Big Top

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[This is Part 5 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four]

Usually these pieces see me wading through the televisual sewage of the 70s and 80s, but I’m afraid it’s time to stop pretending that lithe teenagers like you and I know any better, and tackle something from the last ten years that we all failed to stop; BBC1’s circus-set sitcom, Big Top.

The most obvious warning sign about Big Top, besides its constant appearance on lists of the worst ever sitcoms, is how savagely it seems to have been wiped from existence. Just how bad does something to be, to have aired in 2009 — on prime time BBC1 no less — and be almost impossible to find? With the DVD no longer in print, and absent from streaming services, a decade on, actual footage lives on in a mere two episodes, unloaded to Youtube in appalling quality, in an aspect ratio that gives the sensation of watching while debt collectors crank your skull in a workbench vice. What could have been so terrible as to see all trace evidence redacted like a high-ranking politician’s war crimes?

My last visit to a real circus was a terrifying experience. I went with my cousin and his toddler, where we stupidly sat in the front row. Immediately, I was busted by the clown for not clapping along at the beginning like everyone else; a British theatrical custom I will always refuse on principle. Singling me out, he even did the ‘point at his eyes; point at me’ mime for “I’m watching you,” causing me to double down. Never do what a clown tells you. What followed was 90 minutes of circus fun, under the constant, jump-scare threat of audience participation, leaving everyone over the age of 12 on edge, afeared they’d get pulled over the barricade to ride an imaginary motorbike around the ring or receive increasingly large bunches of plastic flowers from a ‘lovelorn’ clown. When it was over, physically exhausted from a death-grip on my plastic seat, I was drenched in sweat, but left with the remaining tatters of my dignity, plus a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt for those who’d not been so lucky. I felt much the same at the end of Big Top.

01

I didn’t watch this when it originally aired, and assumed from its colourful visuals that it was broad, family fare, meant for sitting down with the kids and groaning at the dad jokes. As I discovered, this was not the case, unless your family’s into stuff about dicks getting bitten off, and has a weird fixation on Hitler. Although, in Brexit Britain, odds on that are 50/50. Clearly, this was intended as a star vehicle for Amanda Holden. A strange figure in pop culture, most known for tabloid headlines about cucking Les Dennis, Holden was a generic player in middling-to-bad shows, until 2007, when she was elevated seemingly at random, via casting as a judge for Britain’s Got Talent, to someone whose presence, opinions and dresses we will care about. In fact, the selling point of Big Top appears to be ‘here’s Amanda Holden as a sexy ringmaster in little shorts!’ No buys.

The circus is fertile storytelling ground, and if you’re making a BBC sitcom there, I want to see freaks. Give me Barry off Eastenders as a lobster boy; Mitchell and Webb as conjoined twins attached at the genitals; Nicholas Lyndhurst with a curly tash in an old-timey striped swimsuit lifting big round weights above his head. But no, in this worst of all worlds, we’ve a cast of dying performers who should know better. John Thompson and Sophie Thompson (no relation) as a married pair of unfunny clowns; Tony Robinson as… actually, I’m not sure. Some kind of miserable tech guy? Hi-de-Hi‘s Ruth Madoc as a dog trainer. In British sitcom name value, it’s bordering on a supergroup, and yet as palatable as a concert boasting a dozen holographic Bonos. There’s also a funny-foreign juggler doing a straight-up Borat voice, and that trope where he’s sexually obsessed with Holden, constantly proclaiming his unrequited love, which everyone figured was okay back in the dark ages of 2009, but if milquetoast incel Niles Crane did it now, he’d be Weinsteined before the first furtive glance.

02

Big Top‘s costumes are Beano bright and child-like, with such a risible level of cheapness, everyone’s stood elbow-to-elbow, crammed in a tiny tent ‘backstage,’ while background artists juggle in the rear of frame. Its this CBBC feel that really threw me when John Thompson kept getting his arse out. There’s also a sound that permeates every scene, like the low-battery beep of a smoke alarm you can’t be bothered to get up and change in the middle of the night. For Big Top, it’s “huhuhu…” — the murmured, autopilot laughter of an audience who don’t want to be there. Every failed punchline, every bad simile, so it follows, like a limping, elderly dog, “huhuhu…” It’s the listless chuckle you’d use when a co-worker shows you a Minions meme, or at a hated neighbour’s ‘funny’ apron during a summer BBQ, haunting an already haunted show; “huhuhu… huhuhu…” like that Eddie Large routine about celebrities starting their cars, which incredibly, is far funnier than anything in the show, where no earnest laughs are to be had.

Alright, I’ve put it off long enough. Let’s tackle the plot. Episode one sees the visit of a health and safety inspector, played by Neil from The Office, leading to loads of ‘elf n’ safety gags, like Holden pointedly putting the lid back on a “very sharp” pen, with a “you can’t be too careful!Huhuhu. After they pass inspection, he asks her out, and the dinner date in her caravan is interrupted by various visitors, including Ruth Madoc with a box of dogshit, John Thompson pulling down his trousers and pants and pushing his penis into Neil’s face while yelling “does this look septic to you?” and Tony Robinson leaning through the window with a camcorder to film them fucking so’s he can use it for blackmail.

03

If you’re thinking that sounds a bit risqué for 7:30pm on BBC1, then yes, and with its childish veneer and Sooty Show visuals, it’s a queasy, uneven mix, like a milkshake with a used condom in it. Never is this more the case than Big Top‘s running storyline about John Thompson’s dangerous new routine, which is “literally suicide,” where he puts three hungry ferrets down his trousers with a hot dog. If you were going to commit suicide, as I was tempted many times while watching, at best the ferrets might mistake your nob for a sausage and bite it off, leaving you to slowly bleed out, but the ambulance will probably arrive in time to tell you they can’t save it and you’ll have to live the rest of your wretched life with a useless, half-chewed nob.

Later, a rival circus owner lets the ferrets out, and Thompson has to offer up his dick again, as the bait to round them all up. He enters groaning from all the dick-bites, and the episode closes with him getting into bed, stripped fully naked, his bare arse (exposed for the second time) blocked only by a small lamp, Austin Powers style, unaware a dick-hungry ferret has gotten under the duvet first. As he turns the light out, there’s no laughter or applause, silently cutting to the closing theme, which plays as really sinister, like his wife’s going to peel back the covers to reveal a blood-soaked mattress and her dead husband’s shredded dick getting gnawed on by a ferret who’s wearing the helmet as a little hat.

04

The other main plot is the old ‘will she/won’t she leave the road life behind for the love of a good man?’ but whenever Amanda Holden’s onscreen, Big Top‘s at it’s absolute worst, as she’s got all the comic timing of a misfiring letter-bomb taking off a postman’s jaw. At its core, this is a show comprised of two elements; people standing in a straight line, describing (unfunny) events said to have happened offscreen, which were too expensive or complicated to actually shoot, and the Bicycle Gag. If you’re unaware, the Bicycle Gag is that old comedy standby, where someone says “I’m definitely not riding that bicycle. I swear, the last thing I ever do is ride that bicycle. I’ll die before I ride that bicycle!” Hard cut to them riding the bicycle.

Over and over, someone says one thing, and Big Top cuts to the opposite, while the cast are completely static, like a dress rehearsal where everyone’s “I’ll do it properly on the night!” Whether it’s meant to be a running gag, or the writer’s just a fascist, there’s a strange preoccupation with the Third Reich. When reminiscing about the olden days, when circuses advertised their arrival into town by marching down the high street, Lady Clown exclaims “like the Nazis!” and later, Man Clown gets angry at Tony Robinson for ‘accidentally’ playing him on with Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally speech. Another episode repeats the wrong music gag, when we’re told the clown was led on with the theme from Schindler’s List. On the surface, that sounds like it might be an actual joke, but go ahead and hum that classic, recognisable theme. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Still, Hitler though, right?! Huhuhu.

05

The other surviving episode revolves around the injury to their “death-defying” skydiver, who broke his leg jumping from the top of the tent, and finding a replacement act to keep their gore-hungry audience buying tickets. Though we never see the acts themselves, only hearing about them backstage — “I can’t believe when that crazy thing happened that we’re not going to show!” — sometimes we get the bow at the end, with cutaways to an applauding audience on different film stock. Holden offers a £100 bonus to anyone who finds a replacement act, to which the juggler offers a sword swallowing routine, where one goes in his mouth and one up his arse, and Robinson brings in a new human cannonball; a suicidal man whose wife has just left him, who’s hoping to be killed in the process.

Meanwhile, John Thompson gets in a feud with a human statue, played by Finchy from (again) The Office, and they end up getting in a fight during the show, with Finchy setting his Rottweiler on Thompson, who catches fire while he’s being savaged, much to the audience’s appreciation. Trust me, it makes even less sense in its full form than me describing it in one sentence. I’ll be honest, Big Top was a real struggle, so bad that I could only get through in tiny increments, constantly having to stop for a breather, like getting a painful full-body tattoo. In writing these, you have to take on all kinds of mad rationalising to survive, constantly doing maths in your head, like “well the credits are 30 seconds, so that’s 1/60th of it out the way for a start…” By the end of the second episode, I was down to 20 second chunks.

06

The half asleep cast deliver a constant description of offscreen events, Bicycle Gags where Holden confidently brags her crew are mature adults who’re getting on really well, as it cuts to them arguing like children, and a level of punchlines that wouldn’t fly on the playground. One particular gag had me embarrassed for everyone involved, when Holden announced the circus needed more pizazz, causing Thompson to leap to his feet, and in a Super Mario accent, yell “Pizzas? what kind of pizzas?! Thin and crispy? Margherita?!” Granted, it’s supposed to be a bad joke in the logic of the show, but it plays to horrible silence, giving me multiple flashbacks to tumbleweed reactions of my own, in particular, aged nine, when a teacher mentioning the Pyrenees, and little ADHD-riddled me, excitedly shrieked to the class “I’ve got a pair a’ knees!” to a dead silence that still haunts me thirty years on. Though if I’d been plying the kind of jokes you get on this shitfest, my classmates would have been well within their rights to Mary Bell me.

Thompson: “I’ll have you know, one critic said we were the perfect act!

Robinson: “the perfect act for nipping out to the toilet.

Audience: “huhuhu…

At one point, the Juggler says he’ll take safety measures by wearing a hard hat, “like that homosexual pop group,” to the punchline “Coldplay?” Eh? The low-energy suggests everyone participating is fully aware of how terrible it is, with Big Top sitting on their resume like someone’s involvement as the balaclava-clad torturer in a dark web snuff film. But judging by this exchange between John Thompson and Look Around You‘s Robert Popper, maybe not.

07

Still, maybe he’s just proud to have portrayed the most repugnant onscreen clown since Pennywise. Although I’d rather be murdered by John Wayne Gacy than sit through another second of Big Top, which is every bit as bad as its legend.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on April 18, 2019.

5 Responses to “Big Top”

  1. […] [This is Part 6 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five] […]

  2. […] is Part 7 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part […]

  3. I never saw Big Top, but I remember when it came out I saw Amanda Holden promoting it on (I think) the One Show. She was saying that she expected it to be a massive hit because the public were sick of alternative comedy being shoved down their throats, and it was time for some good, classic comedy like they used to make. They then showed a clip that made it obvious just how little Big Top had in common with classic comedy both stylistically and in terms of quality. But what stood out to me was the absurd invocation of alternative comedy as a grand oppressive monolith in 2009. The biggest sitcom at the time was Gavin and Stacey, for heaven’s sake, what could she even have been referring to?

    • Amazing. Judging by her performance in this, her sum knowledge of comedy comes from reading the Radio Times listing for one of those Channel 5 talking head shows where Richard Blackwood describes a clip from The Young Ones you’ve just seen.

  4. […] is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part […]

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