Robert Gore-Langton talks to Professor Vanessa Toulmin about bringing the 27,000 Volt Girl and five-foot earwigs back into the public eye
Vanessa Toulmin is that rare thing — an academic professor who grew up on a fair. From the age of ten she fried onions for the hotdogs, spun candyfloss, and took money for rides on the gallopers. She can remember, as a little girl, George the Gentle Giant (seven foot four) lurching home drunk with his chum Wee McGregor (two foot four) peeing on his shins.
Her early life was like a Fellini circus film. As a teenager, Vanessa actually ran away from the fair to get some A-levels. Today she has a chair at the University of Sheffield and is director of the invaluable National Fairground Archive. She also curates the annual Showzam festival in Blackpool and writes books and papers. Last year she visited 28 fairs and I bet she never paid for a ride. Everyone knows her — and they are proud as punch she’s a prof.
Toulmin’s family, from the Lancashire coast, has on her mother’s side six generations of show people. ‘My auntie Brenda was a contortionist on Blackpool North Pier who could drink a glass of water with her feet doubled up inside a box. She later became principal dancer with the Moulin Rouge. Very bendy she was! An uncle of mine had a fair he called “Fun Without Vulgarity” and he was an evangelist preacher in the winter. I travelled about 14 weeks a year. I didn’t really go to school. My brothers and sisters were on the fair until 16. One brother used to run the helter-skelter, another the clown stall, my sisters worked on the rides.’
She is telling me all this because she has a circus to promote. The show is called Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow and it will take place at the Roundhouse in Camden, London, as part of the international CircusFest 2012. It all looks quite sexy. But the Wondershow sounds utterly irresistible. She has assembled six original stall façades found in a barn near Hull, now lovingly restored. They all date from a golden fairground era between the 1930s and 1950s.
These sideshows include shockers such as ‘Electra The 27,000 Volt Girl’ who can survive terrible shocks. There is a four-inch lass called Cleo in a bikini in ‘The Girl In The Goldfish Bowl (You Won’t Believe Your Eyes!)’. ‘The Amazing Butterfly Girl’ will emerge from a chrysalis (‘See Her As Nature Made Her!’) and I particularly like the look of the ‘Headless Lady (Alive and Human!)’ with tubes coming out of her neck as if in some sick science experiment. There’s ‘The Living Half Lady’ and a horror show called ‘The Mummy’. A loud, check-suited barker will scoop audiences in with his hat and deliver an alliterative spiel. Each illusion lasts about eight minutes and you can wander round trying them out as if you were on a village green. Presiding over the lot is a statue of the Great Omi, the most tattooed man on the planet, a former sergeant-major from Hastings.
Additional attractions include an act called ‘Miss Exotica’, based on a dusky 1930s woman called Koringa who used to walk on the heads of wild alligators. In this case, she’ll be walking up a ladder of knives in her bare feet and a hula hoop. ‘We have a saying on the fairground: it’s not the show that brings in the dough, it’s the flash that brings in the cash,’ says Vanessa. ‘It’s all about presenting a beautiful visual world to people in the Roundhouse.’ Overhead will be the Insect Circus Museum, a portable circus that resides in a Bedford lorry, providing balancing wasps, moths and flies.
‘Jon Marshall is the magician who has designed all the illusions and put them together — we’ve worked on these for 11 years now. Every year we restore a new show, bring it out, take it to Blackpool and other places. The beauty of the Roundhouse is that we’ve got all six together for the first time since the 1950s.’
That decade is important because in the 1950s something died. ‘The fairground became about rides which took less folk to operate than shows and the circus sideshows went. The culture, though, lives on,’ says Vanessa. The welfare state helped kill off the sideshows — the travelling life was too grinding and a lot of showfolk, including the freaks, signed on.
Vanessa radiates nostalgia for animal acts as she shows me on her laptop a silent clip of a bear riding a bicycle filmed in some town square more than 100 years ago. She talks about ‘immersive circus’ and how its various forms have fused into a contemporary circus scene that’s rich and diverse, if bear-free.
She has remained true to her roots. After processing with the vice-chancellor through Sheffield University hall in her professorial robes she gave an inaugural talk on — wait for it — Intermediality of Early Film and Entertainment. ‘When I got on stage I chucked off my gown and had a showgirl outfit on underneath and I did the lecture interspersed with live acts,’ she laughs. These included a sword-swallower, dancing pigs and five-foot earwigs.
As part of her work she has the unwritten, oral culture of the fairground literally taped. Her PhD involved interviewing 150 people, including a woman who was still travelling at the age of 100 with a boxing show. These people never talk to outsiders but as Vanessa was one of them, they gabbled. Today many fair people wonder if she’ll ever get married — preferably to a mush who isn’t already rummered. (That’s an unmarried chap in fairground speak.)
Her Wondershow should, she thinks, sit well in the capital. ‘The British invented the sideshow and in London it goes back a long way. In the 18th and 19th centuries the whole of Piccadilly was one big sideshow. You could see a flea circus in Regent Street and on the Charing Cross Road, in 1833, you could eat a meal inside a blue whale and listen to a 24-piece orchestra. I wanted to bring that side of London back into the public eye.’
But with all her knowledge of those long-vanished acts which one would she most love to see? ‘I think it would be Professor Baldwin’s parachuting cat, dropped from a proscenium arch. It was followed by a donkey and the RSPCA sued him. I’ve got the poster for it.’ It is unclear what happened but it is believed the donkey’s chute didn’t open.
CircusFest 2012 is at the Roundhouse, London NW1 from 28 March–29 April. Tickets: 0844 482 8008.