"I am proud of being called a freak," says Gary Stretch, the tall, thin one with the elastic skin. Or so he will say in a minute, when he has finished pulling a flap of his neck over his mouth, like a bandit's mask. "When I think of all the great performers that have gone before, it is an honour."
Not according to the council that has just banned Stretch and his short friend Captain Dan from performing as The Freak Show because the name will upset people. (Apparently. Things are never what they seem in the world of bearded ladies and barkers.) More than a century after the Elephant Man was "rescued" by the medical profession, and three decades after the last of their kind disappeared from our fairgrounds, the idea of a freak show can still upset and disturb.
So has the sight of Captain Dan crunching real glass between his teeth and swallowing it with a grimace. Four feet one inch high ("don't forget the one, it's very important to me"), the ninth child of "standard issue" parents, he joined a circus at 17. He has appeared in several films including two as an Ewok. This does not explain why he is wearing a dead robin on his bowler hat.
"You need something to wash that glass down with," calls Dr Haze, the white-faced MC, throwing him a vivid orange bottle of Bacardi Breezer. Captain Dan opens the bottle by jamming it into his eye socket and twisting. Urgh.
It is a relief to applaud him off stage. But not for long. Gary Tiberius Stretch, leering with purple painted lips like the Joker in Batman, takes his own nipple between a thumb and forefinger and pulls until the light shines through his skin, illuminating the faint spidery trace of a blue vein. A woman groans, her face in her hands. Which is a mistake: Dr Haze calls her up on stage. "Are you often out on the pull?" asks Stretch as she tugs him, reluctantly. I know that his skin feels improbably soft. She runs back to her seat, apparently gagging.
Stretch is Gary Turner, a 36-year-old former plasterer from Lincolnshire who was born with a form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. As a child he was prone to terrible bruising and wasn't expected to live beyond 25. A knock on the legs could mean months on crutches, but for now life is good. He is, after all, in Guinness World Records for putting 158 pegs on his face. "This is much more fun than plastering 10 hours a day."
Stretch and Dan are members of Dr Haze's spectacular Circus of Horrors, which mixes Gothic attitude with rock'n'roll and dangerous stunts. All three are due to appear in Reading next weekend with the traditional Carters Steam Fair, re-creating a Victorian sideshow. They say the borough council has banned them from using the word "freak". The council says an informal discussion resulted in a different name. Either way, a very old and very sore argument has been opened up again. Should the word "freak" be banned?
The Disability Rights Commission is not sure. "If the performers are proud to define themselves as freaks then I don't know that the council has a right to tell them to do otherwise," says a spokesperson. "However, there are other people who are described in that way on a daily basis against their will and who would take great offence at such a description being encouraged."
So it depends who is using the word. The conventional view of Victorian freak shows is that the exhibits were abused and exploited. That is the story told in The Elephant Man, David Lynch's film about Joseph Merrick. But modern performers such as Stretch argue that Merrick earned a good wage: it was a doctor who took away that living and made him stand naked in lecture halls. There are many who overcame adversity to become stars in a world that was otherwise totally hostile to them.
"Society still discriminates," says Dr Haze. "It would not let someone built like Captain Dan become the chairman of British Gas, but he can be the star of our show." On the way home, head reeling, I think about the Victorian performer Madame Rosina, who painted with her mouth because she had no arms, met royalty and exhibited across Europe.
I happen to be walking across Trafalgar Square when I hear someone say: "Oh, that is just a freak show." She is looking up at the new statue of Alison Lapper, the artist with no arms and shortened legs. But her companion counters, with passion: "No! That woman is a heroine." I know which of them Captain Dan would like to hit over the head with his lightbulb. If he could reach.Reuse content