Fairground attraction - Behind the scenes at the Shows

A scene from the Carlisle Fair Image copyright Hopscotch Films

The Shows - the travelling fairs that have for years brought entertainment to Scottish towns - are under pressure. Can they survive as the number of fairground sites reduces, red tape increases and new technology offers alternative diversions?

Mitch Miller's parents met at the fair. They also got married there, raised their children there and lived and worked there.

They were "show people", born and bred on the travelling funfair.

They came from a place that for most people exists for a short time and then disappears - a bit like Brigadoon.

"We are not gypsies. We are not Irish travellers. We are show people," says Christine Stirling, an education liaison officer who has campaigned for better rights for the children of show folk.

She says years of progress on getting people to understand their tradition and culture has been set back by the TV programme My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

"We were moving forward and getting people and teachers to recognise the difference and after seeing that programme the kids were bombarded at school and asked 'Is that what youse do?', says Ms Stirling.

"Identity is a major thing. We have our own identity."

For the past few years Mitch Miller, who does not travel with the shows any more, has been trying to capture the history and spirit of the Scottish showground.

Image copyright Hopscotch Films
Image caption Mitch Miller's family have been part of fairground life for generations

In the BBC Scotland documentary, Showland: Behind the scenes at the fair, Miller says that his memories of the sights and smells of the fair are not of burnt sugar candy floss, flashing lights and loud music.

Instead it is the smell of diesel, the rumble of a generator and the warm light in the window of a wagon "that guides you in after closing time".

The Scottish travelling shows are different from the American Carnies in that there is usually no single Barnum figure in charge of everything.

Family firms run their own parts of the "gaff" and must bring them on the right day, at the right place, every year - all coming together to create a fair.

Ride owners and stall holders rely on each other and grow up together and socialise, they may even be related in some way but there is also an element of competition which gives them the incentive to make the rides faster, their stalls brighter and the shows more novel.

There are still families travelling the Scottish circuit who go back to the turn of the 19th Century when the old commercial functions of the fair began to die and two new popular entertainments emerged - the circus and the funfair.

The shows got their name from the sideshow entertainment that the crowds would flock to such as animal menageries, waxworks, peep shows, boxing, jugglers, clowns and acrobats.

"Spectacle, illusion and clever patter was the essence of the sideshow," says Miller.

Innovation and a willingness to stretch credibility to the extreme were also the order of the day.

Charlie Gamble and Olivia Newsome remember some of the more unusual and enterprising shows they used to take part in.

Ms Newsome says there was one called the stars at night which was a tent where the roof came off.

There was another which claimed to show a "giant rat which had been caught in Glasgow docks".

Image caption Charlie Gamble and Olivia Newsome remember the classic show days

Mr Gamble says it was actually a South American rodent called a Coypu but nobody knew that.

Charlie Gamble also recounts the tale of a sideshow called "Man eating fish". Those expecting a shark or swarm of piranhas were to be disappointed.

"You went in and it was a man eating a tin of sardines," he says.

Ms Newsome spent a period of her shows career as a "living mermaid".

"There was a mermaid's body in the water and all you saw of me was my head," she says.

"That was on at the Kelvin Hall for years."

The fairground has always changed and adapted and the introduction of the Steam Carousel in the early years of the 20th Century saw the rise of the high-powered rides which now dominate.

And every other part of the life of the show people has also been changing.

Image copyright Thomas family archive
Image caption The carousel, known as ‘gallopers' in England, or simply ‘jumpers' in Scotland. One of the oldest rides in the fair

The iconic showman's wagon is now rarely seen on the fairground.

With better roads and more powerful engines in the cab, it makes more sense to range out from a permanent base.

An estimated 80% of show people are Glaswegians, living in about 50 privately-owned or leased yards in pockets to the east, south and north of the city.

The sleek but cramped wagon has given way to the sophistication of the chalet.

Alex James Colquhoun, from the Showman's Guild, formed in the 1880s to fight against restrictions being imposed by parliament, says: "Most sites are pushed out where no-one wants. They are in places like down by the sewerage works or down along the Clydeside."

He says show people sites remain classed as temporary accommodation even though some of them have been there for decades. That means they have very few rights if people or businesses want to move them on.

Most of the 400 or so firms that make up the membership of the Scottish Showmen's Guild are small family outfits that have been entertaining the public for decades.

Mr Colquhoun said the growing difficulty of finding fairground sites and securing licences for them was deterring many showmen.

Image copyright Hopscotch Films
Image caption Stall holders show off a prize at the Peter fair in Banff. A still from footage recorded by Ian and Jack Johnstone in the 1960s

He said there was more red tape and it was more expensive to run shows in Scotland than any other country in Europe.

Scotland is the only place where you need a "public entertainment licence" and each of the 32 local councils has different rules.

Showman Trevor Smith says: "You can have all different local authorities charging different prices and coming up with excuses not to give you a licence. It is oppressing the business."

Showman Arthur Lawrence adds: "When I was young it was fun but I was a kid then, I didn't have to worry.

"It is all pressure now. You'd be better working for somebody - getting a wage.

"But it's in the blood. This is what we do."

Image copyright Hopscotch Films
Image caption Buster the dog makes himself comfortable in a Crazy Cottage pay box

For many years, children have taken over from their parents, or more accurately sons have taken over from their fathers.

Showman Edwin Ord Pinder says his son will be the sixth of that name to take on the business and Charlie Horne is the fifth showman of that name to run the firm.

Mr Horne says: "It's a nice way of life if you have got the right rides or the right equipment to earn the money.

"When my son got married I gave him the Waltzers. He's got other bits and pieces and he'll get the rest of it eventually."

Image copyright Henry Pinder
Image caption The Pinder family have been in the circus and show business for generations. They still travel today.

But some in the next generation might not be as keen to take on the tough show life style.

Christine Stirling says changes which she has promoted have made it easier for children from show families to keep up with their education, which gives them more options when they leave school.

And what of the women in the show community?

"Men use their hands to work, we've got use our brains," says Chloe Silcock.

She says that typically the women do the paperwork, booking and arrangements.

"The men don't touch the money," she adds.

"It's hard work. Although the men spend the night building things to be ready for the next day, the women do all the paperwork and they sit up just as long waiting for them to come in so we can give them some clean clothes.

"It is worth it for the lifestyle. You don't do this for the money."

Showland: Behind the scenes at the fair is on BBC Two Scotland at 21:00 on Monday 15 December.

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