plays the clown... everybody turned up. All the actors loved the parts we wanted them to play and about six days later the controller said, ‘I’ll have a series, please.’

Big Top was filmed in mid-winter... and was sadly
to get a frosty reception from TV critics
“I think people were genuinely fired up by the sense of colour and fun and that element of family entertainment that perhaps hasn’t been around that much lately. A lot of comedies are post-nine o‘clock. They wanted something at 8.30 and we said, ‘Let‘s give ‘em a circus.’”
Inevitably, there are those who wonder if Big Top will portray the circus industry in a bad light.

According to veteran showman Gerry Cottle, “The trouble is that whenever you see a circus on television, the boss is always a crook, with a silver waistcoat and an earring, like David Essex in All The Fun Of The Fair.”

The premise of Big Top is that ring-mistress Lizzie has taken over running the circus because her father, the owner, is in jail for fraud.

The interior of the Zippos tent
redressed as Circus Maestro
But, according to Mortimer, “We’re not having a pop at circuses, in the same way that Hi-De-Hi was not having a pop at holiday camps. Maplin’s Holiday Camp was a great, fun place to be. Big Top is about a circus that is struggling to exist in the current climate, but they always manage to pull something out of the hat because they’re actually a good circus.”
Most of the action in Big Top takes place backstage and was filmed in front of a studio audience.

“It’s a bit like Hi-De-Hi,” says Mortimer. “You didn’t see that much of the knobbly knees competitions. Mostly you were in the offices and chalets. But, of course, you do have to show what goes on in the tent, so we went to Zippos and said, ‘Can we borrow your big top?’”
Burton set up a number of circus stunts for the programme, including a scene in which Amanda Holden is strapped to a revolving knife-thrower’s board.

“She needed a bit of hand-holding before she got involved with that, and I can’t say I blame her,” chuckles Burton, who adopted the name Zippo, from the lighter, as a fire-eating clown and street entertainer, in the 1970s.

Although Burton supplied a knife thrower, he didn’t throw the knives at Amanda for real.
“It’s television,” says Burton. “But we did strap her on and spin her around for real.”
Another action sequence involved a dog chasing John Thompson’s clown onto the flying trapeze, where his feet catch fire.

Amanda Holden and the
cast of Big Top
“It was totally implausible, but we had great fun rigging it,” says Burton. “And before you ask, they booked the dog and no, it couldn’t climb the bloody ladder! If I’d booked the dog, they’d have got a dog that could climb the ladder.”

Bruce Mackinnon had a stunt double for his onscreen tumbling as the Eastern European acrobat Boyco. But he prepared for the role by spending an afternoon walking the tightrope at London’s circus school, Circus Space.

“Once, with my arms flailing like mad, I got from one end to the other. You read stories of old tightrope walkers or trapeze artists, and it’s such a poetic thing to them. So it was nice to get a taste of that - although it’s one thing to be just a couple of feet above the ground and another to know there’s nothing beneath you but death. I think that would be a lot harder... or maybe easier!” the actor chuckles.

Did Zippo share Cottle’s reservations about they way circus would be portrayed in the series?

“I’ve had a very long career working with television companies and I’m very aware that television does what it does in order to get ratings,” says Burton, who also recently lent his tent to a forthcoming episode of the ITV series Married, Single, Other.

“I suspected not everything would be as positive towards circus as I might like and I’m sure there will be a few die-hard circus fans who will be outraged and say it mis-represents circus.

“But I ignore all that. Because the truth of the matter is that if you ask the average six, seven or eight-year-old today what a circus is, they probably don’t know. But I’m sure after this programme they will know. I just think it’s great that circus is back on telly.”

See also: Big Flop?
For the complete inside story on the making of Big Top, read Circus Mania.

In the meantime, does anyone know why it’s Zippos rather than Zippo’s?

Click here to read an interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton as he looks back at 2013.