LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Sunday, 16 October 2016

New clown and circus show coming soon - and you can help!

Smartii Pants and Bobbo

There are some shows you know will be good as soon as you hear a one-line outline. Such a show is the new venture by the newly-formed double-act of Bobbo Roberts and Ian 'Smartii Pants' Williams, which features "proper clowning in a panto-like theatre show." Oh yes, and it's is set behind the scenes of a traditional circus. What could be better?

It sounds like audience participation will feature strongly, and if you're a fan of clowns and clowning, you can get involved from the very beginning by supporting the production through its Go Fund Me Page. Alternatively, if you're a clown or circus person yourself, the boys would be pleased to hear from you if you could lend them any drapes or props to add to the circus atmosphere.

Bobbo took time out from preparing the show to tell us a little bit about it:

What is the title of your new show, and what's the storyline?
The new show is called "Trouble at the (Big) top" It features a failing circus as a backdrop where all the acts have walked out leaving only the ringmaster and a clown to put on all of the acts between them. It allows for the use of a lot of clown parody acts and gives a lot of room within the framework for a lot of proper clowning and play to involve the audience.
Who's idea was it and what was the inspiration? 
Ian and I had been bemoaning the lack of proper clowning and wanted to show audiences what we loved about real clowning. I suppose the inspiration came from various sources, The Crazy Gang, Norman Wisdom and The Pickle Family Circus over in the USA certainly helped but our main focus was on breathing life into some old concepts by performing them with the audience not at them. Oh and of course mention needs to be made of the amazing work Tweedy does with his one-man show.
Smartii Pants reacts to Bobbo's suggestion
that they put on a show
Will it be just the two of you or is anyone else in the cast? 
At the moment the intention is to run as a two-man show/crew. We'll  be tweaking the show so we can run the sound and lighting cues ourselves whilst mid act and trying to incorporate sound effects in to polish the production. Only with today's technology is this possible and we want to make a show that may be set in a simpler time but is really of it's time.
What can we expect to see in the show in terms of clown routines etc? 
There will be various acts represented such as Juggling, Strongman, Magic and a parody on animal acts. Of course for the changeovers there will be various other clown bits thrown in to allow for costume changes. The framework will remain the same but every performance will be different as each audience will help shape it as they join in and come along with us. Overall it will be  Burlesque in the truest sense of the word, parodying whilst at the same time reverie the acts we put on.
How did you meet Ian and what made you decide to team up for this show? 
We move in similar circles and realised when we chatted we had a similar passion for real clowning and the humanity in it. We ended up talking over coffee quite regularly when one day we suddenly decided talking was getting us nowhere and we started writing instead. Our good friend Simon Thompson (Clown Noir) has been touring a one-clown show for a while and really encouraged us to look deeper than the same old gags and to go into a room and play with the props till we found some truth. We went into a room and played around for a week in character and came out thinking this could actually be something good.
What are the challenges of starting a show from scratch? 
Time is the major consideration, writing and rehearsing the show takes time as does building props and editing music not to mention sewing costumes and designing posters. It really is a two-man effort to get everything done. We've set ourselves a target of performing an early draft of the show as a fundraiser for a local Boys Brigade before the end of the year to give ourselves a deadline to work to.
Clowns on their way!
How much are you hoping to raise through your funding page and what do you need to buy? 
The target is £3000 but we're not only looking to raise money. We are lucky in that we have friends in the business who may have drapes and set pieces lying around Ian used to teach sound engineering years ago but neither of us has a PA system as our backgrounds are not as party entertainers.
When are you planning to tour and what sort of venues? 
We're previewing the show this November to get a feel for what works and then by next year we'll rewrite parts and start touring in the first quarter of 2017. We're looking to play intimate venues so we can maintain eye contact with the full audience. Eventually as the show grows we'll be looking to include local drama and dance schools and speciality acts in the show to give them a chance to perform.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the show or other forthcoming appearances? 
We both have jobs coming up for the Christmas season with our solo acts. Ian is working some street jobs and I have some appearances at the Britannia Panoptican music hall. We'll be appearing together again at CGUK 2017 in March and we're taking the show to Limerick fringe in April, then we'll be working at Holbaek clown festival in Denmark in August. It's a busy old year but if you have a passion for what you're doing it's worth the effort.

Bobbo would also like to thank his comedy partner Ian for being his best man when he gets married this Friday (October 21), and his wife-to-be Gill, who has been supporting 'Trouble at the (Big) top' by keeping him and Ian topped up with coffee and bacon and eggs while they work on the show.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Zippos circus kicks out clowns shocker!

Years of attacks by animal rights activists couldn't stop Zippos circus touring with cats and budgies, but the evil clown craze has caused showman Martin Burton to call time on that other circus staple, clowns.

According to a report in The Sun, Burton fears the evil clown craze has stoked the fear of clowns to such proportions that he fears families would be put off buying tickets if they thought they'd see any red noses in the ring:

“The recent hijacking of clowns from comedy into horror, started by Stephen King and now adopted at Halloween horror mazes and in film around the world is simply not funny.

"I would like to make it clear to our visitors that Zippos Circus shows feature no clowns, in fact the 'red nose' has been redundant with us for a while - we prefer comic slapstick characters of the Charlie Chaplin style, but nonetheless we are concerned that families might be put off attending our circus, and robustly condemn these clown stalkers."

The press reports about Zippos' no-clown policy, however, are not strictly true. Zippos still features clowning in the form of Mr Lorenz, who may not wear a red nose or a scary mask, but still wears recognisable modern clown make-up including a white lip, and performs clown routines (as opposed to, say, stand up comedy or some form of non-clown funny business).

What we have, then, is a great example of a circus turning the bad clown publicity to it's advantage in the form of national advertising.

It still seems odd though that Burton, who is also the President of Clowns International and a former clown himself, appears to be distancing himself from the clowning profession he's supposed to represent. Is this an example of how badly the prankster clowns have unsettled the professionals?

Friday, 7 October 2016

Creepy Clowns - Scaring people since 1892

The creepy clowns are back, with reports coming in from all over America of dubious pranksters dressed as big-footed funny men lurking in woods and terrorising neighbourhoods. Now the sightings are starting again in Britain - where the creepy clown craze was started by the Northampton Clown back in 2013.

These aren't 'real' clowns, of course - as in professional entertainers - just pranksters donning Halloween garb to scare people for a laugh. But the scare tactics are working, because there is a long history of people being scared by clowns that dates back to Victorian times, when fiction's first killer clown appeared in an opera.

Joker's wild
ClownhouseMr JinglesIn Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson voiced childhood fears with the mantra, “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”

In 2008, a University of Sheffield study of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 was commissioned to determine the best choice of hospital decor. The results found clowns to be “universally disliked” and regarded as “frightening and unknowable.”

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own email address).

Bart Simpson
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
Clowns, in one form or another, have always been with us. The court jester of medieval times is just one historical example of an anarchic fool licensed to poke fun at society’s mores.

The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.

Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”

The first Joey
Joseph Grimaldi
- an illustration from
Circus Mania
Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate), traces the enduring cliche of the sad man behind the clown face directly to Grimaldi. And it’s perhaps the fact that a clown’s make-up disguises the wearer’s true emotions that makes us suspicious of them.

According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.

Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.

The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.

Ronald McDonald
making another fan for life
Cairoli’s generation had become established as children’s entertainers whereas earlier clowns like Grimaldi provided satire for adults. But it was the association with childhood innocence that allowed horror writers to make clowns scary - for what could be more frightening than a homicidal maniac loose among kids?

Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.

“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.

Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.

Danny Adams
Just clowning
Many British clowns, such as Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, have reduced their make-up to a minimum.

“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”

Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”

But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?

Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.

The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.

But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.

Then again, maybe the current fad for public pranksters dressed as clowns is proof that a scary sense of otherness has always been part of the appeal of clowns.

As the Northampton Clown put it, “I just want to amuse people. Most people enjoy being a bit freaked out and then they can laugh about it afterwards. It’s like watching a horror movie. When people get scared, they start laughing.”

For the full story of clowning and interviews with some of today's funniest clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Will Scotland be first part of UK to ban wild animals from circuses?

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of the last elephants to perform
in a British circus.

There has been talk of banning animals from British circuses for more than 100 years (you can read the full timeline here) but talk has come a step nearer to reality with the Scottish government announcing that its Wild Animals in Circuses bill is one of 15 bills to be debated in the new parliamentary term.

If passed, the bill will outlaw wild animals in travelling circuses in Scotland.

A ban was proposed by the UK government in 2012, but the promised implementation date of 2015 came and went without the bill being passed into legislation. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to introduce a ban via a private members bill, but these have all been blocked. (Click here to read Why Christopher Chope is right to block ban.)

This week, several animal rights groups delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street, calling for the Prime Minister to implement the current ban. In the wake of brexit, however, it seems unlikely that the government would be willing to devote parliamentary time to such a fringe matter for the foreseeable future.

There are only two circuses currently licensed to travel with wild animals - Circus Mondao and Peter Jolly's Circus. Both are regulated by a license and inspection scheme that has been in place without incident or complaint since 2013.

With Westminster seemingly unwilling to implement a ban, however, pressure groups have turned their attention to regional government where they appear to have found more willingness to act.

Earlier this year, there was concern within the circus industry when Professor Stephen Harris was appointed to carry out a study of wild animals in circuses with a view to implementing a ban promised by the Welsh Assembly last autumn. Harris' report backed a ban although no further action by the Welsh Assembly has been reported to date.

Whether the Scottish government's bill will be passed remains to be seen, it is however the first regional government to assign parliamentary time to the issue.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Jack Ryan 1939 - 2016 - May all his days be circus days

A Ringling programme book

There are some phrases that sound like they were never written, they've just been around forever. One of them is the traditional circus sign-off: "May all your days be circus days!" It sounds like a goodbye handed down through the centuries, but in fact it's a tradition that dates from just 1969.

The words were coined by Ringling Pr man Jack Ryan who sadly died yesterday, 25 August, aged 77.

Remember him next time you hear that famous ringmaster's farewell.

At Ryan's request, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory should be made to Circus World, Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus, Paighton Green Seafront until August 30

Like music? Love circus? Roll up, roll up for Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus on the seafront at Paignton Green this month.

The latest venture from Britain's best-loved circus impresario promises hit songs from the past 60 years with an array of big top treats including trapeze, juggling on quad bikes and a trio of female magicians.

Cottle is, of course, the best known showman of the past 45 years - the Billy Smart, PT Barnum, John Ringling or Lord Sanger of his generation. His enduring influence became clear while writing Circus Mania! in that there is hardly anybody in the industry who either hasn’t worked with him or is related to him.

It’s 50 years since Gerry turned his back on suburban life as a stockbroker’s son growing up in Cheam and, at the age of 15, ran away with Robert Brothers circus. From humble beginnings as an apprentice, he taught himself to clown, stilt-walk and, most importantly, the tricks of running a circus.

Cottle and Austen's Circus posters
By 1970, he and his business partner Brian Austen had started the first Cottle and Austen Circus. With no cash to buy animals, the owners and their wives performed nearly all the acts themselves. From the beginning, however, Cottle proved a natural publicity magnet. The circus was featured in a BBC documentary, The Philpott Files, and on the cover of the Radio Times as ‘The smallest greatest show on earth’.

By the end of the decade, Cottle and Austen’s Circus had become Britain’s biggest circus, thanks in part to a policy of monopolising London’s parks, and providing the big top venue for Saturday night TV variety show Seaside Special.

Cottle and Austen went on to promote the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus, which were soon established as the UK’s most successful shows, and Cottle became a founding partner in the Circus of Horrors, which has been another of the biggest circus success stories of the past decade.

In 2003, Cottle sold Austen his share in the Chinese and Moscow circuses so that he could buy the tourist attraction Wookey Hole. Proving that old adage that you can shake the sawdust off your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your heart, however, Cottle never gave up his love of the circus. At Wookey, he swiftly established a circus museum and a circus school for local kids.

Gerry Cottle (Left) with Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson (Centre) and Dr Haze from
Circus of Horrors at the launch of Circus Mania 
When I interviewed Gerry for my book Circus Mania! he said his love of circus was greater than it has ever been. He sees every circus that comes within range and will talk knowledgeably and passionately about any show you mention.

As for his latest venture under the big top, Cottle says: “It’s got my name on it and I promise you a great show LIKE NO OTHER. A whole world of LIVE entertainment for all the family – we think you’ll have the time of your life!”

Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus is at Paignton Green until August 30, before moving on to Plymouth, September 2 - 18.

For times and tickets call: 0845 835 50 50

And for the full story of Gerry Cottle and many other circus stars, from trapeze artists to animal trainers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus by Douglas McPherson.

Click here to buy from Amazon!

Friday, 15 July 2016

Cirque du Soleil's Varekai returns to UK February 2017

Here's the poster for the next Cirque du Soleil production coming to the UK next February. For an in-depth critique of the show on a previous visit, plus the history of Cirque du Soleil, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Pope praises circus folk and meets tiger

The Pope has praised circus artists, carnival workers, street performers and other travelling performers, and also given his blessing to animal entertainers, it seems, after petting a performing tiger in Rome.
According to a report in the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis thanked the artists for bringing beauty and joy to an often dark, sad world.
“You cannot imagine what good you do, the good you sow,”said Pope Francis during a special audience celebrating the jubilee of circus and travelling-show performers.
While they may never know the impact they truly have on people, “you can be sure,” he said, that “you sow these seeds that do many people good.”
Hundreds of performers, family members and supporters gathered in the Paul VI hall as part of a two-day pilgrimage to Rome for the Year of Mercy.
To the tune of “O Sole Mio” played by an organ grinder, an animal wrangler used a baby bottle filled with milk to lure the leashed tiger toward the Pope, who was invited to pet the enormous cat.
In his talk, the Pope noted the performers’ special ability to bring a smile to a child’s face, brighten a lonely person’s day and draw people closer together.
Calling them “artisans” of wonder, beauty and celebration, he praised their abilities to lift people’s spirits and offer communities “healthy entertainment.”
The often difficult life of being on the road was “a special resource,” he said, because it meant they – like Christ – could bring God’s love, joy and embrace to even greater numbers of people, especially those on the margins of society.
He thanked them for offering shows and free admission to the poor, the homeless, prisoners and disadvantaged kids during the Year of Mercy.
“This, too, is mercy: sowing beauty and happiness in a world [that is] sometimes gloomy and sad.”
The Pope urged local parishes to reach out to travelling performers, offering them the sacraments and eliminating prejudicial attitudes that marginalise them. He also invited the entertainers to deepen their faith, especially by handing on God’s love to their children and others.