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.