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."

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Bring in the holographic horses, as Circus Roncalli rides into the future

With animals steadily disappearing from circuses around the world, some traditional big top fans may see Circus Roncalli's latest attraction as another surrender to animal rights activists. But as we celebrate 250 years of the first modern circus - created by horseman Philip Astley - it's important to remember that the circus tradition is a tradition of innovation.

Astley wasn't the first trick horse-rider of his day - there were many like him, newly returned from the wars, who found a new use for their equestrian skills. Astley's innovation was to put horse stunts in a circle, as opposed to on a long straight, which gave his displays a more theatrical setting. He then added a series of other acts, from tumblers to strongmen and clowns, that made up the variety show format of circus as we know it.

The strength of that format has always been its ability to include new, different and never-before-seen acts designed to keep the crowds coming back each season.

Over the past 250 years, circus promoters have been tireless in finding new spectacles: the flying trapeze, wild animals, freaks of nature, acts from different cultures around the world, be it American cowboy knife-throwing and lassoing or oriental plate-spinning and martial arts.

From hippos that sweat blood to the chainsaws and motorbikes of Archaos, circus has always traded on the new.

And so it is with Germany's Roncalli. Established in 1976, the company was among the first to update circus by linking acts with themes and storylines, which paved the way for the mega-success of Cirque du Soleil. For 2018, they now bring us holographic horses, elephants and giant fish.

Is it a surrender to the animal rights movement or, as I prefer to see it, the latest step in the big top's ever forward-marching quest to give audiences something brand new to go "Wow, I've never seen anything like that before!"

The answer, for me, lies in those shots of jam-packed seats. Sure, it's possible to miss the real animals, but for all the sense of tradition that sometimes surrounds it, the circus has never thrived by looking back - it's lifeblood has always been the new.

When I set out to write Circus Mania, I didn't want to write a history book. Yes, there is history in it, because there are glimpses of tradition everywhere you look in the big top, and it's hard to look at any new act without seeing the ghosts of performers from fifty, a hundred or 250 years ago. My real concern, though, was to explore the lives of circus performers as they are lived today. As such I found myself backstage in a world of constant innovation as predominantly young people strove to create new acts and new styles of show that moved the old traditions forward. The Mail on Sunday called Circus Mania "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." But is it really vanishing? Some of the older styles are, yes, just as the past is always receding into the distance. But, just as a snake leaves its old skin behind, the ever evolving circus itself keeps coming up fresh and new.
Take a glimpse into the ever-changing world of the big top by clicking here to order the new and revised second edition of Circus Mania from Amazon.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Off to the circus!

With his bags and unicycle, Bobbo heads
for the circus!

Following his summer season on Clacton seafront last year, Bobbo Roberts will this year be wowing families in the rural surroundings of Billing Aquadome leisure park in Northampton.

It was circus matriarch Tanya Mack who put Bobbo forward for the Clacton pier show and this year she's booked him for her own Circus Funtastic, which runs from July 23 - September 27.

Here's what the funny man had to say:

“They say you can shake the sawdust out of your socks but not your heart so with that in mind, after being on Clacton pier last summer where he had so much fun in the sun, Bobbo is puting  his motley and clobber on again in a whole new adventure in Billing Acqadrome Circus.

“As most of my family is from Northampton I’m looking forward to going to the library and finding out as much as I can about my family. As I’m fond of saying, the Roberts and Fossetts don't have a family tree, we’ve got a forest  - and I’m one of the nuts who have fallen from the tree.

“I might have gone on a different branch but my roots remain in circus, and I might be barking up the wrong tree but I’m looking forward to this new challenge and hope I can get to try and sneak in some of my new gags that I've been working on. A clown is very much like a plant - it needs water (an audience) to branch out and grow.”

Click here to find out how he got on!

Bobbo catches up with his reading
- Circus Mania, of course!
Diary of a Clown - Part One
Click here to read about Bobbo's adventures on Clacton Pier last year.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

When Rick Astley met Philip Astley (sort of)

I always wondered if 80s singer Rick Astley was a descendant of Philip Astley, the equestrian who founded the modern circus 250 years ago this year. It seems not, since Philip had only one son, who never had children of his own - which also explains why you don't come across many, if any, Astley's in the modern circus.

Rick did briefly run away with the circus, however, in this video for his 1991 single Never Knew Love.

My thanks to actor and ringmaster Chris Barltrop for bringing it my attention. The clip was filmed in the Circus Berlin big top in London's Acton Park with performers including Rani, a well-known elephant on the scene at the time.

Barltrop features in the video as ringmaster.

Chris Barltrop
as Philip Astley
Today, Barltrop is keeping the Astley name alive (Philip that is, not Rick!) with his one man show, The Audacious Mr Astley. Find out more, here.

And click here for 15 Facts about the Father of the Circus.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Vegan Agenda - Why Circuses Were Just The Thin Edge of the Wedge

Warning from the big top

For decades now, campaigners such as ADI (Animal Defenders International) and Peta (People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals) have been saying that circus animals are cruelly treated. And it's worked. Animals have been gradually squeezed out of the circus ring on both sides of the Atlantic by local legislation that prevented circuses operating in prime municipally owned venues and, increasingly, national bans, such as the one has has this month come into force in Scotland.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus, the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth and arguably most iconic circus in the world, was forced to close after more than a century because of such legislation.

The evidence does not support these bans. In 2007, the UK government-commissioned Radford report found circuses were as capable of meeting their animals' needs as zoos or other captive environments. Since 2012, a licensing scheme has regulated the use of wild animals in circuses and has produced no evidence of mistreatment.

The government has announced, however, that when the licensing scheme expires it will not be extended, bringing in a ban by default.

Why are circus animals being banned if there's no evidence that they are intrinsically cruel?

Martin Burton
When I interviewed Zippos owner Martin Burton for my book Circus Mania he explained that the campaigners were motivated by a deeper agenda: they didn't believe people should even keep pets or eat meat.

At the time, I confess that I didn't fully connect the dots. Yes, I thought, anti-circus campaigners may well be anti-vivisectionists and vegetarians and so on... but I couldn't see that side of their agenda catching on with the wider public. It's one thing to support a campaign against perceived or alleged cruelty (whether proven or just suggested) another to turn your back on meat and pets.

In the last couple of years, however, the mass media push for veganism has been impossible to miss. You can't open a newspaper or magazine without reading about a new meat-free business or recipes for meat-free meals.

Today the circus,
Protests against fast food restaurants, supermarkets and local butchers are becoming as familiar as the demonstrations that were once confined to circuses. I have seen full-page national newspaper adverts against milk production, which shows how well-funded and/or connected the vegan lobby is.

The anti-circus campaigners, meanwhile, are revealing their wider hand. At the foot of a press release that came my way today, ADI outlined its mission:

Active worldwide to end the suffering of animals: animals in entertainment – film, television, advertising, circuses, and sport or leisure; animals used for food or fur; protection of wildlife and the environment; trade in animals; zoos, pets, entertainment, and laboratories.

Note the words "food" and "pets" - there for all to see.

It's very similar to Peta's slogan, as displayed on its website:

ANIMALS ARE NOT OURSto eat, wear, experiment on, use forentertainment or abuse in any other way

The ADI press release was in support of a film called Anima, in which representatives from 12 religions talk about changing our attitudes to meat.

According to one of the participants, Rabbi Singer: “Our belief in Judaism is that God never actually meant us to eat animals,” explaining “In the Garden of Eden, God shows us the fruit of the trees, the grass in the fields, and says ‘You may have any of this to eat.’ But God never mentioned animals.”

ADI president Jan Creamer, meanwhile, has this to say: “Millions of people across the world draw their beliefs and perceptions about the other species who share our planet, from their faith. There has never been a more important time to challenge themisunderstandings which have, in the past, been used to justify exploitation of animals. As Dr Lo Sprague says in ANIMA, every religion has compassion as part of its mandate. It is time to mobilize that.”

The film appears to say nothing about circuses, but the fact it is being promoted by ADI proves what the circus industry has been telling us all along: that the massive fundraising campaigns built around 'circus cruelty' were never really about circus cruelty at all, just part of a wider agenda.

As the post-circus campaign for worldwide veganism unfolds around us, it's a shame the warnings from the big top mostly fell on deaf ears.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Father of the Circus celebrated in Philip Astley's home town of Newcastle under Lyme

Celebrations marking 250 years of the circus have continued in Newcastle under Lyme, the birthplace of Philip Astley, the Father of the Modern Circus, with a new multi-part metal monument that forms the gateway to the town.

Located on George Street, the monument, which lights up at night, was designed by Candida Kelsall and built by 17-year-old Liam Robinson with funding from the Realise Foundation and Newcastle Business Improvement District. It depicts ringmaster Astley flanked by two rearing horses.

The unveiling was attended by the local mayor and mayoress, along with a delegation from the Circus Friends Association, Carol Gandey from one of Britain's foremost circus promoters Gandey World Class Productions, and performers from Circus Starr, the charity circus that is part of the Gandey organisation. Also present was Zsuzsanna Mata, executive director of Monte Carlo's Federation Mondiale du Cirque and illusionist Andrew Van Buren from the Astley Project, who for 30 years has campaigned for recognition of Astley's legacy in his home town.

For 15 Facts about Philp Astley, the Father of the Circus, click here.

For more about Circus Starr, the circus that helps kids, click here.

For more on the history and culture of the circus, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus! Click here to buy the updated second edition.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Aerialist by Rebecca Truman - Book Review

Rebecca Truman is the Grande Dame of aerial. “Cut me in half and I will have aerialist written all the way through,” she writes in this engrossing memoir.

In 1988, Truman founded Skinning the Cat, a pioneering all-woman trapeze troupe that performed principally at outdoor events throughout Britain and Europe, but also in circus tents and theatres. Truman was star, costumer, artistic director, rigger, truck driver... in fact, she did pretty much everything. Her reluctance or inability to delegate responsibility led to an punishing schedule that eventually brought her to the point of breakdown.

“My years as an aerialist are divided into before and after the falls,” she writes on the first page. “Those accidents changed everything. Before the falls I was running wild and fulfilling my fantasies. Afterwards, it became all too real.”

The Silver Tree rig
When Truman’s colleague Lou plunges head-first to a concrete floor, the dangers of trapeze are brought violently home to the reader. Was Lou’s accident Truman’s responsibility for running an un-funded company too close to the brink of exhaustion? When Truman subsequently breaks an ankle (that never heals properly) was it her fault for bringing a still-recovering Lou back to work too soon, or for not training her sufficiently on the lunge that would have prevented Truman’s accident?

Those are the questions that haunt her as company leader. But the show always goes on. Forced to hobble on stage on crutches, Truman creates a character that makes the crutch part of her act. In the air, the trapeze frees her from her disability.

Everyone in the circus has a colourful story to tell, but few can tell their own tale as well as Truman. In this gripping journey into the life and mind of a trapeze artist, Truman writes with all the evocative colour and underlying precision of the shows she describes

With a novelist’s eye for detail, she brilliantly evokes the glitter and grit of her surroundings at art school, in training gyms, in lorries and caravans, and freezing cold offices in derelict former woollen mills.

For students of the trapeze, Aerialist is essential reading. There’s an insider’s manual worth of detail on every aspect of how to run and rig a show, down to how to remove a cobblestone from a town square in order to drive in a stake to anchor the rig - or, if that doesn’t work, anchor it from a builder’s skip.

Chameleon rig

But this is also the story of a life. From a bohemian childhood scarred by sexual abuse by her grandfather, and the death of her father when she was young, to the nervous breakdown when all those unresolved issues eventually caught up with her, Truman reveals how her career on the trapeze was driven by the desire to escape.

Her narrative is broken up and enriched by the accounts of her mother, company members and, memorably, Zippos founder Martin Burton who recalls asking the Arts Council for funding in the days when circus wasn’t recognised as an art form. Sitting in opulent offices full of furniture he reckoned was worth more than his entire circus, he was told, “If we had any money we’d give it to you.”

Since they claimed not to have the money, he decided to steal the reception desk - a plan that failed when he couldn’t get it through the revolving doors.

Many years later, when Burton was appointed chairman of the Arts Council's Circus Advisory Committee, he told them, “You obviously don’t remember the last time I was here.” “Yes we do,” they said, “which is why the desk is screwed down.”

The text is also peppered with information boxes that provide a glossary of trapeze moves and equipment - Skinning the Cat takes its name from an aerial manoeuvre - plus some poems by Truman that offer insights into an aerialist’s connection to her work that mere prose couldn’t quite capture.

It all adds up to a thrilling read that sits with the best circus memoirs, such as Nell Gifford’s Gifford’s Circus - The First Ten Years (and Josser, written as Nell Stroud) and Gerry Cottle’s Confessions of a Showman.

Click here to order Aerialist by Rebecca Truman from Amazon.

See also: 10 Books for Circus250!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The sad case of the vanishing circus animals

The circus - where else can you get this
close to a tiger?

I just read an article in which the writer took a package trip to India costing £3195 per person. The “highlight” was a visit to a national park where a tiger walked within 200 yards of her truck. This was considered “lucky” since a sighting is not guaranteed.

Compare that with my spur of the moment visit to the Great British Circus (tickets about £5) where I sat within feet of half a dozen tigers displaying all their natural cat-like behaviours, such as jumping between pedestals in return for a piece of pork. And where I also saw horses galloping within feet of me, camels parading past and elephants swishing their trunks and tusks around close enough to make me lean back in my seat.

Compare it, too, to my visit to Peter Jolly’s Circus where I sat for a hour listening to Thomas Chipperfield explain how big cats are trained by using their natural inquisitiveness. The trainer’s stick and whip, for example, aren’t used to keep the animal away, but to draw it towards you, the way a house cat follows a piece of string.

Tsavo the lion relaxes backstage
Within minutes of talking to Thomas, who’s family has been training animals for 300 years, it was clear he knew more about his animals than you would ever learn from a television documentary. Out behind the tent, meanwhile, it was a pleasure to see one of his lions, Tsavo, looking so relaxed, contented and well-kept in his sunny enclosure.

During the shows, it was clear that the animals were the main attraction, particularly for the many children in the audience, who watched enthralled, unlikely ever to be so close to such beasts (for the big top was set up in an area where few residents were likely to spend £3000+ per person on a foreign safari).

Yet the pleasure and educational benefits that the circus brings is under threat.

The Great British Circus closed several years ago when a ban on wild animals in travelling shows was first mooted. A licensing scheme was brought in as a temporary measure, which allowed Chipperfield to tour his animals with Peter Jolly’s Circus.

Me and the Elephant
The author meets one of the last jumbos
to appear in a British circus
Earlier this year, however, Chipperfield was denied a license to tour with his big cats in a show of his own. He is currently planning an appeal against the decision, but with DEFRA proclaiming its commitment to letting the temporary licence scheme expire in 2020, and thus bringing in a ban by default, the political deck is clearly stacked against Chipperfield.

We can only hope that Britain's Last Lion Tamer prevails against the odds and gives audiences at least one more chance to see his animals close up.

When my book Circus Mania was first published, including accounts of my visits to Britain’s last animal circuses, the Mail on Sunday called it “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Is it still “vanishing”? Or will Circus Mania prove to be the last description of an art form that has already vanished from the country where the circus was born?

Click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition of Circus Mania from Amazon. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

American Circus in Paris!

Ringling may have retired across the pond, but in Paris zay have ze elephants! Ze tigers! Ze parades! Ze 3 (count 'em) rings!

Book now for Christmas!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Peter Jolly's Circus - The Most Traditional Show On Earth!

A lovely teaser for one of my favourite circuses. Read about my visit to this beautiful traditional show in the new updated edition of Circus Mania.

Click here to buy from Amazon.