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."

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Daleks invade the circus!

What have the Daleks got to do with the circus? Not a lot, except that while I was wondering what to call my new book I found myself gazing across the office at my Dalekmania calendar, and suddenly it came to me: Circus Mania!

Cut to the present and I’ve just written a short story set in the era of Dalekmania. It’s called My Dalek Days - a Dr Who-dunnit on a film set in the swinging 60s. It’s just been published by My Weekly (Jan 2, issue). They generously gave me a nice plug for Circus Mania at the bottom of the page. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the story. (Read it from behind the sofa if you wish...)

"Seek, locate... and buy Circus Mania!"

A Dr Who-dunnit in the swinging 60s

by Douglas McPherson

Everyone wondered how the Daleks moved around. Some people thought they were remote controlled. But it was a lot less complicated than that.

Someone like me had to sit inside on a little bench, with my feet sticking through the bottom, and push the thing around on casters - all the while remembering to wiggle the eye stalk and the arm with the sink plunger on the end.

It was very cramped and dark inside, and could get pretty claustrophobic during a long day’s filming. Especially as you knew you couldn’t get out. It took two men to lift the top half into place, so once you were in, you were trapped.

Visibility through the wire mesh grill was very poor and communication was difficult. You could hear what the actors and director were saying, but nobody could make out what you were saying unless they put their ear right up against the grill.

We didn’t do the voices, you see. All those shouts of “Ex-ter-min-ate!” were done by an actor by the side of the set, with a funny little gadget to change his voice. We just had to remember to press a button that made the lights on the top our heads flash while he was talking.

It was a fantastic break for me, straight out of drama school in 1966. The Daleks were almost as big as The Beatles. Dalekmania they called it, and everyone was saying the metal monsters’ second big screen adventure was going to be the biggest film of the year.

Peter Cushing as Dr Who
Peter Cushing was playing Dr Who with Bernard Cribbins as his sidekick, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work with such great actors - even if no one was ever going to see my face!
On the posters, the Daleks were given a bigger billing than Dr Who. But on set, it was a very different story. Us humble operators were at the bottom of the pecking order.

Not only did we seldom get to socialise with the stars, once we were inside our Daleks everyone seemed to forget we were there at all.

At lunchtime the cast and crew would wander off to the canteen and I’d be trundling after them, waving my plunger and desperately trying to make them hear my muffled cries of, “Hey, let me out of here!”

During the breaks between scenes, people would stand around chatting right next to me as if I wasn’t there. Sometimes they’d even lean on my casing as if it were just another piece of scenery.

At first I thought it was a bit rude. But after a couple of days, I realised I was overhearing more studio gossip than I would as an ordinary extra.

Most of it was spread by Ruby, a mother hen of a wardrobe mistress, with a huge beehive hairdo, who had worked in the studio for years. Whenever you heard her click-clacking across the studio floor in her high heels and skirt that was far too short for her age, you knew you were about to hear some piece of salacious news.

Even when Ruby was on her knees adjusting an actor’s costume between takes, a mouthful of dressmaker’s pins didn’t stop her expressing her opinions.

Most of Ruby’s news bulletins during the first few days’ filming concerned a young make-up assistant called Tina.

The Daleks invade the big screen
Tina was a shy little thing with a Cilla Black haircut - one of those girls who don’t seem to know how pretty they are. But I’d noticed her right away. Well, you couldn’t miss her, really. She came right onto the middle of the set, between shots, and stood on a little stool in her mini-skirt so she could reach Peter Cushing’s head and make sure his shock of white hair was properly teased up for the mad scientist look.

She didn’t notice me, of course. I was inside my Dalek and by the time the day’s filming was over, she was gone.

Generally, Tina tended to stay in the make-up room. And, unfortunately, us Daleks didn‘t need make-up.

In any case, Tina had a boyfriend, a bit-part actor called Steve, who was playing one of the Daleks’ semi-human accomplices, the Robomen - although, if Ruby was to be believed, their relationship was far from happy.

“That poor girl!” Ruby said in a particularly shocked voice one morning.

Twisting around inside my Dalek, I saw through the grill that she was talking to Alf, the burly foreman in charge of building the sets.

Glancing over her shoulder to check no one else could hear her - and clearly assuming my Dalek was empty - Ruby added in a lower voice, “She told him she was expecting, and you know what he did? He laughed in her face and said he wanted nothing more to do with her!”

Alf made an angry noise and put his fist on top of my dome with a heavy thud.

“It’s time somebody took that young man to one side and told him a few home truths,” Alf said forthrightly.

"Daleks are the supreme beings in the circus!"
During the second week, we filmed on location around some abandoned warehouses. It made a change to be working outside but created some problems.

On rough pavements, the Daleks wobbled and shook like shopping trolleys, and in cobbled alleys we couldn‘t move them at all. Alf had to lay plywood tracks for us to roll smoothly along.

While we waited for Alf to complete the task, I watched Steve clowning about as if he were the star, rather than a bit part. He took particular delight in flirting with a slinky-looking continuity girl right in front of poor Tina.

I noticed that Alf was watching him, too, and seemed to hammer in his nails a little more forcefully.

When I arrived for work the following morning, a real-life drama was in full swing. As well as the usual trucks full of lights and cameras, the road to the warehouses was blocked with police cars and an ambulance.

One of my fellow Dalek operators spotted me and said, “I don’t think we’ll be needed today. One of the Robomen was found dead in an alley. It looks like he fell out of a loading bay - from two floors up.”

At the catering van, Ruby had a different theory.

As I stood behind her and asked for a mug of tea, she told Alf, “I reckon Tina arranged to meet him up there - then gave him a push. I certainly wouldn’t blame her.”

“It could have been anyone who shoved him off,” said Alf, between bites of a bacon sandwich. “I heard he owed a lot of money - some of it to some pretty nasty people.”

Looking around, I saw Tina on the other side of the road, a check coat hugged tightly over her mini-dress. She looked distraught, and utterly alone, as if nobody knew what to say to her.

There wasn’t much I could say myself. But my heart went out to her.

On impulse, I took my untouched tea over and held it out to her.

As her pale blue eyes flicked up to meet mine, Tina looked surprised, but then grateful as she accepted the steaming mug.

As it turned out, there was no time to say anything because two men in trilby hats and dark coats had arrived meaningfully by Tina’s side.

“Morning, Miss,” said one of them, “My name’s Inspector Jewel. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you a few questions.”

The next day, I was back in my Dalek. Steve’s part in the film was too small for his death to threaten the picture and, having already lost a lot of time, the director wanted to press on.

The atmosphere on set was tense, though - and the rumour mill was working overtime.

“They kept her at the police station all night,” Ruby told Alf, as he dusted down my Dalek shell. “But they had to let her go because she had a watertight alibi.”

“Well I never believed it was Tina,” Alf said gruffly. “But I’ll tell you this much, Ruby, whoever did it, did her a favour. She’s better off without that wrong ‘un.”

“You’re right there,” said Ruby. Then, more distantly, she said, “I wonder if she’ll keep the baby?”

Don't worry readers
- it's only a toy!
Well, she did, and now he’s in his forties with two lovely children of his own.

They’re both mad about Dr Who, of course, and they could hardly believe it when they found out their granddad used to be a Dalek.

“Did you exterminate loads of people?” they asked enthusiastically.

“Loads!” I laughed.

Well, one, actually.

But even Tina doesn’t know that.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

And you can read more fiction by Douglas McPherson in comedy crime book The Blue Rinse Brigade. Click here to download the ebook from Amazon.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Big Flop?

You’d think so, from the custard pies the newspapers have hurled at the Beeb’s new circus sitcom? But is Big Top as bad as the critics would have us believe?

The first thing to say about Big Top is that it looks fantastic. The BBC borrowed Zippos’ number two tent, the smaller one which houses his Circus Academy, for the location filming, and the red, blue and yellow ‘top’ looks fabulous re-branded as Circus Maestro in the establishing shots between scenes.

Everything else in the series is immensely colourful, from the clowns’ costumes to the background detail in the backstage area where most of the action takes place. The caravan interiors are lovingly detailed and convincing, while Amanda Holden, naturally, looks great as ring-mistress, Lizzie.

Get past the eye candy, and it has to be said that the script is pretty silly. The characters are more pantomime than sitcom, the storylines are contrived, and too many of the jokes are thrown in for the sake of it, rather than arising naturally from the characters and situations.

Also, if Boyco the acrobat had been black or Asian instead of Eastern European, his portrayal would have achieved the cheapest ‘race’ laughs since It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Given such a starry cast and the comic potential of the setting, it’s a pity the producers didn’t make Big Top a more realistic comedy-drama; something like those old classics Lovejoy or Minder, or even Only Fools & Horses, where the laughs came out of broadly drawn but broadly believable characters doing broadly believable things.

(And, I’m sorry Big Top, but having Ruth Madoc’s character fake the kidnapping of her own dog to claim a reward didn’t strike me as something anyone would be likely to do in real life. To put such a story in the first episode set the believability bar worryingly low.)

Given the things that go on in the real life circus world, a more grown-up version of Big Top could have been brilliant.

Zippos circus vehicles and tent gave Big Top
an authentic look
But, having said all that, Big Top goes out at 7.30 when it will catch the kids audience. Kids won’t mind the cartoonish humour and, if it‘s their first taste of what a circus looks like, they may even ask their parents to take them along to the real thing.

That’s the best thing about Big Top. True to director Marcus Mortimer’s promise when I interviewed him earlier in the year (see first entry on this blog) the show may portray circus people as a bunch of clowns, but it doesn’t knock circus.

In the first episode, a member of the public actually tells the Circus Maestro crew that he’s just had the best evening’s entertainment he’s had for years. Given how easy it would have been for Big Top to have tipped a bucket of water down the clown trousers of the real big top, could the Beeb have given circus a better plug?

MEANWHILE.... what’s life like in the real big top? You’ll find out in Circus Mania of course (Order now, from the button up there on the right... etc, etc).

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Circus Mondao Pantomime

Ringmistress Petra Jackson (left) and Bippo the Clown (3rd from left)
are joined by Ugly SistersAlan Stratford-Johns and
Oliver Dane Sanders Imbert-Terry esq
(Can that really be his name? Oh yes it is!)
in the Circus Mondao pantomime

- Oh yes it is!

As you drive along the A11, near Thetford in Norfolk, the sight of the light-bedecked Circus Mondao tent poking over the wall of the Elveden country estate like a well-lit Christmas tree is a welcome sight on a wintry day - and the show that awaits you inside the big top is a welcome alternative to the traditional theatre panto.

Circus Mondao's
Christmas Programme
There have always been links between circus and pantomime, not least in the person of Joseph Grimaldi, the early 19th century panto star regarded as the father of modern clowning. Circus clowns are still nicknamed Joeys in his honour, and although Grimaldi never worked in a circus ring, he employed many elements of circus, such as performing animals on stage.

In previous eras, meanwhile, many circus stars, and their animals, found winter work in theatre pantomimes.

So although the idea of a circus putting on a panto may seem novel, it’s not without precedent, and the two genres combine extremely smoothly in this new show, which plays every day from now until January 3.

The story picks up where ordinary pantomimes end. Cinderella has married her Prince Charming, but now that the new has worn off her happy ever after, life for poor Cinders has reverted to domestic drudgery. To relieve her boredom, she asks her fairy godmother to conjure up a circus.

My preview of Circus Mondao's
visit to Elvenden in the
Weekly News
That’s about it, as far as plot is concerned. But, with little story to slow the proceedings, it’s action all the way as a string of high standard circus acts - silk, solo trapeze, aerial straps - are interspersed with panto routines featuring Alex Morley and Ian Jarvis as a pair of well costumed Ugly Sisters.

Panto’s traditional ‘ghost’ routine gets a literal lift from a flying spook that spirits one of the Ugly Sisters away into the roof, and there’s plenty of space in the big top for a very messy ‘slosh’ routine, starring the Uglies and Mondao’s regular clown, Bippo.

The beautiful, plumed spotted horses galloping through the sawdust, meanwhile, add to the impression that we’ve been whisked away to a magical dreamland.

Kids will love the parade of zebras, lamas, camels and Shetland ponies - and the chance to meet them in their own, smaller big top after the show - while dads will have their spirits lifted by the glamorous showgirls performing a can-can.

Perfectly timed to coincide with Amanda Holden’s Big Top on BBC1, this alternative to the traditional theatre panto is the perfect opportunity for a new audience to get their first taste of the real big top.

So roll up, roll up for the greatest Christmas show in Norfolk.

Circus Mondao is run by sisters Gracie Timmis and Carol Macmanus - the youngest generation of Britain's oldest circus family. To read the full story of their 200 years in the circus, plus behind-the-scenes visits to and interviews with the showmen and stars of Britain's most popular circuses,  buy Circus Mania direct from Peter Owen Publishers for the special offer price of £10 including postage and packing in the UK (for overseas orders add £2.75 worldwide)
Send cheques to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or download the Kindle edition from Amazon

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday