I feel that the modern circus community is something of which we know very little, with our knowledge of these travellers heavily based on old-fashioned films such as The Greatest Show on Earth or Water for Elephants. I feel people’s perceptions would be that they aren’t that much different to the families featured on Big Fat Gypsy Weddings but ITV1’s documentary The Circus dispels these myths by focusing on a modern circus clan.
The Darnell family, who run Paolo’s All American Circus, are one of the last original circus families left and as the documentary shows in these tough economic times it’s becoming harder to get an audience than ever before. The Darnells are headed up by Kenny Senior, known as Big Kenny, the patriarch who is involved in all of the finances while in addition he is always ready to muck-in and step into the clown shoes of his youngest son if illness strikes.
Big Kenny’s wife Kathryn tells us of how she met her future husband and decided to leave school without any qualifications, to join the circus while the circus’ lead acrobat Bulgarian Teodara, known as Teddi, who trained as a gymnast but also eventually left her life behind to travel and perform. Teddi also hooked up with a Darnell, Kenny Junior who performs the aptly named ring of death. The pair married when he was seventeen and now have a four year old daughter named Baby Teddi. One of the stories throughout the documentary saw Teddi and Kenny try to find a new house for her and their daughter to live as they wanted her to have a proper life where she wasn’t travelling between schools every week. Though Teddi didn’t want her husband to be away from them for most of the year they realised it was the best thing for all of them so their daughter.
The splitting up of the Darnell family was also seen through middle child Leigh, who is currently the circus’ ring master, as his fiancée Sarah wants him to live with her when they are married. Throughout the programme we see them plan their wedding and him building up to tell his father that he’ll only be around for one more season however the way he phrases his revelation plants doubts in both the minds of Big Kenny and Sarah. Thankfully the Darnells have little to worry about where youngest son Patrick is concerned, as he is completely loving playing Patchy the Clown because, as he tells us, he basically gets paid to be himself.
Other than family troubles it is mainly financial worries that plague Paolo’s Circus, as dwindling door numbers means that the Darnells must seriously consider their future in the industry as they can’t cut back any more than they have. As the circus has an animal act, run by horse trainer/trapeze artist Amanda Sandow, there is the obligatory clash with animal protestors with one in particularly riling up the whole troupe who are insulted by the suggestion that Amanda doesn’t care for her horses. I have to say that Amanda is painted in a positive light throughout I never felt she was exploiting her horses, or her dog, but rather that they enjoyed what they were doing however not everybody feels the same. Though Amanda isn’t a Darnell she also found love at the circus in the form of Victor Silva, better known as Popito the Clown, who was born into the circus in his native Portugal where he had a speciality routine involving goats however he is committed to making his clown act as good as it can possibly be.
Overall I really enjoyed watching The Circus as it painted a picture of an old-fashioned industry trying to cope in modern times but struggling to meet the demands of a family audience in the age where technology is king. The programme could so easily have poked fun at these people who spend all their day dressed up as clowns or flying round on a beam but instead it championed the old-fashioned charm of the circus lifestyle. It was also keen to show that the travelling life isn’t for everyone as the Darnell sons all recount how they were beaten up at school because they were on the road all the time and that’s mainly the reason for Kenny Jr.’s wish that Baby Teddi be raised outside of the big top.
Though we saw three couples who all travelled on the road together, we also saw Sarah who had no intention of leaving her life behind and wanted her husband to sever the ties with mum and dad to be with her. Throughout the programme there seemed to be a running theme of modernisation whether it be a four year old girl using an iphone or the family all waking up to watch Jeremy Kyle on the TV, it seemed to imply that a world in which the generator is switched off at 9pm may not be the best way to live. My favourite example of gadget use came when Sarah and Leigh wanted to join the local church so rather than writing their names down the vicar got out his i-pad to send them an e-mail before suggesting they follow it on Facebook.
I didn’t think The Circus was a perfect documentary because at times I felt it drag slightly plus Bradley Walsh’s narration seemed a bit overpowering throughout. Overall though this was a fun documentary shining a light on a struggling industry which could do with more support which hopefully this programme might supply. As this was filmed last year I would’ve liked a follow up to see how the summer season is currently going for the Darnell family and how the sons are coping with their various personal issues since last we met them but maybe they’ll be a sequel next year. While I don’t think it’s convinced me to rush out and seek a circus show right away it certainly championed the people who work tirelessly throughout the year to provide entertainment for families up and down the country.
Did you watch The Circus? What did you think to the show? Leave Your Comments Below.