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Behind the Big Top (1949)


A documentary about the travelling Wirth’s Circus and Zoo that toured to Melbourne in 1949.

The circus train arrives in town and workers (and elephants) help set up the big top for the main show. Inside the sawdust arena of the main tent, children and families watch as lion tamers, trapeze artists, clowns, performing elephants and balancing acts perform spectacular tricks. At the end of the visit, the troupe packs up and leaves for the next town on the circus train.

The documentary uses a voice-over commentary and an instrumental soundtrack.

Curator’s notes

A story of excitement, showmanship and hard work, this documentary strongly conveys the experience of the travelling performers of Wirth’s Circus and Zoo. Behind the Big Top uses a commentary style similar to newsreels of the time and is an entertaining look at one of Australia’s most famous circus troupes. The end of this film hints at the repetitive and itinerant lifestyle of circus performers of the time – constantly on the move, unpacking and re-packing, performing for town after town – so that while the film portrays the adrenalin and spectacle of performance, it also shows that it is very much a job.

For another insight into Wirth’s Circus, see The Circus Comes to Town made during the troupe’s earlier tour to Brisbane.