Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

01 July 2009

Fairground barkers

LIKE NEWSBOYS SHOUTING ‘Extra! Extra!’, the popular idea of the circus and fairground barker’s cry of ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ probably originates in Hollywood films. The travelling fairs which visit London these days have no barkers at all; even if they did, their voices would be lost in the din of happy hardcore thumping out of powerful fairground PA systems. Some ride operators add a few amplified words of their own to the music, but they try to copy the style of radio DJs.

To find an old-school barker, you might have go to Blackpool. Otherwise, a few fading memories linger on in popular culture. Fred Heatherton’s 1944 song I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts was first recorded by Danny Kaye, later by Monty Python, and finally appeared in the Disney film The Lion King:

Down at an English fair one evening I was there
When I heard a showman shouting underneath the flair:

I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts
There they are all standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head
Give them a twist a flick of the wrist
That’s what the showman said
I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts
Every ball you throw will make me rich
There stands my wife, the idol of me life
Singing roll or bowl a ball a penny a pitch
Roll or bowl a ball a penny a pitch
Roll or bowl a ball a penny a pitch
Roll or bowl a ball, roll or bowl a ball
Singing roll or bowl a ball a penny a pitch

From at least the end of the 18th century, fairground barkers’ patter often had the trick of using la-di-da language and pretend-formal delivery to mock and mimic the high-minded oratory of lecturers and other public speakers. This way the sideshow act could be passed off with a knowing wink as education rather than venal entertainment. The tradition passed into music hall and, as late as the 1970s, the BBC’s variety show The Good Old Days always began with Leonard Sachs addressing the audience:

And now for your entertainment, erudition and edification . . .

Another echo is found among the dwindling band of Punch and Judy men, whose stage names begin with the title of ‘Professor’. One of the best examples from America of sideshow entertainment borrowing the clothes of earnest social concern comes from Daniel P. Mannix’s autobiographical Confessions of a Sword Swallower. Here he describes how one showman promoted his walk-through exhibit on the theme of sex:

That evening Ben began his first bally [show]. Ben was his own talker, ticket collector, and bally all rolled into one. His manner of collecting a tip [crowd] was to rush frantically up on his bally platform and start taking off his pants. When a sufficient tip had gathered, Ben would stop suddenly and glare at them wildly.

“No!” he’d shout. “I can’t do it folks. I gotta control myself! It’s that hot, spicy show inside here that drives me into a frenzy. Friends, within this tent there is an educational exhibit on sex that no one oughta miss. It’s especially for men, but if your girl is the broad-minded type, take her along. You know the biggest factor in divorce today? It’s the ignorance of young men about women. I have a mission in life, friends, and my mission is to correct that lack of knowledge!”

Ben always dressed for his bally in the white operating coat of a surgeon. At this moment he struck the coat for emphasis.

“I’ve been sent out by the Medical Society of America to correct this terrible state of affairs,” he proclaimed. “Doctors and scientists all over the country are worried about it. That’s why I’ve been allowed to adopt that remarkable two-headed baby which you’ll see inside at no extra charge . . . right now she’s . . .” he paused and, bending down, shouted into the tent at some invisible person. “Hey, you get away from there! Don’t tease that baby! Don’t annoy that little child!”

The exhibit inside amounted to little more than a few caged guinea pigs.