10 great films at the funfair

As the annual, 700-year-old Goose Fair returns to Nottingham, get your share of bright lights, white-knuckle rides and tunnels of love with our selection of 10 classic funfair movies.

Pinocchio (1940)

In keeping with a tradition of over 700 years, this week sees the welcome return of the famous Goose Fair to Nottingham. Europe’s biggest and oldest travelling fair, it takes its name from the sometime herding of several thousand geese, cross counties, from Lincolnshire to Nottingham. These days, it kindles the night with many more multiples of filament bulbs. To mark its arrival – always in early October, and sealing in the autumn – we take a look at 10 great films to feature the age-old funfair.

The funfair has long held an attraction for filmmakers, as far back as the silent era, when it presented an alluring opportunity to experiment with style and technique. How to convey its movement and music? And what a windfall of real faces packed into one closed space! Early cinema pioneers Mitchell and Kenyon regularly filmed crowds at funfairs, and would charge punters for the chance to see themselves on the big screen. Their films, restored by the BFI National Archive, have captured rare glimpses of the everyday life of Edwardians.

Hindle Wakes – a 1927 British silent, sadly not currently available in the UK – is another early example of the fairground on film. Cinematographer Jack E. Cox, fitting the camera to the front carriage of a Blackpool rollercoaster, manifests – all the more realistically – the rapture of its passengers. Was it Cox’s tilting for verisimilitude here that impressed director Alfred Hitchcock, leading to their collaboration in the late 1920s on four of the master’s nine silent films?

With tradition so tightly woven into the fabric of the funfair, it has altered remarkably little over time. Still – as proof of the flexibility of film narrative – the fair has proven a blank canvas for filmmakers over the years. Variously manipulated to evoke romance, loneliness, personal tragedy and even murderous intentions for its celluloid punters, the funfair has lent its kinetic furniture to the noir, the working-class regional drama and many other genres to date.

Coeur fidèle (1923)

Director: Jean Epstein

Coeur fidèle (1923)

French filmmaker Jean Epstein was among the first to adventure with the funfair, staging private catastrophe at a Marseille village fete in his silent melodrama about true love deferred.

Marie (Gina Manès) loves dockworker Jean (Léon Mathot), but despairs of ever joining hands with him, since cloddish suitor Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële) curried favour with her adoptive parents. As Paul marches his despondent bride-to-be to the fayre where they’re to be married, we see it first, foreboding, on a hilltop in the distance. Epstein suspends his wedded heroine high in a model aeroplane ride – Paul cleaving amorously to her turned back, tossing streamers and confetti, as they hurtle round and round.

It’s a difficult scene to watch: Marie, so terribly alone in her unhappiness, surrounded by people making merry with indifference. Epstein’s innovative texturing of the scene – by superimposition and fast cutting – gives a sense of gravity-less-ness. Everything looks as if the bottom had fallen out of the earth, swings kicking up, perpendicular, into trees. It’s a mocking, sloping, dizzying world with – for Marie – the heart gone out of it.

Pinocchio (1940)

Directors: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske

Pinocchio (1940)

Only the second animated feature to emerge from Walt Disney studios, and perhaps the most finger-wagging of all Disney’s lessons to children, Pinocchio disturbs still to this day with the self-contained parable of Pleasure Island.

At the halfway point of Pinocchio’s adventure to find his moral compass – with the aid of his conscience, a coat-tailed cricket named Jiminy – the puppet who wants to be a real boy comes into contact with racketeering bad-men, Honest John and Gideon. They coax Pinocchio into a cartload of boys to be taken to Pleasure Island, where they’re encouraged to let loose on assorted amusements, such as The Rough House: “Come in and pick a fight, boys!”

The boys wreak havoc: gambling, and glutting on ice creams and pie. Pinocchio inhales hard on a cigar till he’s red-pink-yellow in the face, canted over the pool table baize, and his new friend, the miscreant Lampwick, lights a match off the Mona Lisa.

It’s Jiminy that notices the boys transforming – first the ears – into donkeys, and the coachman, behind the enterprise, steering them aboard a boat to be sold into slavery at the salt mines. With horsewhip in hand, he hammers home the message (real boys and wooden, beware!) – “Give a bad boy enough rope and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.”

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Director: Orson Welles

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Orson Welles’s noir masterpiece about a naive sailor primed to play the fall guy in a convoluted murder plot, culminates in a fatal shootout scene in a San Francisco theme park. Framed for double homicide, Michael O’Hara (Welles) makes his escape from a courtroom hearing, only to be deposited inside a funhouse, closed for the end of the season.

It’s another non-sequitur decampment for Michael, who’s in a muddle over the true identity of the murderer: could it be his employer and now lawyer Mr Bannister (Everett Sloane), or Bannister’s ravishing wife (Rita Hayworth), with whom Michael is in love?

With wall scenery reminiscent of a Jean Cocteau painting, and a winding, white slide suspended in blackness, Welles’s expressionist limbo-funhouse is a potent metaphor for Michael’s disorientation. The crippled Mr Bannister cuts like a corvid across the hall of mirrors and into a taut Mexican standoff with his wife, Elsa, whose devastating beauty is reflected back, manifold in the ring.

Brighton Rock (1947)

Director: John Boulting

Brighton Rock (1947)

1947 saw the release of another iconic noir, set in the quintessentially British surrounds of the seaside town of Brighton, where the funfair becomes a death trap for one unlucky individual.

When reporter Fred (Alan Wheatley) runs an article that precipitates the murder of a gang leader, the next-in-line – a sociopath named Pinkie (Richard Attenborough) – hunts him down of his own accord. A terrified Fred attempts to hide among the holidaymakers on the famous Palace Pier – like an exaggerated plank, pushed out over the English Channel. The clack-clack of levers and gears and the hollering of the showmen build in volume as Pinkie closes in on his prey, cornering him in the cart of a ghost train, called ‘Dante’s Inferno’. Inside, they struggle – linked arm in arm like lovers – as painted grotesques loom out of the darkness. Fred sends out a cry like an elephant’s trumpet, and is dispatched between the tracks into a somersaulting sea.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Director: Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

A less subversive but equally inventive use of the funfair on film occurs in Max Ophüls’ tender tragedy about a woman’s lifelong devotion to a man who can’t remember their ever meeting.

An evening spent together at a fairground in Vienna is, for Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and Stefan (Louis Jourdan), the happy capstone of their affair, which lasts just one night. Sitting opposite each other in a ride modelled like a rail carriage, the couple scarcely stop their chatter to look out of the ‘window’ at the rolling scenery of Venice, then Switzerland… soon revealed to be a pedal-powered slideshow, motored by a man in a heavy coat, drinking his evening’s coffee. Stefan is enrapt by Lisa’s remembrance of growing up with her father, who would tell stories of the family’s fictional adventures abroad, using brochures borrowed from a travel bureau.

A fake train it may be, but it really makes no difference to these lovers who, regardless, feel the same upholstered, cordial warmth; the same sense of stopped time that only a train can arrange. Here is the funfair at its romantic sublime.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Director: Karel Reisz

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Karel Reisz’s kitchen-sink drama, adapted from the novel by Alan Sillitoe, is set and shot mostly on location in Nottingham – where, this week, the famous Goose Fair settles its feathers to roost.

“Why don’t you ever take me where it’s lively and there’s plenty of people?” asks Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) of her date, Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney). In answer, he takes her to the Goose Fair, where he bumps into Brenda (Rachel Roberts), who is carrying Arthur’s baby and is the wife of co-worker Jack (Bryan Pringle) from the factory. They sneak behind a sideshow tarpaulin to talk, but they’re spotted by Jack’s two soldier associates. Taking cover in a whirligig, the pair becomes trapped in the compact car – the squaddies watching at the sidelines, making mockery of lovers’ intimacy at the fair. The lyrics of a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll number, playing over the Tannoy, (“I’m gonna grab it, I’ll have it, why not, why not, why not?”) speak for the silent Arthur, full to bursting with adrenalin and a sense of righteousness.

A Taste of Honey (1961)

Director: Tony Richardson

A Taste of Honey (1961)

The funfair occupies that transitional space between childhood and adolescence. Most of us first visit the fair in the company of our parents – but with the hope of one day returning independent, off the reins, free! It’s one of those romantic scenarios we imagine will populate our projected adulthood.

Jo (Rita Tushingham), in A Taste of Honey, lodges in this no-man’s-land (not a child; not yet independent) and is pushed out by her mother and her mother’s new ‘friend’ on a trip to Blackpool Pier. The amusements – senseless and grisly – seem crafted for someone else’s enjoyment and siding with her elders too, who look like funhouse gargoyles, laughing and carrying on. A freak-show of ‘D’étranges demoiselles’ makes exhibit of ‘degenerate’ women: “And here’s the ugly, blackened shell of the Parisian Georgette.” Later, Jo will discover she’s pregnant, and must raise the baby alone – so is she looking at her future?

Newly in possession of her own place, Jo revisits the fair with new friend, Geoff (Murray Melvin). Shot in the style of a typical first date, the fair yields dodgems, a shooting range, a goldfish. The cacophony of crowd-noise and the sensual, female pop vocal that over-scored her first experience is exchanged for a unified, playful melody that makes a bubble their mutual enjoyment. A conventional couple, they aren’t; the beginning of a love affair, it is.

Paper Moon (1973)

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Paper Moon (1973) poster

The ‘paper moon’ of the title is a large, crescent-shaped cut-out. For a few cents, you can have your picture taken in it, sitting as on a swing. This photo-kiosk is one of many attractions to come to town with the travelling dustbowl carnival in Peter Bogdanovich’s depression-era classic. Another is the ‘exotic’ dancing tent, featuring Miss Trixie Delight.

Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) is a cigarette smoking, wisecracking nine-year old, tough before her time. Set free at the fair with money in her pocket (after scamming the cotton candy man), she’s given carte blanche to do whatever she wishes, unsupervised. What she wants most of all is a photograph of her and her pa, Moze (Ryan O’Neal, Tatum’s real-life father) side-by-side on the scooping moon – some souvenir remembrance of an outing together for her cigar box. But Moze won’t be drawn away from the “six unusual little ladies, unveiling the secrets of passion”. “Why don’t you go play bingo or something?” he tells her.

Addie comes away from the fair with her photo – just her: a solo, stranded figure. Moze comes away with Miss Delight!

Rollercoaster (1977)

Director: James Goldstone

Rollercoaster (1977)

This unconventional disaster movie could make even the most inveterate thrill seeker think twice before strapping in. James Goldstone’s film casts George Segal as Calder, a ride inspector on the tail of a serial bomber, who’s rigging rollercoasters with explosives. We first meet our male antagonist during the opening credits, eyeing his target – The Rocket – through binoculars. This first explosion, flattening several unsuspecting riders, comes after a nail-biting build-up. In a state of relaxation familiar to the psychopath, the villain nibbles his cotton candy and tries his hand at the rifle range, fingering the red button on his radio-controlled detonator – until it’s not so much a question of when as who among the happy, high-coloured public will meet their ugly end.

Though a product of its time – a slice of 70s America – Rollercoaster is unique in using and abusing our love of the loop-de-loop, turning our death-wish gratifications to face us and spinning the thrill-ride into thriller. 

Big (1988)

Director: Penny Marshall

Big (1988)

A much-loved romantic comedy – with added supernatural – Big takes the secret wish of every adolescent and runs with it.

Josh (David Moscow), at 12, is instinctively embarrassed to be seen with his parents at the carnival. Shaking them off to partner up with his high-school crush on ‘Super Loops’, he’s humiliated afresh for being a foot too short to ride. Wandering off, he squanders 25 cents on an arcade game called ‘Zoltar Speaks’ (after the red-eyed, gulping sultan inside). Prompted to make a wish, he wishes to be big, and wakes the following morning in the body of a full-grown man (played by Tom Hanks).

Josh gets a taste of the funfair-romance with his grown-up girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). It’s everything he imagined it would be – and, absorbed, he walks right past the Sultan. But he misses his world, his mom, his lingo – because being young is “all the fun” – as well the torsion and the mysticism of the fair.

Deserving of its special place in the movie-rental canon, Big is great for many things, but chiefly for capturing exactly what it’s like on the inside of growing up.

BFI Player logo

Stream new, cult and classic films

A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try 14 days free