Roll up, roll up, the circus is coming

Behind the scenes on BBC One's Big Top

Making a big studio-audience sitcom these days can be something of a highwire act – get the delicate balance right and the rewards are huge, but get it wrong everyone viewing knows you’ve come crashing down with a bump.

It’s apt, then, that BBC One’s latest assault on the genre takes place in a circus. Big Top, a star-studded six-part series, is set behind the scenes at Circus Maestro, a collection of fading talents and struggling wannabes stuck touring the same nine sites in the North Staffordshire region.

Its ensemble cast includes Tony Robinson in his first studio sitcom since Blackadder, Hi-Di-Hi! star Ruth Madoc as the circus’s grande dame and John Thomson in his first sitcom since playing the barman in Men Behaving Badly. Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden plays the ringmistress Lizzie, who holds the whole troupe together.

It is the first mainstream project writer Daniel Peak has created. He won the 2002 BBC New Talent sitcom writer's award, and while he has worked on My Hero and Not Going Out, his own creations have been BBC Three’s I'm With Stupid and We Are Mongrels, which has yet to air.

He said: ‘A couple of years ago I went to a circus, the first one I'd been to since I was a kid. The girl running the ticket office was about nine years old, and the man on the hotdog stand was in the ring a few minutes later, juggling deckchairs with his feet. I realised there was a very small team of people doing absolutely everything.

‘At the same time I was talking to Big Bear Films about sitcom ideas, and we all really wanted to do a big ensemble show. So we thought: let’s come up with some circus characters.’

‘When I first mentioned writing a circus show, a lot of people seem surprised that it hasn't been done before. The fact that the characters live in small, confined caravan, so they can’t really escape from each other, seems to make it ideal for a studio audience sitcom. A circus is a self-contained world. I think only about four scenes in the entire series take place outside the field where the Big Top is pitched.

‘I started off with about 12 characters, wrote lots of story ideas for them all, gradually worked out which characters were the least interesting and killed half of them off. The six that remained felt like the clearest, funniest and best for generating stories.

‘I was very keen not to make this a show about a rubbish circus, where the main joke is how rubbish they are. So these characters are all hard-working, dedicated and quite good at what they do (apart from the clowns – they really are rubbish).

‘The characters are united by their shared desire to put on a great show – and divided by the fact that each performer thinks they are the star. The character in charge – Lizzie the ringmistress – is the only one with no circus skills of her own, which undermines her authority. Lizzie would love to sack the terrible clowns, but she’s stuck with them, as they are her aunt and uncle.’

Amanda Holden, who plays the ringmistress, said: ‘Lizzie is well spoken and not covered in tattoos and is a little bit clueless about the circus, very hopeful and optimistic. She is quite switched on and bossy too – basically she’s me with a wig on.

‘I wear hotpants, knee-length boots and a proper ringmaster’s hunting jacket, based on Gerry Cottle’s costume, with dark navy lapels. In fact Kate Moss did a shoot recently in what looked like a circus ringmaster’s outfit, and when I was out for dinner in Chelsea the other week a shop window was decked out in this sort of gear, so I’m right up there in the fashion stakes.’

The sitcom was commissioned after Peak and Big Bear first submitted a six-page proposal to the BBC, with some character descriptions and some ideas for stories: ‘That got us the script commission,’ the writer said. ‘We spent a few months on the first script, and that went down well enough to get us a “rehearsed read”, where actors perform the show with scripts in their hands, a bit like a radio play.

‘I was amazed at the cast that was assembled for the read-through and even more so when the six main actors all agreed to come back and do the series. It was great because it meant I could write the next five episodes knowing who would play the parts.’

Tony Robinson, who plays Erasmus, the circus’s cynical technician and accountant, said he only agreed to do the reading as a favour. He said: ‘Marcus was, I think, the floor manager on the first Blackadder series. We've been mates ever since.

‘When they said that they had a new comedy series idea that they were pitching to the BBC and asked if there was any chance I could help them by coming along and doing a rehearsed reading, I thought, why not?, but thinking “Well, there’s not much chance that I’d be able to do it because of all my other commitments”.

‘We did the read-through in the basement of BBC Television Centre in a room that looked like something out of Cell Block H. The commissioning editors and assistants to the assistant commissioning editors were all lined up in front of these great concrete pillars. We'd had half a day to fumble through these scripts and the buggers laughed.

‘The BBC commissioned the whole series straight off the back of the first reading – I've never known that to happen before – and it turned out that they were going to film Big Top at a time when it's far too cold to do any digging anyway. So it was OK as far as Time Team was concerned.

‘We all did quite a bit of reading before we started work on the series. I’d never realised just how low the wages are, for instance. It’s like fringe theatre; even in the posher circuses the money available for the acts is very, very small. The comedy in this is about how they’re constantly living a hand-to-mouth existence

‘It’s going to be a series unlike any sitcom that you’ve seen for years because it’s so genuine. We employed a team of circus artistes and experts, so whilst you are doing this comedy you'll see a pair of stilt legs in the background or a fire-eater or some acrobats warming up.’

Robinson admits ‘it was a bit of a culture shock’ to be back in front of a live audience again. ‘The real challenge is that they're fine when you're doing something for the first or second time, but there are lots of complex pick-ups and costume changes,’ he said.

‘The recording of each half-hour show takes two-and-a-half hours, so you have to find different ways of keeping the audience fizzing along during those down times. We have to get them into the mentality of helping us make the show, rather than just observing.

‘It was very hard work. We were all surprised. The six of us have done a lot of comedy over the years – start at 10.30am and hopefully knock off at about 3.30pm, you kind of know your lines anyway. But on this it’s like dancing: all your attention has to be so acute It’s very satisfying but it’s not a holiday.’

Peak says it has been ‘a bit frightening’ to see his scripts come to life. ‘I sit at home and write a scene, and a couple of months later there’s John Thomson hanging off a trapeze with his hair on fire,’ he said.

Thompson plays Geoff the clown, who studies the art seriously, despite not having a funny bone in his body. He said: ‘I’m a rubbish clown – but it’s a bit like with Les Dawson. You’ve got to be a really good piano player to play badly.

‘I think that clowns have a rotten time of it. People used not to be scared of them, but a lot of clowns have ended up in horror films, like Stephen King’s It, which hasn’t helped.rn Children read expression, but with a clown the expression is a permanent thing and so the child gets confused because they can’t read what’s going on behind the make-up. It’s more a primitive fear of clowns rather than what the media has generated. There’s actually a word for it: claurophobia.’

In fact, both Johnny Depp and Sean ‘Puff Diddy’ Coombs admit to suffering from it, but Thomson used to love going to the circus at Blackpool Tower when he was young. ‘When you’re little everything seems so big, but, actually, it’s all really small.’

He adds: ‘I haven’t done a sitcom since Men Behaving Badly and I had forgotten just how full-on it is filming in front of a studio audience. I wanted to do my own stunts, but the insurers didn’t. When my hat and shoes catch fire, for example, the stunt man did that.

‘And no custard pies were thrown simply because of the continuity – if you throw one or rub someone's face in it all the make-up will come off, and if we got the lines wrong we’d have to go back into make-up and everything would end up taking so much longer.’

Ruth Madoc, on the other hand preferred working with the live audience. ‘I did nine years in front of a studio audience with Hi-De-Hi so, in a way, I’m almost happier in front of them than when I’m rehearsing.

‘Big Top is unlike Hi-De-Hi in that it's very slick, fast paced comedy – it’s edgy and I think that will appeal and the scripts are very, very funny. It’s a really accomplished ensemble piece. I really wanted to join the ranks of the youngsters who were doing this sort of comedy and I'm very lucky that I was able to.’

Peak adds: ‘I went along to lots of circuses while I was writing and got to talk to some of the performers. Having said that, I don't claim that Big Top is anything like an accurate portrayal of real circus life. And if Circus Maestro were real, it would be shut down by health and safety within a week.

Bruce Mckinnon, who plays East European acrobat Boyco, added: ‘In the name of research, I went to see the circus at Christmas and it was brilliant. The clowns had moved away from white faces and red noses. But there was almost no one in the audience.

‘It was Boxing Day at Zippo's Circus and there were only about five people watching. The circus is such a dying art and I really hope that this show resurrects things.

Of his part, he said: ‘I have an amazing Lycra suit – full length, very blue and somewhat unforgiving! I’ve never done a part like this before and I spent a lot of time in the gym.

But Amanda Holden revealed: ‘Bruce came on set in his suit after all his working out and we were like “Phwoar! Bruce!” and he looked great – but it was all padding, all fake.

Mckinnon admitted: ‘It’s so depressing at the end of the day when you come to take the suit off and you just groan when you look at yourself! The suit is very tight, but this is a family show, so everything's well tucked away. Literally as soon as I put on my outfit and came out to see the rest of the cast, every single one of them looked straight at my crotch.’

  • Big Top starts on BBC One soon.

Published: 15 Nov 2009

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