An evening with La Soirée

This arty, expensive circus is fun, but not that far from the bad old days of light entertainment.

Variety, as we all know, is the spice of life, and it seems our appetite for it has been pretty constant since the days of the Strong Man and the Bearded Lady. London's South Bank is currently hosting a new big top incarnation in the form of a beautiful art nouveau mirror tent, home to La Soirée's shiny sideshow collection over Christmas.

This is old tricks skilfully rebranded for a metropolitan audience that perhaps thinks itself sophisticated; too sophisticated for Gerry Cottle's Circus in Chingford, say, but willing to fork out for seats and drinks at something edgy with a French name. Many of us are guilty of peppering our prose with a bit of French to add a bit of je ne sais quoi, but it seems we also take our circuses gallicised with foreign aliases like Cirque du Soleil or La Clique.

For all La Soirée is billed as "new", it feels like a reassuring trip to Variety Villas down Memory Lane. Part of the evening's fun was working out the genealogy of the acts, the bloodlines from, amongst other things, TV shows of the 1970's like the fabulously awful Seaside Special (whose tent was courtesy of Cottle himself). There's the skit where an audience member has to find the lines for a scene on the body of the comedienne, which is pure Generation Game circa 1974. Even the male striptease routines didn't offer too much more than the Chippendales have already given us. (Mercifully, perhaps.) The acrobatic dance number round the lamppost is Gene Kelly via George Sampson off Britain's Got Talent.

Indeed the links to BGT are proudly referenced when titanic black baritone "Chocolate Gateau", winsome in feathers and lycra, lip-synchs along to Susan Boyle's first audition, before belting out his own version of "I Dreamed a Dream". Of course the great spangly prize offered to BGT contestants is the staggeringly irrelevant Royal Variety Show (perhaps the attacks on Charles and Camilla were not anti-tuition fees but anti-variety). The phrase "infinite variety" begins to sound like a depressing sentence.

Nothing new under the glitter-ball, then. But that said, La Soirée does begin to work a creeping charm. Maybe the shock of the wine prices had worn off, and the wine itself had kicked in, but by the second half I was thawing nicely to the circus shtick. The lamppost dance really is astonishingly beautiful: performer Hamish McCann actually appears to walk on air as he spins round the post horizontally, to the smoky soundtrack of Nina Simone. Frodo the double-jointed clown, in his impossibly small tennis shorts, is disarmingly goofy as he punctuates his gags and contortions with a celebratory handful of confetti.

Acrobats "The English Gents" pull off a Magritte surrealism, their supercilious pinstriped, pipe-smoking vibe at delicious odds with their extraordinary balance and strength. And mention must be made of Bath Boy, the "demigod in denim", wearing throwback jeans from the Levi's 501 adverts of the 1980's. But wet. The mix of impeccable pecs and aerial stunts (and did I mention he was wet?), which had water arcing provocatively over the ringside seats, had a large portion of the audience baying.

The South Bank has talent, all right, but as with all such things, not all talents are equal. Being super skilled with hula-hoops or sword swallowing is unlikely to cut quite the same kind of visual dash as our laving Lothario. Not all the pratfalls were properly visible in the round, and some of the comedy numbers seemed weary in comparison, our appreciation of such gags apparently having a much shorter shelf life than our appreciation of the ripped male form. And this spectator would have preferred the risks and reciprocities of live music: the tape somehow renders the whole thing karaoke-flat.

I may prefer my circuses more subversive and my cabaret more seedy, but nonetheless there is something rather wonderful about artists who have devoted their lives to perfecting something so magnificently anomalous. The price tag might disqualify La Soirée from Juvenal's cheap and cheerful bread and circuses, but it's definitely one way to warm up a cold, cold December night.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue