Tuesday 22 Jul 2014
Amanda Holden, who plays Lizzie the ringmistress, is well known for both comedy and drama, with leading roles in such series as Cutting It and Wild At Heart. She is also a judge on Britain's Got Talent, the recent third series of which achieved an audience of some 19 million.
Lizzie the ringmistress has grown up in the circus, like her mother and grandmother before her. She has no discernible talent – she can't balance on a tightrope, can't catch a club – but she knows the workings of the circus, loves the spotlight, rising to take on the role of ringmistress, the only member of the troupe who doesn't need any circus skills.
Lizzie is enthusiastic, eternally optimistic, sometimes ruthless – and she's no fool. When her father was sent to prison for fraud, Lizzie became the person in charge of the circus and here, at last, finds something she is good at – management.
She has the opportunity and the ability to raise Circus Maestro from a small-time concern to the huge, fabulous spectacular it has always pretended to be.
The problem is that the people she is trying to manage are a mixture of family members, temperamental artistes and downright scammers. Each member of the troupe is an obstacle to Lizzie's success. But she loves the circus too much to abandon it. And that same affection stops her making the hard-headed business decisions the circus needs to survive – like sacking her uncle Geoff...
Amanda takes up the story: "Basically Lizzie has to hold the whole thing together. I decided that her back story was that she's come from a Swiss finishing school, because I did a bit of research, and Gerry Cottle's daughter took over his circus. She'd gone down the boarding school route as they'd had a lot of money and she had been very well educated.
"Lizzie is well spoken and not covered in tattoos and is a little bit clueless about the circus, very hopeful and optimistic. She is quite switched on and bossy too – basically she's me with a wig on!"
She laughs: "The first wig that I wanted they wouldn't let me have – it was very colourful. I thought I looked brilliant, but apparently I was too unrecognisable. So now I have the same style, but blonde – it's more like Christina Aguilera.
"I wear hotpants, knee-length boots and a proper ringmaster's hunting jacket, based on Gerry Cottle's costume, with dark navy lapels. In fact Kate Moss did a shoot recently in what looked like a circus ringmaster's outfit, and when I was out for dinner in Chelsea the other week a shopwindow was decked out in this sort of gear, so I'm right up there in the fashion stakes with my circus outfit at the moment!"
She continues: "Lizzie is the cog who keeps the circus wheel turning. It wouldn't function without her. She's a very quick-witted character, but she's on a massive learning curve. She's never played a role in a circus before and she doesn't really know her dad very well. Maybe she doesn't even really know who her mum is.
"She's also quite feisty and a bit cynical. She's not stupid and knows that her uncle is rubbish and that Erasmus is probably on the run. She's very persuasive and clued up and bright, but she doesn't have any circus skills and she hates that.
"In fact one week she finds out that she's actually rather a good clown, but she has to relinquish that role as her Uncle Geoff is devastated."
Amanda loved filming that episode: "I got to dress up as a clown and I looked like a cross between Lucille Ball and Su Pollard! It couldn't have been more different from my usual costume of hotpants, fitted red jacket and a whip – and my magic pants! When I was wearing my much more baggy clown outfit I thought 'Hoorah! I can eat dinner tonight!'"
Lizzie's best act is Boyco, the Eastern European acrobat (played by Bruce Mackinnon), who is the star of the show – and also madly in love with her.
Amanda laughs: "There's a sweet line where he tells her: 'You make my heart dance like fresh popcorn!' but it's completely unrequited!"
Amanda did some reading about circuses and quickly realised that working in them can be incredibly demanding and not in the least bit glamorous:
"We all read a book called Under The Big Top. Some journalists in the States went and lived with a circus for a year. It's a terrible life. They don't make any money. It's a very competitive and cruel business. They deliberately sabotage each other's acts so that, when they get to the next town, one act might be delayed so that their act gets more time and they get paid more. So they'll try and break their friends' legs or puncture their wheels. It's a cut-throat business!"
She admits that she was always a bit spooked by circuses: "I've never been a fan of clowns – I hate slapstick comedy. I just think that custard pies and all that sort of thing are too obvious and I've never understood it. It's not a fear of clowns – I just don't find them funny."
She adds: "There was one circus that I went to when I was little when we were on holiday in France and I was sick because I'd drunk too much orange pop – I was really ill, which could be why I didn't like circuses for a long time, because of that awful memory."
However, she now loves the whole experience of sitting under a big top: "When I went to Las Vegas I saw The O Show which is part of Cirque du Soleil and that actually made me want to join the circus because that's a completely different way of looking at them. It's probably why regular circuses are now struggling, because the level of expectation has gone up, which is very sad."
Amanda had a ball making Big Top: "This is the first time since Kiss Me Kate where I've been sent something that I think is really funny and well written.
"I definitely think that Big Top is one of the funniest things I've ever read. It's very colourful and friendly and watchable, a cross between Vicar Of Dibley and Hi-De-Hi in a tent. Daniel Peak, the writer, is brilliant – but I'd never heard of him!"
She adds: "It's brilliant for me to be working on a sitcom again; I love doing comedy in front of a studio audience. But it's tough because it's an immediate reaction; people either laugh or they don't and that's the end of it, whereas with a drama there's every emotion.
"Making Big Top was a bit like doing a play. You rehearse all week and it's good to get up in front of a real audience in the end. I also thoroughly enjoyed working with so many established and well known comic actors; everyone is bringing their previous audiences to this."
Amanda would love to learn a few circus skills herself: "If I were to do a circus act, I would like to try trapeze work because of the sparkly costumes! I'd really like my character to have more of a go at circus acts like stilt walking and juggling."
She concludes: "Setting a comedy in a circus is one of the most obvious things and we can't believe it hasn't already been done. Big Top is full of recognisable faces, it's funny and touching too. In this current climate, who wants to sit and watch a desperate family in their living room, when effectively that's what a lot of families are like at the moment? They want escapism, colour and clowns – even if they're rubbish! It's credit crunch comedy – perfect stay-at-home telly. Don't go out and spend any money – settle down in front of the telly and watch us!"
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