Timeshift's history of the circus was short on historical rigour ? but, boy, talk about nostalgia
After some pointless Monty Python title graphics ? I guess the producer couldn't resist the word association ? Timeshift: When the Circus Comes to Town (BBC4) opened in postwar austerity Britain, when the circus was as close as most people got to the escapist glamour of Hollywood. And, despite going on to trace the history of the circus from Philip Astley's Amphitheatre in 1773 to the global hegemony of the Cirque du Soleil, the film never really felt as if it left the 50s.
So caught up was it in the sparkly romantic escapism of the big top that it was only towards the end that I realised what was missing. This was a documentary so firmly based on the defining principle of circus life that the show must go on regardless, that all the really tricky questions were swept under the sawdust.
There were only brief mentions of the debate about performing animals, with a concession from one old hand that maybe bears hadn't been born to ride bicycles. The pain was reduced to an aside from a former trapeze artist, Laci Endresz, about how he had twice recovered from being paralysed. There was no discussion of why most clowns were so profoundly unfunny, or why so many kids were actually frightened by them. Above all, there was barely a word about what happened to the performers when their acts went out of fashion or ? as was invariably the case ? their circus went out of business.
And yet for all its faults, I couldn't help loving this programme because it played so well to my own life. I know it's hideously un-PC, but the time my parents took me to the Bertram Mills circus and the metal cage went up around the ring heralding the arrival of half a dozen lions and tigers still ranks as one of the most exciting experiences of my life. As does the day in 1990 when I went to see the post-apocalyptic chainsaws and motorbikes of Archaos on Clapham Common. The only off-note was the Cirque du Soleil: for me circus died with the �50-plus ticket and the smoothness of corporate entertainment. As a history, this film left much to be desired. As a nostalgic indulgence it could hardly be bettered.
If it was circus freaks you were after, you were much better off with True Stories: Babes in Hollywood (More4). The story was a familiar one of pushy parents offloading their own inadequacies in making it big in Tinseltown on to their kids, yet it was still two compulsively watchable hours: a modern day horror show set in the Oakdown apartment block in Los Angeles where parents come from all over the US for the three-month TV pilot season to spend about $5,000 a week on seeing their children humiliated by one rejection after another.
The children were predictably objectionable, but they were positively charming in comparison to their parents. Not least the mother who took up scientology to improve her child's career prospects ? it would take a lot more than that ? and Savannah's mother, who was grooming her daughter on how to act for her audition for a bit-part as a sick child in Grey's Anatomy, by getting her to watch YouTube videos of dying children. And yes, it was mainly mothers. Savannah didn't get the part. Shame. Worst of all, though, were the parasitical talent agents, casting director and acting coaches who oozed insincerity through every pore as they urged the parents not to give up on their dreams while taking them for every cent.
It was the level of collective self-delusion that was most breathtaking. If any of the children had exhibited just the slightest spark of talent you might have forgiven their parents' ambition. But they didn't. None of them could act, sing or dance, and would have struggled to get more than a walk-on part in their school play. What was even more tragic was that none of these kids even really knew how to be kids. Their childhood was being stolen from under their noses.
Over a three year period, Megan's mother had spent more than $150,000 she didn't have on trying to turn her daughter into a star. In that time, Megan had been to 36 auditions and got no callbacks. Undeterred, her mother had just signed up for a fourth season. Finally Megan got her big break. She won $25 in a game show. If the Performing Animals Act that legislates UK Circuses were in force in the US, Hollywood would be out of business.