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Big Top Variety Show (1979-82)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Big Top Variety Show (1979-82)
Thames Television for ITV, 5/12/1979-4/8/1982
12 x 60 min in four series, colour
DirectorChristopher Palmer
ProducerChristopher Palmer
Circus ProductionRonnie Smart
 Billy Smart
Associate ProducerLionel Blair
Music DirectorAlan Braden

Hosts: Bernie Winters (with Schnorbitz), Bernie Clifton; Dancers: Big Top Variety Showgirls

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Series of specials interspersing variety spots with circus acts, under Billy Smart's Big Top.

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TV saw circus as a holiday treat - as it was in real life - and circus programmes were broadcast, generally at Christmas or Easter, from the 1950s. The arrival of colour was a significant enhancement. When this hybrid circus/variety show emerged, it was scheduled for the Summer holiday period, though the ITV strike in its first series meant deferral until near Christmas.

Each show combined a number of international circus acts with popular comedy and musical acts in a big top setting (Billy Smart's Windsor circus), though the only animal act regularly appearing was Schnorbitz, St. Bernard 'partner' to compere Bernie Winters. Certain types of circus act had their place on variety bills, but the theatre stage was more restrictive than the circus ring - this show redressed the balance and generally the acts were of high quality, although the use of slow motion and freeze frame on occasion is clearly for viewer's benefit, as are the filmed inserts. The circus trappings were obvious, and the opening titles are superimposed over the tent. One can speculate how well the tented audience could see the non-circus acts, who tend to be rather static; this was not an issue for those sat at home. Nevertheless, the 'live' atmosphere is rather subdued, despite the energy being exerted and the occasional audience shots (usually in response to exhortations from Bernie to indicate enjoyment).

Each show featured a troupe of dancing girls (the Big Top Variety Showgirls), who were filmed from high in the tent roof, Busby Berkeley-style, while The Ladybirds provided (unseen) backing vocals where required. Bernie Winters played his 'Mr Bowler' character, partnered by Peter Hudson, as well as doing a few topical gags and introducing the acts; he also interviewed either a dancer or a 'beauty'. Winters was replaced by Bernie Clifton for the final series.

Like many light entertainment vehicles, the series was rarely reviewed and yet very popular (13.9 million viewers at its peak, 9.6 million at the end of the last series), especially in the regions. Middle-of-the-road, with some variety acts past their peak (especially the music acts), it stands as a 'safe' staple of the Summer schedule of its time, though without doing many favours either to circus or variety.

David Sharp

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Video Clips
1. Bernie and Schnorbitz (0:40)
3. Bernie as Mr Bowler (2:00)
4. Little John and partner (4:00)
5. Gladys Knight finale (3:30)
Winters, Mike (1930-) and Winters, Bernie (1932-1991)
TV Variety