Variety is the Spice of Life

Paul Zenon

First Published in the Sunday Express

Magician and comedian Paul Zenon believes that the end is nigh for television as we know it. Despite making regular TV appearances himself, he believes that reality shows are turning us off the box and, far from the lack of traditional entertainment shows on the box sounding the death knell for variety, audiences are now queuing round the block to see the kind of live acts that used to have us rolling in the aisles.

"I'm grateful that TV work has helped pay the mortgage over the years, but you can't beat being part of an audience in a good old-fashioned live show. I've just returned from Edinburgh Festival and, despite there being over two thousand shows of every kind to choose from, punters were queuing for two hours for standing-room to see a roller-skating acrobatic act, grandma-rap artiste Ida Barr leading an unforgettable 'urban' rendition of 'Underneath the Arches', and Norwegian rubber-man Captain Frodo squeezing his entire body through a tennis racquet. Certainly not something you're likely to see in the talent-free zone that today's TV has become.

These latter-day variety stars feature in a show called 'La Clique', a sexy late-night circus burlesque spectacle reminiscent of something you might have seen in the Moulin Rouge a hundred years ago. The show is housed in the Famous Spiegeltent, one of several portable wood and glass edifices adorned with engraved mirrors, polished parquet flooring and billowing big top roofs - imagine a covered fairground carousel with performers rather than horses. Originating in Germany in the 1920s, they've been touring and exhibiting speciality acts ever since, playing everywhere from Edinburgh to Brighton via Adelaide and New York, where La Clique's sister show 'Absinthe' is currently playing to packed houses. The dozen or so performers will be heading to join the Spiegeltent in Melbourne in October for a three-month run, with the exception of a few - myself included - who will pitch up and perform a few guest spots there and in Sydney and Auckland next spring. Most of the acts perform in the centre of the tent on a podium 6 feet in diameter, mere inches from the nearest audience members' faces - more than exciting when a misplaced roller skate would most certainly spell A&E for performer and spectator alike. As Captain Frodo says while wrapping both legs around his neck, his posterior perched precariously on the top of a tower of tin cans, "It's amazing what people can do."

Of course, television never could capture the anticipation, the laughs, the astonishment and the joie de vivre of a show like this - obviously you need to actually be there to appreciate the atmosphere and feel a part of the happening - and it gave up trying in the late 80's when performance-based shows such as Seaside Special and Sunday Night at the London Palladium were consigned to the 'naff' skip, variety being referred to since behind closed doors as 'the V word'.

The biggest laugh of all this season was that, among the hundreds of disappointed punters vainly hoping to be squeezed into one of La Clique's shows (it has sold out every single performance for the three years that it's been running), were several determined bigwigs from a major TV channel who tried to use their status to bypass the queue. "Sorry, we're still full" was the response of Spiegeltent impresario David Bates. "We don't need the publicity, thanks."

Strangely, rather than refusing to die in the 80's, a whole new generation of extraordinary performers has emerged to perform in the 21st Century - some from traditional or 'new wave' circuses, some from the street, some from the hip and happening burlesque clubs which have blossomed in recent times, and many from the same comedy club circuit where big name acts such as Lee Evans and Harry Hill cut their teeth, they too having their roots very much in the Music Hall tradition.

Whatever inspired these people to practice and perfect turns that would have made even our great-great grandparents feel largely at home in a 2006 audience, it certainly wasn't the promise of conventional stardom; most novelty acts perform for 3 to 10 minutes and take years to perfect, contrasting sharply with the chew 'em up and spit 'em out high-volume appetite of television these days where the accolade of 'celebrity' seems largely reserved for those not over-burdened with talent; most these days being famous simply for being famous, and then only fleetingly. Of course there are exceptions in the TV reality pool; Pop Idol, X-Factor and the like have their roots in shows such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces and stand out in that, despite the sniping of the egocentric 'judges', the contestants do actually need to have discernible skills. While TV nowadays seems to focus ever more on personal conflict, there's an undeniable and deeply unfashionable feel-good factor associated with these variety turns and their shows and an endearing aspect of their world is the overwhelming sense of camaraderie and the support offered by the acts and crew to one-another, despite the obvious differences of specialisation, age and nationality. There's a mutual respect and it's the norm to see an octogenarian pickpocket from Blackpool helping a teenage Ukranian trapeze artiste with their act backstage - other than the freakshow comparison, a greater contrast with Big Brother would be hard to imagine.

And thank goodness these people do what they do - without them there would be no Stomp, no Tap Dogs, no Blue Man Group and no Cirque De Soleil pulling in the crowds in theatreland. The latter company, incidentally, now has five permanent shows in Las Vegas and several touring ones worldwide employing tens of thousands of people, and reputedly has thirty-odd full-time talent scouts on the books - shove that up your scheduling.

Deprived of good old-fashioned entertainment on the box, it's little wonder that the public are hungry for a taste of nostalgia with a new-wave twist; the largely-hidden corporate market is now a massive employer of entertainers, the cruise ship market has almost shed it's blue-rinse image and is bigger than ever, and arts festivals worldwide provide appreciative audiences with a little romantic escapism coupled with a good laugh. If you really want to watch ordinary people doing ordinary things in everyday surroundings, then turn off the telly and go and sit in a bus shelter. Me? I'm going to run away with the circus."


Paul Zenon, September 2006. First published in the Sunday Express