Roll up roll up. The Duncan family go clowning about…
When we arrived outside the big top it didn’t bode well. There were only about five cars there, and the show must go on in about twenty minutes. We looked at each other, both silently wondering if this was the best way to introduce Jamie to the nostalgic joys of the sawdust ring. But we went for it anyway, and entered to find an athletic type selling flashing wands, a footballer doing face painting (no I didn’t. Why gild the lily?) and a good looking lady who was in charge of the popcorn, hot dogs and candy floss. Quaint.
We needn’t have worried about numbers. With only three minutes to go before showtime the place was filling up. Almost every white garden chair was occupied, and we met lots of people we know. Jamie had two hot dogs just before the chuck wagon was closed and the ringmaster came on. The lighting changed and smoke filled the air. A juggler came on doing wonderful things with footballs – yes it was the face painter, but now he was climbing up high ladders, juggling anything that got near him, and doing dangerous stunts on one leg. Then the clown came on and was very funny and daft, the athletic type did some balancing and stuff which would have hurt him quite badly if he’d got it wrong, and then, in a blaze of coloured lights the lady from the hot dog place came on, now covered in glittery sequins and a costume that didn’t leave much to the imagination, especially when she turned upside down at the top of her silky rope. I’ve seen a few hot dog sellers before, and I would put money on the fact that they couldn’t do that. Most of them would need a fork lift truck. As the music got louder she swung round, holding on with one arm, before descending gracefully to the ground, giving an extravagant bow in the style of the lovely Debbie McGee.
In my innocence, and remembering (a) the circus scenes in Dumbo and (b) the circuses I was dragged to as a child, I was fully expecting a lion trainer, a horse or two (probably with the hot dog lady riding on them) and some sad looking elephants who were made to stand on little platforms as they were poked about by some aggressive bloke with a waxed moustache. But no, these things are no more. We got a dog who came on and did some clever tricks with his owner, and then helped out when she brought three cats on, who didn’t always do what they were told.
Half time break, and guess who was in the hot dog stand? The clown was back selling stuff, people made a run for the portaloos, and the ring was set for part two.
More of the same and just as good. Then the centrepiece. The clown came staggering on with a seven foot high board bearing all the marks of a lifetime being used as part of a knife throwing act. And the knife thrower was to be the clown. Gulp…
He asked for a volunteer which made Cathy and I look in the opposite direction so we didn’t make eye contact – and our friend Cliff stood up and said “I’ll do it!”
We all said our goodbyes and he was off. As the clown did some practice shots, mostly misses, The brave (or crazy) Cliff was manacled to the board and the clown, now wearing a black bag on his head, began to say that he knew exactly what he was doing and turned, knifes waving, towards the worried audience. Then he put the black bag on Cliff. Aaaaaaagh! Tense moments indeed. The clown pretended to throw the first knife and his assistant jumped from behind the screen and drove a duplicate knife next to Cliff’s head – then the bag was removed to reveal a very worried expression. It went on like that, ending up with an axe bursting a balloon between his legs. They supplied a bucket. I hope I haven’t given away any trade secrets here.
The show finished and everyone took a bow, quite forgetting that Cliff was still chained to his board. Eventually he was released and got the best ovation of the day.
We came away feeling nostalgic and happy. We had been kids again, staring in wonder at the lights, the ropes, the smoke, the colour, the extraordinary acts and the very inside of the big top itself. We decided that the cast of jugglers, animal trainers and funny men we had seen probably took the tent down afterwards, and loaded it away to be taken to the next venue. And I bet the hot dog lady was sent way up to the smoky top to loosen some of the knots.
Good value. Real old fashioned entertainment in our cynical modern world. A theatrical form which goes back for centuries, and obviously a big enough pull to lure these young people into the peripatetic life of running off to join the circus.
They certainly got three new fans on Sunday afternoon.