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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Big Top: Erasmus – Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson as Erasmus

Tony Robinson is an actor, broadcaster and political campaigner, best known for playing Baldrick in the BBC TV series Blackadder and for hosting documentaries such as Time Team and The Worst Job In Britain.

Tony plays Erasmus, the sound technician and accounts manager, who is cynical, manipulative and callous.

It really irritates him that he's stuck with a bunch of what he thinks are talentless idiots. He has no emotional attachment to the circus at all and his attitude towards the other performers borders on contempt.

There is no way he would ever demean himself by stepping into the ring itself and he is happy to play his music from up high, away from the cheesy glitz below. He derives some satisfaction, though, by playing the wrong sound effects and music cues for the acts they are performing.

Erasmus will do anything to get rich, and is frustrated by Lizzie, who doesn't let him run scams as comfortably as her dad did, yet at the same time he has a sneaking respect for her intelligence. In some ways Erasmus is the most perceptive, least deluded character.

Tony takes up the story: "The owner of Circus Maestro has gone to prison and so his daughter has taken control. There are very few acts in the circus.

"There's Geoff who is the worst clown ever and his wife Helen who's very much put-upon and would actually be a much better clown than he is if she were ever allowed to be. Erasmus and Geoff loathe each other.

"The circus is such a claustrophobic environment, from the cramped caravans that everyone lives in to the nature of performing in the ring. When you hate another character as much as ours do, there is nowhere else to go.

"The one good act is the acrobat Boyco who is besotted by Lizzie the ringmistress. Lizzie wants to be good at every act there is, but has no skills whatsoever."

He continues: "Why my character is called Erasmus nobody knows, but it's rather a glorious name! He is the major-domo; he does everything in the circus that isn't an act: he plays the music, he polishes the equipment, he tears the ticket stubs.

"But he is also a crook. His biggest ambition is to set fire to the Big Top to claim the insurance."

Tony explains that he has was lured back into the world of situation comedy because he has known Marcus Mortimer and John Stroud of Big Bear Films "since the year dot. Marcus was, I think, the floor manager on the first Blackadder series and John directed Who Dares Wins, which was a Channel 4 series that I did years ago. We've been mates ever since.

"When they said that they had a new comedy series idea that they were pitching to the BBC and asked if there was any chance I could help them by coming along and doing a rehearsed reading, I thought, why not?

"So I did it for fun and because I thought it would be enjoyable to be with other comedy actors, but thinking 'Well, there's not much chance that I'd be able to do it because of all my other commitments.'

"We did the read-through in the basement of BBC Television Centre in a room that looked like something out of Cell Block H. The best ranks of the commissioning editors and assistants to the assistant commissioning editors were all lined up in front of these great concrete pillars. We'd had half a day to fumble through these scripts and the buggers laughed!

"The BBC commissioned the whole series straight off the back of the first reading – I've never known that to happen before – and it turned out that they are going to film Big Top at a time when it's far too cold to do any digging anyway. So it was OK as far as Time Team was concerned, and Big Bear gave me the occasional day off to make the documentaries that I was already committed to doing, and it worked out very well, which is exciting."

He continues: "We all did quite a bit of reading before we started work on the series. There are a number of great biographies of people who have been in the circus and it's hell. I'd never realised just how low the wages are, for instance. It's like fringe theatre; even in the posher circuses the money available for the acts is very, very small.

"The comedy in this is about how they're constantly living a hand-to-mouth existence. There's one episode when Amanda's character is so poor that she's reduced to eating popcorn."

Tony admits that Erasmus isn't the most glamorous character: "Let's be honest, I'm the only one who wears a really s*** costume! I look like someone who, if your car had rusted in the front garden, would come and say that they wouldn't give you any money for it but they're prepared to come and take it away for you. I wear a gold sleeper for the first time in 25 years – I had to open my pierced ear hole again!"

Tony adds: "It's going to be a series unlike any sitcom that you've seen for years and years because it is so genuine. We employed a team of circus artistes and experts, so whilst you are doing this comedy you'll see a pair of stilt legs in the background or a fire-eater or some acrobats warming up, all set between the two tops – the Big Top and the Little Top, which is behind-the-scenes. And there's lots of colour!"

Did he go to the circus when he was growing up?

"I can remember as a child coming away from circuses and suddenly realising I had a real pain in my neck because you're always craning upwards for the duration in awe."

So how did Tony feel being in front of a studio audience again – something he hasn't done since playing Baldrick in Blackadder?

"It was a bit of a culture shock! The real challenge is that they're fine when you're doing something for the first or second time, but there are lots of complex pick-ups and costume changes.

"The recording of each half-hour show takes two-and-a-half hours, so you have to find different ways of keeping the audience fizzing along and fully engaged during those down times. We have to get them into the mentality of helping us to make the show rather than just observing."

He continues: "It was very hard work. We were all surprised. The six of us have done a lot of comedy over the years – start at 10.30am and hopefully knock off at about 3.30pm, you kind of know your lines anyway. But on this it's like dancing: all your attention has to be so acute and on the ball. It's very satisfying but it's not a holiday!"

He adds: "I'm terribly uncoordinated, but if I were to do a circus act, I'd love to work with seals. I remember seeing the seals balancing the balls on their noses when I was little and how they generated applause by clapping their flippers together. I wouldn't take them out of their environment. I'd probably go over to Alaska and join the circus over there."

He concludes: "Big Top offers something that the whole family can watch together – but boy, is it edgy! There's a glorious cynicism to Big Top!"

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