Circus Maximus: Learning the Lessons of the Greatest Show on Earth

I recently watched an excellent documentary exploring the golden age of circus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The Golden Age of Circus, BBC4). Set to the music of Sigur Ros, the flickering vintage film was wistful, haunting, melancholy. Here we could consider what passed for popular entertainment before the transistor and the cathode ray tube, before broadcast and broadband.

An escapologist is masked, bound and buried; another is hung by his teeth from a chain. The daredevil leaps through fire, swallows swords. The human canon ball squeezes himself down the barrel of a gun.

The audience is agog, aghast, amused, amazed.

Bring on the jugglers, tumblers, hoofers. Let’s see exotic dancers shimmy, do the hula hula. On the high wire the acrobats balance precariously, spin gyroscopically. The knife thrower takes aim.

There’s a darkness on the edge of town, an ancient cruelty not far from the surface. Fear and laughter seem so adjacent.

Here are elephants bathing, walking in circles, rolling logs lugubriously. Here are polar bears sliding, kangaroos boxing, broncos bucking. Assorted animals wear clothes, walk on hind legs, jump through hoops. Then monkeys on horseback, bears on bikes, pandas at a tea party, chimps in a jazz band. Tigers are caged, lions are tamed, snakes are charmed. Attendants goad and taunt with whips and chairs.

The crowd looks on, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

And now the saddest sight of all: when they send in the clowns. Big feet, big smiles, big pants. They hit, holler, twist and tumble. They crash cars, squirt water, lob bags of soot and flour. Don’t look now. There’s an egg on that seat…

And the off-duty clown takes a swig of his beer, looks through us and walks off, alone.

An air of tragedy hangs over the Big Top. But in circuses we also see some of the timeless themes of entertainment: we want to be amazed, amused, afraid; we want to observe seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things; we want to watch animals doing human things; we want to witness heroes cheating death; to see failures fail.

In his excellent book, The Anatomy of Humbug, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He reminds us of the primal power of showmanship and, in this context, quotes the great impresario PT Barnum:

‘First attract the public by din and tinsel, by brilliant sky-rockets and Bengola lights, then give them as much as possible for their money.’

It’s a lesson not lost on advertisers. Consider PG Tips Chimps, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Honda Cog, Volvo Trucks, Red Bull Space Jump…

But so much modern commercial communication is, by contrast, subtle, nuanced, oblique. We sometimes forget the impact of entertainment in its raw form; we forget the thrill of spectacle and show, pageant and performance. The public loves breathtaking feats, spine tingling stunts, jaw-dropping acts of derring-do. It loves anthropomorphism.

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So roll up, roll up for all the fun of the fair. What magic can we conjure in this brief precious moment together? What spell can we weave for you, right here, right now? Because as Tavares memorably observed:

‘It only takes a minute to fall in love.’ 


No. 94