Last Night's TV: Timeshift: When the Circus Comes to Town/BBC4
True Stories: Babes in Hollywood/More4

 

Billy Smart was a fine example of nominative determinism. Smartness is quickness of insight, and he had it in bundles. He grasped the mood of post-war Britain unusually well when he launched Billy Smart's Circus in 1946. With great shrewdness and entrepreneurial zeal, he popularised circus entertainment by making it an antidote to austerity and an unbeatable form of family entertainment. Within a few years his quick intelligence, and eye for a commercial opportunity, had changed our cultural landscape. The imprint is deep and still with us.

Last week's Timeshift examined the evolution of fairgrounds. The difference between circuses and fairgrounds is inexact; they share many common features, not least a founding ambition to offer cheap thrills to the poor. Fairgrounds, as I wrote last week, tend towards the News of the World's peculiar anthropology: all human life was there. They showcase the bizarre and the brilliant within the confines of human experience and ability. Circuses tend more towards the beautiful and the skilful – trapeze artists, and the like. They also tend more to the non-human, so elephants, lions, tigers and bears are treats customarily put on.

Like many forms of popular entertainment, they originated as a postscript to war. The Seven Years war ended in 1763, and with it the employment of many cavalrymen came to end. One was Philip Astley, who decided that his showmanship atop a horse could be easily monetised, and so went around the country flaunting his unusual skill. His successors in this trade, like Smart and Lord George Sanger, were able to guarantee their audience amazing sights that were entirely new to them. Most Victorians, for instance, read or heard about the existence of mythical beasts with snow-white skin and giant paws, but only by visiting the circus did polar bears, or many other animals, become reality for them.

There is a strange solemnity about this series. It is narrated with a tone of resignation, and the tempo remains slightly despondent throughout. Most of the interviews with circus veterans seem blanched with sepia. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about this, and lost worlds always induce sadness, but it did rather rub up against the essential fact that circuses are fun (if also dangerous) places, and I wish that our able producers had injected a bit of joy to relieve the gloom.

They could have done no worse than get hold of True Stories: Babes in Hollywood. This told the story of wannabe child stars flocking to Hollywood in the hope of finding fame. Knowing that we television critics would be in need of a useful segue, the makers cleverly injected the following comment from an interviewee named John McCarthy, who described it thus: "All of a sudden the circus comes to town, a trail of hope comes in, and they [the kids] take over." With that last sentiment there was a grim parallel with the present rioting on our streets, and a riot of sorts was had by these appallingly thrusting children, each of them guided to the tyranny of self-importance by their delusional parents. Naturally any scene in which the children take over, while adults are present, is a disgusting spectacle. This was no exception.

The children gathered in the Oakwood, an apartment complex on the outskirts of Hollywood. Some stayed for three years. Lectures were delivered to the eager little pups, in which they were told that this was a rare opportunity to "meet reputable agents, casting directors and managers". A speed casting was shown. One manager asked the assorted children, who can't have been more than six years old, to read in unison from the screen: "If you do not run yourself like a business you will run out of business". Then he recited a mantra: "Believe. Achieve. Receive". They recited it back.

The apocalypse must be approaching when, in the world's wealthiest and most advanced democracy, parenting is outsourced to faux-guarantors of fame whose task it is to rob children of their childhoods, and make them slaves instead to unrealisable hopes and corporate dogma. "Babes", with its sexual connotations, was the right word for the title, capturing the premature sexualisation of these poor souls, and though there was great drama in their silly little careers, there was sadness too. This was a true story that I wish wasn't true, a circus devoid of skill and beauty, and a marvellous exhibition of how not to raise your children.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/amolrajan

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?