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."

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).

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