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."

Monday, 16 January 2017

If the circus was a country...

I found these words by Jamie Clubb incredibly moving when I first read them, and at a time when the circus is hurting over Ringling‘s closure, now even more so...

Pablo Fanque
Britain's first black
circus showman
“Think of a society that, on a political basis, is both the capitalist and socialist's dream. Think of a society that employed ex-slaves ahead of everyone else and by its very nature is multicultural. Think of a society that has a hierarchy and even a system ingrained in culture and tradition and yet opened its doors to absolutely anyone who was willing to work hard and provide them with the realistic dream of climbing to the top of their professional tree. 

Mabel Stark
Tiger trainer
“Think of a society that always provided equal opportunities for men and women; a society that had a woman heading a strong family business years before women had the equal vote. Think of a society that provided highly profitable employment and success for the disabled when the rest of society only offered poverty or the workhouse. 

Alex Lacey
English star of Ringling Bros.
"Think of a society that brought animals from all over the world to people who never knew they existed and further worked with institutions that to this day work to conserve these species.  Think of a society that through exposing people to said animals brought awareness of said animals' plight in the wild. 

Billy Smart and Yasmine Smart
meet Princess Margaret
“Think of a culture that entertained audiences of all classes and creeds. Think of a culture that takes the form of a global family accepting leaders as equals of any sex, race, religion, philosophical position, sexual orientation or moderate political persuasion. Think of an institution that boosted the economy, never asked for government support or public funding, that worked off their own steam and integrated themselves into every community they visited, often providing job opportunities. 

“Think of a society that built buildings over a century ago that still stand today and brought elements that are part of the very fabric of modern entertainment. 

Daily Mail
"Then imagine if that culture is shunned by the country that invented it and suffers fashionable prejudice. Imagine if said society's very name prompts disdain to such a degree that it has become accepted as noun for general lowliness. These are my people. This is the circus community."

- Jamie Clubb
Author of The Legend of Salt and Sauce - The Amazing Story of Britain’s Most Famous Elephants

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Politics and the circus

Political circus is a common expression, but from public funding of the arts to legislation on circus animals, the changing tides of politics do blow like gales against the walls of the big top.

In this article on Blasting News, I offer my analysis of how last year's votes for Donald Trump and Brexit will affect the issue of animals in the big top. Click here to read it.

And click here for the latest news on changing attitudes to circus animals in Wales.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Threat of Welsh circus ban recedes

A Chipperfield tiger

There's good news for the future of circuses with animals as a statement from the Welsh government seems to suggest that a proposed ban on wild animals in the big top will now be replaced with a licensing scheme similar to the one currently in force in England.

Circus operators and fans feared the worst in 2015 when the Welsh Assembly's deputy minister for farms and food promised a ban on "ethical" grounds, stating, "The Welsh Government believes there is no place for wild animals in circuses."

Those fears seemed confirmed when Professor Stephen Harris, a long term opponent of circus animals was appointed to carry out a study of the sector and predictably delivered a report supporting a ban.

According to a new statement by Lesley Griffths, Cabinet Secretary for Environmental and Rural Affairs, however, the Assembly has decided to step back from a ban and impose a licensing scheme instead.

Griffiths states, in part:

My officials will be working on developing a new scheme such as licensing or registration, for ‘Mobile Animal Exhibits’ including circuses, which display domestic and exotic animals in Wales. We will work with key stakeholders and undertake a public consultation on this early next year
I also recently met with the UK Government’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, to discuss ‘Mobile Animal Exhibits’, wild animals in circuses and the revocation of the outdated Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925 in Wales. ‘Mobile Animal Exhibits’ from across the UK regularly travel across borders. Therefore agreement was obtained that Wales and England would, as far as possible, have a joined-up strategic approach in introducing any new scheme to ensure cross border issues are kept to a minimum.  

As always, however, the threat of a ban has not gone away completely, with Griffiths adding the following caveats:

It should be carefully noted that whilst circuses with animals will be included in the proposed licensing or registration scheme, I am aware of the ethical concerns held by members of the public regarding the use of wild animals in circuses and a specific question on this issue will be included in the consultation document.    
I have not dismissed the possibility of a future ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in Wales and have kept the window open on the possibility of still being included in any UK Government Bill brought forward on this issue. 

For more on the hundred-year history of attempts to ban circus animals from British big tops, click here.

Update January 2017: Does the changing situation in Wales reflect changing attitudes in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world? Click here for more on the political circus.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Ringling rings its first Ringmistress in 146 years

Kristen Michelle Wilson

Well, America has yet to elect its first woman to the White House, but there's a new First Lady of the circus as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - has appointed its first female ringmaster in its 146-year history.

Announcing her appointment on ABC News, Kristen Michelle Wilson told America:

"Ever since I was a child, I have loved performing and entertaining, so, to join the 'greatest show on earth' is truly just the biggest thrill of my life. It's a bucket list-level opportunity I never even imagined.
"I definitely have a larger-than-life personality and I'm really excited about it because that's really one of the best things about being a ringmaster: You get to be yourself, but you get to be the grandest version of yourself. I get to guide audiences on this incredible journey around the world with the Circus XTREME so it is really such an excitement."

Yasmin Smart
Of course ringmistresses are nothing new in the UK, where a long line of women have been cracking the whip in the big top for years, among them Petra Jackson, who is currently keeping order on Circus Mondao, Nell Gifford who went on to open her own circus, and the renowned equestrian Yasmine Smart.

Click here to read the story of Smart's childhood in Britain's most famous circus family.

Click here to read Nell Gifford's story.

Petra Jackson
and friends
And click here for more on Petra Jackson and Circus Mondao.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Educational value of Circuses, Zoos and SeaWorld

Douglas McPherson
author Circus Mania

The dumbest argument against animals in circuses, zoos and aquariums such as SeaWorld - and it's one I see parroted with irritating regularity in articles and comments threads - is that they provide "no educational value."

If only the people who blindly spout that view could be persuaded to actually visit such an establishment before condemning it, I am sure that most would find that the biggest educational benefit lies in simply seeing and sometimes touching wild animals close-up. TV doesn't have nearly the same impact, only a tiny percentage will ever go on a safari, and even those who do will probably not get quite so close to the animals as they can in a circus, zoo or aquarium. 

Society is becoming far too removed from the animal world. Kids in cities often won't even see horses or the farm animals they eat. Many couldn't tell you which animal some of the processed food on their plate came from. 

Circuses, zoos and aquariums reconnect us with the natural world, and that is life enhancing in the same way that pat dogs in hospitals are. It also creates an appreciation and respect for nature. It was largely the tricks performed by dolphins in aquariums, for example, that made people realise how clever they were and therefore worthy of conservation in the wild. 

As for the animals, as long as they are properly cared for, they're better off in human care where they are protected from all the natural threats (as well as the human kind) that they would face in the wild. Being animals, they don't have a human's mental capacity to conceptualise freedom or captivity, they only know if they are happy, mentally stimulated and physically well, and human care can provide that, in exactly the same way domestic pet ownership does. 

I used to believe entertainment-based animal shows were a bit iffy - largely because that was the view presented in the media - but the more I've looked into it, during the research for my book Circus Mania and many newspaper and magazine articles since, the more I've seen that the arguments against such establishments aren't based on genuine welfare claims (although they always campaign on grounds of alleged cruelty) but an ideological objection to captivity irrespective of welfare standards

Every circus animal I have seen in the ring or backstage has appeared to be in exceptionally good health, mentally and physically, and their keepers and trainers have been 100% dedicated to them. 

In my opinion, we need more businesses that put the public in close proximity with animals, not fewer.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Chinese State Circus back on the road

One of my favourite circus shows, the Chinese State Circus, is back in UK theatres this winter, with its trademark lion dance, plate spinning, contortionists and jaw-dropping tricks with huge earthenware pots that have to be seen to be believed.

The Chinese State Circus founder Phillip Gandey said: “We have returned to the pure and honest perfection in acrobatics upon which our reputation is based.”

For the inside story on the Chinese State Circus, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

And click here to read how the Chinese State Circus moves around

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Why we need circus animals more than ever

How dangerously removed we're becoming from nature when a survey by the National Trust finds nine in ten children can identify a Dalek but only three recognise a magpie. And when the Oxford Junior Dictionary has taken out terms like acorn, buttercup and otter in favour of blog, chatroom and voicemail, and the only Blackberry in its pages is the electronic kind.

No wonder kids go mad to see even the ducks run around the ring at Peter Jolly's Circus. We need the sawdust circle more than ever.

Click here for a glimpse of a vanishing art form.

Thomas Chipperfield debut on Moira Orfei Circus in Italy

Italian circus fans flock to see the white tigers

The trainer's costumes
before the show
Novaro, Italy, November 4. An hour before his first appearance with one of Europe’s most famous circuses, British trainer Thomas Chipperfield is polishing his boots before stepping into the ring with a new five-tiger act.

Click here for more.

And look out for more on Thomas in an exciting new updated edition of Circus Mania coming soon!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

30 Years of Circus Starr - the big top with a big heart

In this article, which first appeared in the world's oldest women's magazine, the People's Friend, I talk to the backstage stars behind a circus that exists only to help sick and disadvantaged children through the magic of the big top.

A couple of years ago, Simone Unett joined a circus, her mission to make kids happy. She doesn’t swing on the trapeze in sparkly tights, walk a tightrope or wear a red nose, multi-coloured wig and enormous shoes - not at work, anyway.

Simone is a fundraiser - or perhaps that should be fun raiser - for Circus Starr, a unique show that gives away all its tickets to vulnerable, disadvantaged and disabled children and their families.

Her job is to phone businesses in the 75 towns a year that the circus visits and ask them to help children in their area by donating the price of tickets. The tickets are then distributed to local hospitals, hospices, foster homes, special needs schools and women’s refuges.

“A lot of families who have a child with a physical disability or autism can’t get out to events because they’re afraid people will stare or that their child will make a lot of noise,” Simone explains.

“They don’t feel they can be themselves and enjoy quality family time, so we’ve created an environment for them where they can be as loud as they want and have a really good time in a relaxed environment with people who are dealing with the same issues that they are. Sometimes it’s the only event they get to as a whole family in an entire year,” Simone adds. “That really means a lot to them.”

The flexible seating inside the blue and yellow big top means they’ve even accommodated children in hospital beds.

Circus Starr was the brainchild of Philip Gandey, a third-generation circus showman who also runs such shows as the Chinese State Circus and Spirit Of The Horse. His philanthropic big top was born 30 years ago when Gandey’s Circus was asked to stage a fundraising event for a school.

According to director Neville Wilson, “That first show was so successful that word got around to other charities that wanted to do the same thing, so we set up Circus Starr to help low profile local charities like hospices that didn’t have the resources to raise funds for themselves.”

As well as providing an afternoon or evening out for hundreds of children and their families, the show’s profits are given to a charity that it partners with in each town.

“We donate over £1 million worth of tickets each year,” says Neville. “Then there are a lot of hospices and baby care units that get a nice cheque at the end of the show, so everybody wins.”

Circus Starr is an independent not-for-profit Community Interest Company. But Philip Gandey continues to produce the circus to the high standards of his other shows and books top quality performers from all over the world. It’s a family show with as much for parents and carers as the children.

According to Neville, a former acrobat who has worked in the circus business all his life, “It’s a proper touring circus, moved on six articulated lorries that could compete as a commercial circus, no problem.”

The day-to-day running of the show falls to Robert Price. In the spotlight, he’s the dashing ringmaster in a scarlet coat. Backstage, he cracks the whip (metaphorically speaking!) as show manager.

“We do everything we can to ensure every child enjoys the show, whether they need ringside seats or a bit of time out,” says Robert. “We don’t want to scare them with big flashing lights. We make it nice and gentle for them.”

The circus is in Robert’s blood. His mother was a foot-juggler and he’s now started a circus family of his own.

As soon as he joined Circus Starr, Robert fell in love with his wife Oana, who worked in the box office. Today, the couple travel around the country with the show and their two children, the youngest born this summer.

Also responsible for the troupe, the sound, the lights, the transport and just about everything else, Robert says, “There’s never a dull moment, but life is good!”

For the performers, living in caravans alongside the big blue and yellow circus tent, life is very different to that of the fundraisers, who are based in an office in Congelton, Cheshire. But one of the perks of Simone’s job is visiting the circus, so she and her team can describe the show to potential donors - and also so they can see the result of all their hard work on the phones.

Romy Bauer
One of Simone’s favourite acts is contortionist Romy Bauer who performs in a crystal globe suspended high above the ring.

“She’s dressed as a fairy and snow falls all around her while she’s performing. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the gasps from the children are amazing.

“Cold calling companies is difficult, because a lot of people say ‘No.’” Simone admits, “So to see the smile on a child’s face and to know you did that is very motivating.”

Pinned to the walls of the fundraising office are countless thank you cards and letters from families that have been given tickets.

Simone proudly reads one out: “Tonight we came to the show with our two daughters. Due to our elder daughter’s special needs we generally stay away from outings that involve confined spaces and crowds, but tonight was a magical experience for us all - the chance to be a family and see an amazing show that captivated the children and us from start to finish.”

Simone is especially proud of an award-winning app the circus has developed to prime children for their visit to the big top.

“A lot of children with autism struggle with anything outside of their normal routine,” Simone explains. “So they can download the app to their iPad and it takes them through their day at the circus. It has pictures of the entrance, the seating and the acts, so the child can get used to it and feel confident enough to go on the day.

“The feedback we’ve had has been brilliant. Families have said they’ve been playing dress-up circus in the garden before the show. They’ve sent pictures of children with a blanket tied around them like the ringmaster’s cape. It’s lovely.”

On the day, everyone is assured of a warm welcome. Even those - and there are a few adults among them - who are afraid of clowns.

“We’ve had some of those!” Simone admits with a laugh. “But Chico Rico, our clown, has such a warm, welcoming smile that those barriers are soon broken down. The children love him and they have time at the end to get their face painted if they want to.

“There’s always the chance to get their picture taken with some of the acts. It’s a magical day for them and we want to make it as special as we can.”

For Simone, meanwhile, every day is a circus day.

“I’ve been doing phone work for a long time, but this job is really special. I’ve got two kids of my own, so to be able to talk about something that benefits children, and just the fact that the circus is such a fun subject to talk about, is really lovely.”

With a grin, she concludes, “You can tell I love my job, can’t you?”

If you’d like to make a donation to Circus Starr or nominate a family deserving of tickets, visit