The Smallest Show on Earth

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The Smallest Show on Earth
Smallest show on earth.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Basil Dearden
Written by
Produced by
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter
Music by William Alwyn
Distributed by
  • British Lion Films (UK)
  • Times Film Corporation (US)
Release dates
  • 9 April 1957 (1957-04-09)(London, UK)
Running time
80 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£144,834 [2]

The Smallest Show on Earth (US: Big Time Operators) is a 1957 British comedy film, directed by Basil Dearden, and starring Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford. [3] The screenplay was written by William Rose and John Eldridge from an original story by William Rose.



Matt and Jean are a young couple with a longing, but not the means, to visit exotic places such as Samarkand. Matt inherits a cinema from a great uncle. When they arrive in the town where he lived, they mistakenly assume that it is the large and modern "Grand" cinema. They are disillusioned to learn from Robin, the solicitor dealing with the estate, that the cinema involved is the old decrepit "Bijou Kinema" (nicknamed "the Fleapit"), which is sandwiched between two railway bridges. Along with the cinema come three long-time employees: Mrs. Fazackalee, the cashier and bookkeeper; Mr. Quill, the projectionist; and Old Tom, the commissionaire, doorkeeper and usher.

Robin informs them that the Grand's owner, Mr. Hardcastle, had offered to buy the Bijou from Matt's great uncle for £5000 in order to construct a car park for his nearby cinema. However, when they meet, Hardcastle says that offer had been made many years ago, before television became so popular, and now only offers them £500.

Instead, on Robin's advice, they pretend they plan to reopen the Bijou in order to persuade Hardcastle to raise his offer. At first, they seem to be succeeding, but then Old Tom inadvertently lets slip their overheard plan and the news gets back to Hardcastle. They decide to carry on with their bluff and go through with the opening. After a few mishaps, the business flourishes, especially after Matt employs the curvaceous Marlene Hogg to sell ice creams and other treats at the interval. To increase sales, the heat in the cinema is turned up during the showing of a film where parched characters crawl across a desert.

Hardcastle counters by slipping a bottle of whisky into the next shipment of film reels for Quill, who has a drinking problem. He eventually succumbs to the temptation, and when the film breaks during a showing, Matt is unable to work the antiquated projectors properly and has to refund the customers' money. Matt and Jean are ready to give up, but Old Tom is eavesdropping again, and hears Matt say that he had often wished the Grand would burn to the ground. Old Tom is then seen carrying a can of fuel oil out of the door, and Matt wakes up the next morning to find that the Grand has indeed burned down. In order to stay in business while the cinema is being rebuilt, Hardcastle and his business partners agree to pay £10,000 for the Bijou, with the condition that he must keep the three staff on as employees.

As Matt and Jean are leaving on the train, Old Tom tells Matt that "It were the only way, weren't it?" Alarmed, Matt decides to write him a letter asking him to clarify his remark, but instead they send him a postcard...from Samarkand.



The Bijou Kinema was not a real building; both the exterior and interior were sets. The exterior facade was constructed between two railway bridges in Christchurch Avenue, London NW6, next to Kilburn tube station. A replica at Shepperton Studios was used for close-up shots and interior scenes. The Gaumont Palace, Hammersmith in London (subsequently called the Hammersmith Odeon, and now the Hammersmith Apollo) was used for the exterior shots of the rival Grand Cinema with interiors at the Odeon in Richmond. Back projection shots of Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire were used for the final scenes in the railway carriage. [4]

The silent film shown in the film is Comin' Thro the Rye (1923), starring Alma Taylor, who is listed by AllMovie as one of the uncredited viewers in the audience. [5]

Critical reception

In contemporary reviews The New York Times called it "a little package of nonsense [...] populated by wonderfully wacky characters [...] Margaret Rutherford's cashier, Peter Sellers' projectionist and Bernard Miles' doorman are gems". [6]

Leonard Maltin called it a "Charming, often hilarious comedy". [7]

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "The whole weight of this gay idea (which owes something, perhaps, to Genevieve [1953]) is carried by Bernard Miles, Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers. All the fun is in them – an impossible, loony, genial, larger-than-life music-hall trio [...] and the best scenes are exclusively theirs. Peter Sellers' little dance of joy and his drunken subsidence in the projection booth, Margaret Rutherford's mastery of the Bijou's accounting system and her devotion to the late proprietor, Bernard Miles's startling displays of idiot shyness, are all in an excellent and robust tradition; and it is remarkable that such different and eccentric performers should have formed a team so homogeneous. They each have the gift of making absurdity and pathos momentarily indistinguishable. [...]. Outside these three, the film is a rather poor example of conventional British screen comedy, with stock characters and situations, and "straight" leads who don't quite know whether to play it straight or comic; and are as much out of their depth either way." [8]

The Radio Times wrote, "In praise of fleapits everywhere, this charming comedy will bring back happy memories for anyone who pines for the days when going to the pictures meant something more than being conveyor-belted in and out of a soulless multiplex [...] The cast alone makes the movie a must-see, and the sequence in which projectionist Peter Sellers, pianist Margaret Rutherford and doorman Bernard Miles relive the glories of the silent era is adorable." [9]

Leslie Halliwell reviewed the film as: "Amiable caricature comedy with plenty of obvious jokes and a sentimental attachment to old cinemas but absolutely no conviction, little plot, and a very muddied sense of the line between farce and reality." [10]

In British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928–1959 David Quinlan rated the film as “good” and wrote: "Too-short comedy gets lots of laughs from its character stars.'' [11]

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  1. Brooke, Michael (2003–14). "Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
  2. Chapman, J. (2022). The Money Behind the Screen: A History of British Film Finance, 1945-1985. Edinburgh University Press p 359
  3. "The Smallest Show on Earth". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 5 January 2024.
  4. "Reel Streets". Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  5. "The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) – Basil Dearden – Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related". AllMovie. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  6. "Movie Review - - 'Smallest Show on Earth' Arrives -". The New York Times . Archived from the original on 7 December 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  7. "Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957) – Overview –". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  8. "The Smallest Show on Earth". Monthly Film Bulletin . 24 (276): 56. 1 January 1957 via ProQuest.
  9. "The Smallest Show on Earth – review – cast and crew, movie star rating and where to watch film on TV and online". Radio Times. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  10. Halliwell, Leslie (1989). Halliwell's Film Guide (7th ed.). London: Paladin. p. 931. ISBN   0-586-08894-6.
  11. Quinlan, David (1984). British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928–1959. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd. p. 375. ISBN   0-7134-1874-5.