For hundreds of years the fairground was the domain of the actor and the jester, the magician and the minstrel, the puppeteer and the fire eater, the juggler and the tumbler.
It was a place alive with “monsters” and it was a place where learned pigs mixed with giants and dwarfs and where most people saw “exotic” animals for the first time. Once upon a time it was even home to “a surprising large fish, affirmed to have had in her belly, when found, one thousand seven hundred mackerel.”
Arguably, the fairground was the cradle of most forms of popular entertainment we see today. Theatre and comedy, music and dance, novelty and variety were all present and, ultimately, the fairground even helped give birth to the cinema.
When looking at the vibrancy of early fairs it is inevitable that dramatic presentations and wild beast shows (travelling menageries) merit special attention. Popular drama has long been at the heart of the entertainment culture of any country and the fairground is where it thrived, being cheap and accessible to ordinary people.
Finding credible information on early fairground theatre is not easy, so inevitably attention must turn to that well documented event, Bartholomew Fair at London’s Smithfield. It is said that in the reign of Charles II (1630-1685) the theatres of London closed during the fair to allow actors either to appear there, or run their own shows.
A good source of information on the theatrical scene at Smithfield during this period can be found in the “Book of Days” (published in 1869 and available online):
“One of the most famous of these great theatrical booths was that owned by Lee and Harper. These dramas are curiously indicative of popular tastes, filled with bombast interspersed with buffoonery, and gorgeous in dress and decoration. Settle’s Siege of Troy is a good specimen of these productions, and we are told that it was in no ways inferior to any one opera yet seen in either of the Royal Theatres… “The regular actors, as we have before observed, were transplanted to the fair during its continuance, and some of them were proprietors and managers of the great theatrical booths. Penkethman, Mills, Booth, and Doggett were of the number. The great novelist, Henry Fielding, commenced his career as part-proprietor of one of these booths, continuing for nine years in company with Hippisley, the favourite comedian, and others. It was at his booth, in 1733, that the famous actress, Mrs. Pritchard, made her great success, in an adaptation by Fielding, of Moliere’s Cheats of Scapin…”
“…………The theatrical booths were still important features in the fair, and in 1715, we hear of ‘one great Playhouse erected for the King’s Players – the booth is the largest that ever was built.’ In 1728, Lee and Harper produced a ballad-opera on the adventures of Jack Sheppard, and in 1730, another devoted to the popular hero – Robin Hood. During the run of the Beggar’s Opera, it was reproduced by Rayner and Pullen’s company at the fair.”
By the 18th century the theatre was big business. In London many existing venues were expanded (or re-built altogether) while new theatres were constructed in towns all over the country.
As the industrial revolution created a “new” class of working people yet more theatres opened to satisfy demand and the 19th century became the age of “popular” entertainment. A good thespian could always find work at the big city theatres and for those less fortunate there were always the touring companies, some of whom used their own “portable” showbooth. Inevitably these “portables” found their way to Wakes and Feasts, Fetes and Fairs, with some of the fairground regulars becoming well known and successful.
One of the best documented shows of this period is that of John Richardson. It is said that Richardson’s Theatre Booth could stage more than a dozen melodramas in a day, although Charles Dickens was more precise when he observed of Richardson’s Booth
“you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.”
For many years Richardson commanded the prime sites of English fairgrounds and provided the starting point for many a promising career, including, it is said, ctions.
Also added to the mix were more “modern” offerings like the Wall of Death and the Globe of Death. The Wall is a motorcycle show that has its roots in America and is probably the fairground equivalent of board racing, or the Motor Drome – a very steeply banked motorcycle race track comprised of wooden boards. The Globe of Death is a spherical metallic cage inside which motorcycles circulate.
So, is the fairground show dead? The answer would appear to be “yes, but…” One thing that also carried on after the first World War was the Illusion show, although “the girl in the Goldfish Bowl” of the 20th century was perhaps no match for the 19th century Ghost Show of Randall Williams.
What perhaps was however, was the emergence of something called the Dr. Fryte Freak Show in 2003. Based on a Victorian illusion this thoroughly modern show proved a hit at big events like Nottingham Goose fair and Hull fair. Dr. Fryte was still doing business in 2006, thus carrying the fairground show into yet another century. Quite how long the tradition will last is open to debate, but the fact that it has lasted this long is testament to the tenacity of showfolk everywhere.