Culture

Brian Conley: Barnum, Buttons and Cinderella's dark side

Brian Conley takes a break from panto to explore the life of outlandish and legendary circus pioneer PT Barnum

One great showman playing another… You’re starring in Barnum about the man often called the Greatest Showman on Earth. Was he?

He knew what the public wanted. Every ornate theatre in the world has Barnum to thank. Theatres were quite seedy places, he was the one that brought in the family and built them into palaces. He was the first Richard Branson, the very first entrepreneur.

He’s mostly remembered for circuses and freak shows (Barnum, not Branson).

This is how clever he was: he made his circus so huge that there were three rings – God knows how many performers. That was so people wouldn’t see it all the first time, they had to come more than once. When he toured the Feejee Mermaid, there would be a very ornate picture of a topless female with the bottom half being a fish. All the gentleman are up for paying 25c to see that. Of course when they go in it’s a mummified thing – actually half a monkey, half a fish sewn together. He tells the truth but just not enough of it and was the first one clever enough to manipulate the press.

Was that a good thing? Now everything has to be sensationalised!

I think we’ve all paid the price now. But when he brought the opera singer Jenny Lind over to America he hadn’t even heard her sing. He paid her $150,000 in advance – this is in 1850 – at a time audiences wouldn’t pay to see a singer, and Barnum made $5m out of her. The press made sure 50,000 people were waiting at the New York docks for her ship.

He was very close to buying Shakespeare’s birth home, dismantling it and shipping it to America – until Charles Dickens helped raise money to stop him.

That doesn’t surprise me. He spent a lot of time in the UK, he was very popular with Queen Victoria.

What was Queen Victoria’s favourite act?

Tom Thumb was only 25 inches tall as a full-grown adult. He was a huge international star and would act out famous people, like Napoléon.

Barnum’s crowning achievement seems to have been the Museum of America.

It put New York on the map. It was a mishmash of all sorts of things with a freak show and a variety theatre. He couldn’t get rid of visitors – he put a sign up saying ‘To the Egress’, which is Latin for exit, so people would say: “Oh let’s go and see the Egress!” They’d end up outside and have to pay a dollar to get back in. But people would always come out with a smile on their face. Then there was this awful fire, the aquarium tanks exploded and the whales ended up in the middle of the street in New York.

The phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute” is associated with him. Speaking of suckers, the role you seem to revisit most is Buttons. Why is that a character you return to most years?

It’s the best comedic role in pantomime. He doesn’t get Cinderella.

That’s not comedy, it’s tragedy!

I know but there’s a lot of pathos, a bit of light and shade. It’s in Southend this year with Lesley Joseph. Once again I’ll be doing Cinderella.

You still won’t get the girl.

No. But if you’ve done your job right, by the end of the night everyone hates Cinderella because she’s gone off with the prince. She’s just a gold digger!

Brian Conley stars in Barnum at the Birmingham Hippodrome until August 1. He also presents TV That Made Me starting on BBC One this summer

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