Archives for posts with tag: television

freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.


According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.


On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.


Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.




Last night saw the return of Lilyhammer [sic] to Netflix. I thought I would use this opportunity to write about some recent Scandinavian comedy series’, as we’re more familiar with dramas like The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen.

Lilyhammer is an original Netflix series that made its way on to BBC4 at the end of 2012. Season one saw New Yorker Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt) turn up in Lillehammer under witness protection, after ratting out his mob buddies in court. He chose Lillehammer for its obscurity and because he had fond memories of the place after watching the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. When he arrives in Norway, he is given the name Giovanni, which the locals quickly change to Johnny. He manipulates the system to get a licence for a bar and quickly makes friends with the natives, including single mother, Sigrid. However, the local police, being unaware of his past, instantly distrust him. He can’t stay out of trouble for long, and is soon raising suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic.

In episode one of season two, a Londoner named Duncan (Paul Kaye) arrives to hawk his Ferrari. Johnny’s hapless crew accidentally trash said Ferrari and Johnny ends up with a gun in his face. It also sees the baptism of Johnny’s illegitimate twins, whose names he attempts to change due to their meanings in English. The first episode was eventful but sort of fell flat if I’m being completely honest.

What I like most about Lilyhammer is Lillehammer. The location shots of Norway are beautiful, full of crisp, snow-filled landscapes and towering trees. It’s also nice to be immersed in another culture and language for an hour. However, due to Frank/Johnny’s nationality, there is a mix of both English and Norwegian.

NB This season, Van Zandt has added the co-writing credits to his name, as well as executive producer.

Night Shift/Day Shift/Prison Shift

Night Shift is a comedy series set in Reykjavik, which was first shown in 2007. It aired in the UK in 2011 on BBC4, after an influx of Scandinavian drama series. Its setting is a petrol station, where three employees – who could not be more different from one another – work the night shift. Pedantic tyrant Georg is the eldest and the manager. He is served by Daniel, a med school dropout, and Olafur, an endearing but utterly clueless no-hoper.

It’s a slow-paced comedy, which split opinions between friends of mine. As a night owl, I was drawn in to their nocturnal world and found it pretty amusing. It spawned two follow-up series, Day Shift and Prison Shift, as well as a film that was released in its native Iceland.

NB Jon Gnarr, who played Georg, is now the mayor of Reykjavik.



The easiest way to describe the main character in Rita is to look to another comedy-drama with a strong female lead. Picture Jackie Peyton in Nurse Jackie (minus the drugs), move her to Denmark and give her a job as a teacher. Her annoying colleague, Zoe, has strong parallels with student teacher, Hjordis (she even looks like her).

Rita is a single mother of three in her early forties. She navigates life’s trials – an estranged mother, an affair with the school principal, and supporting her brood’s problems – in her own special way. Straight-talking, quick-witted and dysfunctional in her relationships, she’s not afraid to break the rules. She’s also a damn good teacher.

Season one of Rita is available to watch on Netflix.

NB Anna Gunn (Skyler from Breaking Bad) is to play Rita in the US version.

The Twilight Zone (original 1959-1964) aka Through the Scary Door

‘…you’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance…’

Ominous, foreboding and instantly recognisable, the original Twilight Zone theme by prevalent Hitchcock composer, Bernard Herrmann, combined with creator Rod Serling’s dulcet tones, sets up the series perfectly. The fact that people still mimic the tune when something unexplained happens in everyday life highlights the impact of this TV opener. Not only is the intro for The Twilight Zone brilliant, the show itself is very well-written and imaginative, encompassing sci-fi, horror and suspense. When I first watched it I couldn’t believe how many episodes of The Simpsons were directly influenced by it.

Charlie Chalk (1987)

‘…he can get you out of trouble, he can teach you how to juggle…’

Psychedelic punk rock intro for a children’s cult classic. Although the intro is in cartoon format, the show itself is stop-motion animation. If you haven’t heard of it, Charlie Chalk is about a clown who ends up marooned on an island with a motley crew of characters, including a clumsy pink elephant and a frustrated duck. Wonderfully wacky – a bit like Charlie himself. Music and lyrics by Mike Redway.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

‘…born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes…’

A fairly long intro with a slow build. Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) makes his way from New York City to his home in Elizabeth, NJ, by way of the New Jersey Turnpike. You get a real feel for the location in the intro, which is mirrored in the show. The song is ‘Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One)’ by British outfit Alabama 3, and the lyrics fit very well, for example, Soprano being ‘chosen’ to take over ‘the family’ and his struggle with the blues (depression that is, but also the feds!). The camera also pans to a graveyard, which stresses the fact that danger is around every corner when you’re in the mafia.

Hung (2009-2011)

‘Times get tough, oh they get tougher’

Thomas Jane strips and struts his way through a downtrodden Detroit to the (excellent) tune of ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ by The Black Keys. The shedding of clothes highlights main character Ray (Jane) stripping (literally and metaphorically) away a part of himself in order to provide for his family – and to comfort lonely women – which makes the song very apt. The show was a bit hit and miss at times but had some genuinely funny moments, such as Ray singing Happy Birthday to one of his clients in an, shall we say, alternative style.

The Simpsons (1989 – present)

Possibly Danny Elfman’s most famous theme; it fits the humour and vibe of The Simpsons perfectly. You get to know something about each of the characters, such as Lisa’s love of the sax, without the need for lyrics. Everyone enjoys looking out for Bart’s chalkboard message, as well as the family’s antics on the couch at the end of the opening credits. A classic.