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, 23 August 2013

DVD Review of The British Circus 1898 - 1972

Ladies and gentlemen... boys and girls... roll up, roll up for a journey through more than 80 years of circus history as captured by the cameras of British Pathe and Movietone News. And what a show this collection of featurettes adds up to.

In the earliest footage, dating from the very dawn of filmmaking in 1898, we see the Barnum and Bailey Circus arriving in Sunderland, crowds lining the streets to watch the parade of elephants, camels and caged wagons full of tigers.

Elsewhere, as this DVD moves forward through the decades, we watch the Bertram Mills circus arriving on its own train, and watch wartime evacuees helping to erect a big top on a village green.

The short films move constantly between behind-the-scenes clips - of Bertram Mills rehearsals at its winter quarters; of a clown applying his ornate make-up; of football-size crowds arriving at the famous Belle Vue circus building - and shots of the action in the ring: a fast-moving parade of clown cars, human pyramids on horseback, polar bears careening down slides and daredevil stunts by trapeze artists and human cannonballs.

The droll commentary, in its clipped pre-war tones, adds a delight of its own. One horse rider is described as being afraid of nothing on four legs, “Unless it’s a couple of income tax collectors.”

Animal antics abound, including footballing dogs - and what a spectacle they make as they leap high into the air to head the ball - platoons of elephants performing a graceful ballet, and a bear circling the ring on a Lambretta scooter.

Rehearsing the horses
Cruel? The sight of a lion on a swing, with its trainer vigorously pulling the animal’s tail to set it in motion may make you wonder. But then, if the lion wasn’t happy, would you pucker your lips and trust it to give you a kiss rather than bite your head off?

The footage dates from an era when the question of animal rights had yet to be raised. As one commentator puts it, “The showman’s creed is to treat his animals well, before even himself.”

The bear who runs along on his back legs, taps his trainer on the shoulder and gives him a kiss, looks like he’s enjoying himself. There appears to be more cruelty in the way the contortionists are trained - just watch the instructor forcing a girl’s foot back past her head. But her big grin suggests she doesn’t mind.

Beginning in black and white, the footage becomes colour as we move into the era of Billy Smart's, but even the grainiest black and white film is full of colour in the sense of entertainment and surprises.

Great moments include a man riding a bicycle across an open-air high-wire, 60-feet up, with a woman hanging on a trapeze from each axle; the thrilling adagio act of Balliol and Merton, which includes a jump from a high pedestal into a one-armed catch; and a trapeze flyer who leaps to a swing that collapses in her hands. As the audience gasps, she plummets towards the ground, then swings upside down from an unseen safety wire attached to her ankle - her hair almost stroking the sawdust.

Although the prime focus is on the British circus, the bonus features take us abroad for a visit to the Cole Brothers Circus in America - including footage of legendary big cat tamer Clyde Beatty - and some hilariously sped-up film of an Australian circus being built.

It all adds up to more than three hours of unmissable big top action that will delight any circus fan.

For more on the history of the circus and life behind-the-scenes in the big top, read 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


  1. What a cute blog!
    We recently became circus girls as well and feel very inspired by your posts!

    Love from Europe,

    Birdy and Bambi

    1. Thanks for visiting the Circus Mania big top!