Published: Bunty PSL #199
Artist: Carlos Laffond
Reprints: None known
There was a request for this one, so here we go.
Orphan Carole Patton has been brought up by her grandfather in Antello’s Circus, where he works as a clown. Now he’s getting too old for it and needs to retire, but Antello won’t hear of it because grandfather’s the star attraction of the circus. As the story develops, we learn Antello doesn’t like anything that costs him money, which can be at the cost of the safety and wellbeing of his performers.
Grandfather is saving hard to buy a cottage where he and Carole can retire together. Unfortunately, he keeps the money in a cashbox in the caravan because he does not trust banks, despite Carole’s warnings that it’s not safe to keep his money like that.
One day, while setting up the circus in a new location, Carole discovers they’ve picked up a stowaway, Tim Newall, who says he’s run away to join the circus. One gets the impression he’s hiding something, but Carole agrees to help him, and grandfather takes him on as a trainee clown. They are surprised when Antello, who can’t afford to pay Tim a wage and still won’t let grandfather go, agrees to this. Tim does well in performance, but Antello isn’t full of praises; his mind is set on keeping grandpa in the circus and he still isn’t friendly to Tim.
Antello overhears Carole talking to Tim about the money stashed in Grandad’s caravan for the retirement cottage and tells Carole to watch it, as he doesn’t trust Tim. Soon after, grandad’s cashbox is stolen from his caravan. Well, that was just waiting to happen, wasn’t it? Antello puts the blame on Tim, and Tim becomes an outcast at the circus. Carole refuses to believe Tim took the money, but she did notice he looked a bit strange when Antello suggested calling the police.
Then, one night Satan the lion gets loose and Tim bravely tackles him with nothing but a balloon (as shown on the cover). Satan is so taken by surprise that he is stunned, giving the circus hands their chance to recapture him. Following this, Tim is the hero of the circus and the circus folk forget their doubts about him.
Tim and Carole notice how worn and dangerous the trapeze equipment is getting, but Antello is apathetic about replacing it because it costs money. The trapeze artists know about the situation, but they are aging and therefore afraid they won’t find other work if they leave the circus. Tim successfully stands up to Antello over the dangerous equipment, but is warned this has put him on Antello’s bad side, which can make him really nasty.
In town, Carole discovers two men shadowing Tim and he tries to avoid them. Back at the circus, she tackles Tim over whether he’s in some kind of trouble and is scared someone will recognise him, but he doesn’t front up over anything. They don’t realise they have discussed this with Antello in earshot.
The two men arrive at the circus. Tim again tries to dodge them, and later Carole sees them talking with Antello. She overhears them trying to get Antello to help them, but Antello has qualms about it. There is also something about them getting in touch “with the old man”, but they get alerted to Carole eavesdropping, so she has to run. She heads after Tim about this, but he disappears.
Next day, Tim is still missing and one of the men shows up at Antello’s again. Carole overhears him telling the jittery Antello everything’s going to plan, they’ve been in touch with the old man – and there’s something about a ransom. She realises the men must have kidnapped Tim for ransom, but doesn’t understand the point as Tim does not seem to have any money or family.
Carole hides in the man’s car, which he drives to a cottage. The man tells his accomplice that Antello was scared and he had to spend a lot of time talking him around. Carole finds Tim tied up in the cottage, releases him, and they run for it. As they do so, Tim explains that his father is the reclusive millionaire J. B. Willows. After two attempts were made to kidnap Tim for ransom he decided to run away. The two men, Leigh and Martin, were his bodyguards, but they turned kidnapper after Dad threatened to sack them, and they recruited Antello to help them.
Leigh and Martin are catching up in the car, but Carole and Tim fall into an old pit shaft, which helps them to elude their pursuers. After climbing out they grab the kidnappers’ car and find their way back to the circus, calling the police along the way. Tim’s dad, who had hired a private detective to find him and traced him to the circus, arrives as well. When the police search Antello’s caravan they find grandad’s cashbox; it was another of Antello’s ploys to keep grandad at the circus. Antello and the kidnappers are soon dealt with. Dad owns a place in Devon with several empty cottages and tells Carole and grandad they can have any one they like as a reward. The cottage will be close to where Tim goes to school, so they can continue their friendship.
In circus serials, it was a common setup to have a newcomer at the circus with a mystery about them that shapes the entire story, including whether the mystery makes them good news or bad. As we have an antagonist circus boss, we know it has to be good, but the villainy of the circus boss is going to help shape the mystery, including why Tim has run away. Was it just to join the circus, or is there more to it? We sense it is the latter and Tim is hiding something. Whatever he is hiding, girls love mystery, so the mystery is an instant hook for this story. So too are the plot threads of grandad’s cashbox (we know something bad is going to happen there) and what the mean circus boss is going to do about the newcomer he perceives as a threat to keeping his star attraction clown where he is. What is he going to do to get rid of Tim?
Having a boy as one of the main protagonists arouses the readers’ interest even further. We can just imagine what would develop between Carole and Tim if they were closer in age (and height), but these were still the days before Bunty allowed boyfriends in her stories.
There’s a lot in this story to keep things engaging: a strong plot with plenty of tantalising threads, circus theme, mystery, a mean circus boss who doesn’t consider his performers more, sinister men, an unsolved theft and kidnapping. Antello gets a strong moment to heighten the story when the kidnappers try to get him to help them. He is clearly tempted because he doesn’t like Tim, but is he evil enough to get involved in real crime, will he prove the weak link in the chain because he’s scared, or will he actually find his better half and do something to help the situation? As it is, he made himself complicit enough in the kidnapping plot to get arrested for it. Plus it unmasked him as the one who stole grandad’s cashbox.
One of the biggest selling points of the story is the character arc of Tim, which is perhaps developed even more than Carole. Tim really earns his place as a protagonist. He almost became a recluse like his father after the first two kidnap attempts, but has instead turned to using his wits more. His best moment has to be tackling the lion with nothing but a balloon. This astounding scene puts the rest of the drama in the shade and grabs the cover to boot.
As Tim settles into the circus he shows he really has what it takes to be a clown and a performer. So it is a shame Tim doesn’t stay at the circus at the end of the story. He’s back to school, but we never know how his circus experience will shape his choice of career once he leaves school.
Carole is pretty much what we expect her to be: loyal, courageous, does her best to help, acts fast when needed, and is the one to save the day. Some things could have been explained a bit more about Carole’s circus life and how she feels about the retirement. Carole begs grandad to train her up as a clown, but is it to take his place and give him a break, or is it because she wants a circus career as well? Grandad says he wants her to have a normal life and education as her mother wanted, and she seems okay with retiring from the circus with grandad to a cottage. After all, Carole doesn’t seem to do any performing and only came to the circus after she was orphaned. As it is, Carole regards everything as a happy ending and is so glad she can still see Tim, sparking readers’ imaginations as to what might ensue from that.