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Timeshift: All the Fun of the Fair, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Timeshift: All the Fun of the Fair, BBC Four

Timeshift: All the Fun of the Fair, BBC Four

Evocative history of the modern fair, with spectacular archive footage

Is there a place for the travelling fun fair any more? Static attractions like Alton Towers and Thorpe Park have rides that are bigger, grander, more varied and scarier than anything a traditional, transient fair could ever transport. All the Fun of the Fair’s answer was that the fair has survived by winding the clock back, rekindling the past with original Victorian and Edwardian rides. There’s still room for something less bombastic.

All the Fun of the Fair traced the history of the travelling fair in its familiar form. What we now recognise as the fair, with rides, sideshows and snacks evolved in the 19th century. The programme employed extraordinary and invaluable footage from The University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive. Without that, the commentators and shots of today’s fairs would have been stranded, left without an anchor.

This, though, was a history, not an examination of the travelling lifestyle. What the show people do out of season, where the rides, stalls and stands are stored and how they are maintained wasn’t addressed. The evolution of the characteristic fairground art wasn’t discussed. It was remarked that people would run away to the circus, but not to the fair. A village on wheels, the travelling fair was a closed world. Parts remained closed to All the Fun of the Fair.

Claims were made for the travelling fair’s role in taking advantage of, introducing and adapting new technologies. Many visitors would have first seen electric light bulbs at fairs. The cinematograph was exhibited at fairs from February 1897. The first permanent cinema opened in 1909.

But it was the technology of power that drove fairs and their development. Before the 1860s rides were hand-turned. The steam-powered roundabout arrived in 1865. Electricity provoked the next leap, powering the dodgems, which were introduced in 1928 - the first attraction the visitor was in charge of. Following Wild West shows – dominated by the dynastic Lancashire Shufflebottom family - rock‘n’roll became the next major ingredient, bringing “an unholy alliance between youth, bright lights and things going fast. And popular music”. The film That’ll be the Day caught the symbiosis between fairs and youth culture. Fairs became integral to the pop experience (see the Françoise Hardy clip below).

Watch the Scopitone of a fairground-riding Françoise Hardy singing “Tous les garçons et les filles”

None of this should be surprising, but sewing it all together rammed home how little thought most of us give to what the fair actually is, what its separate elements are and how they relate. Rides and the sideshows combine into a singular mass that’s experienced rather than analysed. Much like candy floss.

Thrills on rides are terrific, but there was no greater experience than the sideshows, a mini-street lined with tents housing the grotesque, the fabulous and the fake. Sex, too. “The famous dance, some people call it striptease – we call it art,” announced one showman. Tom Norman was the king of the Victorian showmen, the man who developed the freak show. He struck a 50:50 deal with Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Another of his attractions was a “fish that could play the piano”. Presumably with its fish fingers. A fabulously surreal 1960s clip showed “the most charming man you’ve ever seen”, a living leprechaun.

The days of piano-playing fish and living leprechauns are gone, but the spirit of the Victorian fair survives in operations like Carter’s Steam Fair. Not only is it fun, it’s evocative. For me, Carter’s will always occupy a special place as it’s where I first heard The Nite Riders’ amazing rock‘n’roll 45 “Pretty Plaid Skirt” (it was blaring out over the dodgems). All the Fun of the Fair brought that memory back. No doubt it raised more poignant thoughts amongst everyone else watching.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch Carter’s Steam Fair setting up at Croxley Green in Sept 2009

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