Bertram Mills Circus II: Clowning Around, Balancing on Elephants, Riding a Pony, and Taming the American Indian Caricatures

Part two of a three part series; for part one click here, three click here.

The very first VistaScreen set – or, more accurately, partial set – that entered my collection consisted of the first 9 views pictured here from Series 46 “The Circus”, in an unmarked envelope. Lacking the (relatively useless) VistaScreen viewer, I free-viewed these initially, and thought they looked interesting – but they are quite small, and it’s hard to see a great deal of detail in them lacking a scope or digital enlargement. I stuck them on a shelf somewhere, and forgot about them. Just another weirdo item that came in a boxed lot. Some months later, I came across them while cleaning, and realized that I could view them with one of my numerous Raumbild viewers. I was instantly hooked.

Quickly researching these views, I found out a lot: firstly, that my set was incomplete. VistaScreen had been, at one point of time, a relatively major player in Anglocentric stereography. Their views, sold in sets of 10 (and never 9), were often of subjects that seem rather ridiculous to most non-British folk (and plenty of British folk as well) – “model villages”, which were to-scale replicas of… real British villages. In 3D photographs. Why visit Hastings, when one can view a stereoview of a small scale replica of Hastings? There were also plenty of tours of actual villages, if one preferred those to the replicas, as well as manor houses, cathedrals, and so on. All very quaint and quirky. (I didn’t yet know about principal photographer Stanley Long’s propensity for photographing artistic nudes.)

I threw down for a four sets of cards (Locomotives, London Zoo, Cheddar Caves, and one of the not-so-terribly-memorable village tours) and a viewer. A week and 20 quid later (thanks Royal Mail International) I had a parcel, and yet another format to begin collecting. But the whole time, in the back of my mind, I was thinking: I must complete that circus set. So I set up an eBay “notification” to get emails whenever “Vistascreen Circus” popped up. I liked this partial series so much that I featured “Jean and her Baby Elephants” as an example of an anaglyph in this blog’s introductory post. I just love anything circus; I always have.

The first few hits were false leads; one was another partial set, containing 5 of the 9 cards I already had; another one was a zoo set with “circus” misleadingly placed in the title. But eventually I came across a listing for “C.62 Bertram Mills Circus”, which showed ten completely different cards than those contained in my partial set! Excitedly, I “bought it now”, for a relatively high price (in terms of VistaScreen) – £5.99 + shipping. I could have bought three or four slices at the local pizzaria for that price! But it was circus stereography, and in fact the same troupe – and it was 10 new views.

Series 46 came up several more times, always as a partial set of either cards I already had or with the cards not pictured, before a complete set appeared. And this time, while the cards pictured were in a stack, the one on top was brand new to me – “Coco the Clown”, with “Series 46 – Circus” clear as day on it. It was the same clown that appeared in the first completed set I had obtained, famous European auteur “Coco” (Nikolai Polakovs). It was my missing card! Even if the set had not been complete, I would have plunked down just to get this final card – because now I’d have a complete set. Or so I thought.

After biting my nails for a week, I won the auction after nobody bid against my £3.99 – VistaScreen sets are extremely desirable to me, and apparently not to the public at large. I waited a week, and sure enough, I had a new packet of cards. I opened them up – and saw another unfamiliar image. And then another. And another. I doublechecked. The box said “Series 46 – The Circus”, as did the inner liner, as did the ten cards themselves. And not a one in common with the set I had, nor the partial versions I’d seen elsewhere. I had a complete set of Series 46, but I’d discovered that there were two Series 46 sets floating around!

Any given VistaScreen set is an unlikely find at any given time, although VistaScreen sets are generally readily available – there are hundreds of them. It would be another year before I’d finally get my hands on the final cards of the more common Series 46 that ironically made up my first VistaScreen acquisition. That set is the one being portrayed today. Since there is so little information about VistaScreen online – I’m working on the very first comprehensive title list whenever I come across something new, even if I don’t own it – I don’t know why the VistaScreen people decided to replace an entire series. I strongly suspect that this set is the earlier version; it is far more common, and was probably replaced by the new series shortly before VistaScreen sold out to Weetabix and stopped producing these cards at all, explaining the scarcity of the set which will be portrayed in the next installment of this series.

Before we (at long last) get to the stereoviews, I want to make a conjecture about the two possible reasons I can see for replacing this set – which I have termed the “Day” set – with the later “Night” set. The first reason is rather simple; this series shows the circus performers preparing, practicing their acts in a field during daytime, and basically just hanging out. It’s a behind-the-scenes series with only a pair of “under the Big Top” action views. Perhaps audiences were less enthusiastic about this than by content of the later series, taken almost entirely in the dark of the tent, with the performers in action. I actually prefer the behind-the-scenes concept, since one can’t simply wander the midway before the circus opens for the day and see performers getting ready for the show. Either way, one might note that Series C.62 contains a little of both – a notion which will be explored in the next essay.

The second reason casts a bit of a minor shadow over the circus itself. On the “Davy Crockett” card, we see a triumphant “Davy Crockett” standing before a handful of ridiculous American Indian stereotypes, a group of absurd caricatures that also appears in the following card, “The Mohawks”. Making a human pyramid, the “Mohawks” surround a giddily kneeling “Davy Crockett”, clearly mugging for the camera. Perhaps the British families ordering these sets were aware of the fact the their nation was just a little bit responsible for the exploitation of the Native Americans, and perhaps that made them just uncomfortable enough to recommend a change. Although the Davy Crockett routine was played out in the “Night” series, the image is far less culturally insensitive. But was this even an issue in the late 1950s/early 1960s? I’m not sure; I wouldn’t be born for another two decades!

Whatever the reason(s), two VistaScreen Series 46 “The Circus” sets were produced by VistaScreen, which I have arbitrarily decided to term the “Day Series” and the “Night Series”. This makes sense too, given Stanley Long’s proclivity to spend no more than a single day on any given series, taking as many photos as he could – he probably culled the first 10 that he liked, slapped the more common “Day Series” together, quickly assembling the “Night Series” when the Spring Brothers decided to swap out the images for whichever reason. And now, let’s take a look at the behind-the-scenes (if obviously posed) “Day Series” – one variant of Series 46, featuring the Bertram Mills Circus:

Quite a fun little peek behind the scenes, no? And far and away, this is still one of my favorite VistaScreen sets. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, especially with that last puzzle piece arriving in the mail last week. Join me tomorrow, and we’ll pay the price of admission to enter the Big Top – and see what awaits us under the canvas tents and spotlights of the Bertram Mills Circus in the 1950s for the “Night Series”! Meanwhile, pop on your red/cyan specs and point your peepers at the…


2 Replies to “Bertram Mills Circus II: Clowning Around, Balancing on Elephants, Riding a Pony, and Taming the American Indian Caricatures”

Leave a Reply