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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Tom Norman on the BBC

Tom NormanImage via WikipediaTom Norman was a pioneer of the fairground industry in Victorian Britain. He was famed for his presentation of the freak-show. Norman was known for the way he would blend the accepted "science" of the era with outright fantasy to provide a back-story for the various "freaks" that were exhibited on his fairs.

The most famous of Norman's employees was Joseph Merrick "The Elephant Man". Contrary to popular belief, largely put across in David Lynch's* fictionalized account of Merrick's life, there is scant evidence that disabled people were especially abused or used like slaves. Often the opportunity to earn by exploiting one's condition - and Merrick was on 50/50 box office split with Norman - was a better alternative to begging, hawking goods or a life in the workhouse. Details of this and the bad representation that sideshows, circuses and their closely related forms of entertainment endure to this day were presented in my article "Circus and Other 'Low' Arts: A Defence"

I am delighted to say that the BBC have recently aired an episode of "Time Shifts" that focuses on the history of the British fair. This includes a rational and historically accurate account of Tom Norman and the Victorian freak-show. This helps put the whole concept of something that the middle classes found abhorrent and we, without any sense of irony, often deride as being an outdated form of amusement enjoyed by people of a bygone era.**

Click here for a link to the BBC iPlayer showing of the programme.

Of course, my main interest in Tom Norman comes from his tenuous connection to two real elephants, Salt and Sauce, the subject of my 2008 book "The Legend of Salt and Sauce: Britain's Most Famous Elephants".  We have a source that claims Norman employed these two amazing pachyderms during the 1920s.

*Lynch is not known for his grasp on reality. Rightfully hailed as a talented and original film-maker, if verging on the very pretentious at times, Lynch was one of the supporters of the appalling conspiracy theory internet documentary "Loose Change". It would appear that as profound and sophisticated as Lynch is often considered, he is just as easy to be persuaded by populist sensationalism as the next person.

**I say ironic (again see my article), as we live in an age of "Big Brother", "Jackass", "Britain's Got Talent" and "Body Shock". How are these programmes not "exploitative" in the same sense as a Victorian freak-show was?

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