CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Courage, Covid and a tightrope circus act

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Courage, Covid and a circus act that’s truly walking a tightrope

Life On A High Wire

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Fake or Fortune 

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Highwire walker Chris Bullzini has a philosophy, when he’s on a rope 50ft up with nothing but thin air between him and the gasping crowd below.

‘There’s only one thing to do,’ he says, ‘and that’s to take one more step forward. We’re on the tightrope and we can’t get off it.’

That has a Churchillian ring to it, though it’s difficult to imagine Winnie in tights and leotard, like one of Walt Disney’s ballet-dancing hippos. 

Highwire walker Chris Bullzini has a philosophy, when he’s on a rope 50ft up with nothing but thin air between him and the gasping crowd below: ‘Take one more step forward’

Still, the Bullzini outlook seems particularly applicable right now as the country treads a balance between safeguarding health and restoring normal life.

Covid restrictions have been particularly tough on performers like Chris, who are completely reliant on audiences for their living. 

Life On A High Wire (BBC1) began as a portrait of a circus eccentric, but as lockdown struck it became an account of how desperately hard it has been for entertainers. 

Not only circus acts but musicians, singers, actors, magicians, comedians — they’re all on the high wire.

Life On A High Wire (BBC1) began as a portrait of a circus eccentric, but as lockdown struck it became an account of how desperately hard it has been for entertainers

Viewers with sharp memories might remember Chris from a BBC4 documentary called Daredevils And Divas: A Night At the Circus. 

In it, he gave a virtuoso display of wire walking while crossing the River Wear in Sunderland. His act then included his wife Phoebe, who balanced on a chair on the tightrope.

She later suffered a devastating fall, breaking her neck. 

The couple are now separated, and though Chris clearly wanted to talk about it, he couldn’t without choking up.

We saw him with their adorable two-year-old daughter, Nephele (who shares her name with the Ancient Greek goddess of clouds), and met his genial father. 

But the more sides we saw to this intense and sometimes melancholic man, the more obvious it was that, aged 42, everything in his life was tied up with the tightrope.

When coronavirus cancelled his performances, Chris put on shows in the Somerset field where his caravan is parked – and when people were unable even to come and see those, he broadcast highwire walks via the internet

Director Dave Lowder watched Chris chatting eagerly to his dad about the funambulist stunts he was planning, and reading a book about his hero, the Great Blondin, to his little girl.

When coronavirus cancelled his performances, Chris put on shows in the Somerset field where his caravan is parked – and when people were unable even to come and see those, he broadcast highwire walks via the internet.

He clearly cannot imagine doing anything else.

And unless we encourage all sorts of artistes like Chris Bullzini to keep performing, everyone’s life will be that much poorer.

Last time he was on telly, I remarked that his moustache belonged on a Victorian lion tamer. 

But his handlebars were outclassed by a magnificent specimen on Fake Or Fortune (BBC1) – sported by the painter Edwin Landseer.

Landseer is one of those half-forgotten maestros whose name is largely unknown today though his work is familiar. 

Painter Edwin Landseer is one of those half-forgotten maestros whose name is largely unknown today though his work is familiar. Above: Landseer’s The Monarch Of The Glen

He painted The Monarch Of The Glen, that glorious Highland stag who decorates every tin of shortbread you ever opened at Christmas.

He also sculpted the lions in Trafalgar Square… so he was a Victorian lion tamer, of sorts. 

But his work is so unfashionable that when horse-loving Kathy Romeril bought a painting at auction 30 years ago, showing the aftermath of a 19th-century battle, neither she nor anyone else knew it resembled a lost Landseer.

Kathy simply liked the grey horse in the picture.

Fake of Fortune presenter Fiona Bruce (right) remarked that she owned a grey horse herself, and got quite emotional at the sight of the animal

So did presenter Fiona Bruce, who remarked that she owned a grey horse herself, and got quite emotional at the sight of the animal.

As always in this series, the detective work was enthralling. 

The trick of placing a canvas under infrared light, and then bombarding it with X-rays to reveal the layers underneath, never ceases to amaze.

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