LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Monday, 14 May 2012

Lights, Camera, Noddy - filming on location with the BBC


Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
makes his TV debut in BB1's
The Last Circus Elephant












Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson recalls a day of filming for a BBC documentary on the trial of Bobby Roberts and the fate of Britain's last circus elephant.


It was a day when we both learned a new word. David Whitely, the BBC Look East presenter, learned that clowns are nicknamed Joeys, and I found out what a noddy is.

We were standing in the middle of a blustery sports field, far enough from Russells International Circus that the red big top would appear just above my left shoulder. Diana Hare, the producer, was sitting on the grass making copious notes, and the tallest camera man I’ve ever seen was filming my answers to David’s questions about the rights and wrongs of animals in the circus.

The subject of animals in the circus is always
a thorny one.
This is how the Daily Mail
reported the return of elephants to the
Great British Circus in 2009
It’s a thorny subject I looked into in great depth in my book Circus Mania! and it’s the subject of a half-hour documentary the beeb are making for likely broadcast in late June or July.

For me, it was fun to see the way TV programmes are pieced together. I arrived early in time to catch circus owner Rusty Russell being interviewed in the empty big top, the light gleaming off his red and gold tunic as he sat with his back to the sawdust circle.

As the audience began to arrive, Diana and the camera man scurried around taking ‘atmosphere’ shots of people taking their seats and buying popcorn. David was filmed speaking his introduction as he walked up to the box office. To the bemusement of the paying customers waiting in line it took three takes until he and the camera man were satisfied.

As the lights went down and the show began, I was ushered into a seat to be filmed watching and applauding the hoola-hoopist and hand-balancers. Then, as the circus continued, I was tapped on the shoulder and hoiked outside to be interviewed in the afternoon sun.

The Last Circus Elephant was filmed at the all-human
Russells International Circus
After the interview had been filmed, the camera man moved to a different position and David asked me the same questions all over again, this time stopping me after a few sentences. The camera man changed positions once more, this time squatting down for a low angle shot, and we repeated the procedure. The idea is that, for visual variety, they can use a long shot of me beginning to speak then cut to a close-up as I continue. And that is where the noddy comes in. The camera man took shots of David literally nodding at the camera as if in response to something I was saying. These reaction shots can then be cut into the finished film to cover the edits in the film of me speaking.

Finally, we filmed some ‘establishing footage’ of David and me and pretending to be in deep conversation as we wandered among the caravans and lorries at the back of the big top.

Circus Mania
author
Douglas McPherson
With my role as ‘circus expert’ complete, we returned to the tent - the BBC to film some backstage atmosphere and me to watch the final half hour of the show, which I’m pleased to say was very enjoyable. Russells Circus has no animals, in case you’re wondering, but it does have a promising young clown called Alex Morley and an impressive Hungarian springboard act.

How much of my interview will make it into the final film remains to be seen, as does whether the programme will be broadcast only in the eastern region or nationally. As the question of animals in circuses is a national one, David reckoned the documentary could end up broadcast countrywide in the prime time regional news slot.

A case of watch this space for further details, then.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the way circus animals are trained and treated, read about my behind-the-scenes visits and interviews with circus trainers in Circus Mania!

Order Circus Mania direct from Peter Owen Publishers on +44 (0)20 8350 1775.

Or click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Update: Click here to read my review of The Last Circus Elephant.