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, 30 December 2009

Daleks invade the circus!

What have the Daleks got to do with the circus? Not a lot, except that while I was wondering what to call my new book I found myself gazing across the office at my Dalekmania calendar, and suddenly it came to me: Circus Mania!

Cut to the present and I’ve just written a short story set in the era of Dalekmania. It’s called My Dalek Days - a Dr Who-dunnit on a film set in the swinging 60s. It’s just been published by My Weekly (Jan 2, issue). They generously gave me a nice plug for Circus Mania at the bottom of the page. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the story. (Read it from behind the sofa if you wish...)

"Seek, locate... and buy Circus Mania!"

A Dr Who-dunnit in the swinging 60s

by Douglas McPherson

Everyone wondered how the Daleks moved around. Some people thought they were remote controlled. But it was a lot less complicated than that.

Someone like me had to sit inside on a little bench, with my feet sticking through the bottom, and push the thing around on casters - all the while remembering to wiggle the eye stalk and the arm with the sink plunger on the end.

It was very cramped and dark inside, and could get pretty claustrophobic during a long day’s filming. Especially as you knew you couldn’t get out. It took two men to lift the top half into place, so once you were in, you were trapped.

Visibility through the wire mesh grill was very poor and communication was difficult. You could hear what the actors and director were saying, but nobody could make out what you were saying unless they put their ear right up against the grill.

We didn’t do the voices, you see. All those shouts of “Ex-ter-min-ate!” were done by an actor by the side of the set, with a funny little gadget to change his voice. We just had to remember to press a button that made the lights on the top our heads flash while he was talking.

It was a fantastic break for me, straight out of drama school in 1966. The Daleks were almost as big as The Beatles. Dalekmania they called it, and everyone was saying the metal monsters’ second big screen adventure was going to be the biggest film of the year.

Peter Cushing as Dr Who
Peter Cushing was playing Dr Who with Bernard Cribbins as his sidekick, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work with such great actors - even if no one was ever going to see my face!
On the posters, the Daleks were given a bigger billing than Dr Who. But on set, it was a very different story. Us humble operators were at the bottom of the pecking order.

Not only did we seldom get to socialise with the stars, once we were inside our Daleks everyone seemed to forget we were there at all.

At lunchtime the cast and crew would wander off to the canteen and I’d be trundling after them, waving my plunger and desperately trying to make them hear my muffled cries of, “Hey, let me out of here!”

During the breaks between scenes, people would stand around chatting right next to me as if I wasn’t there. Sometimes they’d even lean on my casing as if it were just another piece of scenery.

At first I thought it was a bit rude. But after a couple of days, I realised I was overhearing more studio gossip than I would as an ordinary extra.

Most of it was spread by Ruby, a mother hen of a wardrobe mistress, with a huge beehive hairdo, who had worked in the studio for years. Whenever you heard her click-clacking across the studio floor in her high heels and skirt that was far too short for her age, you knew you were about to hear some piece of salacious news.

Even when Ruby was on her knees adjusting an actor’s costume between takes, a mouthful of dressmaker’s pins didn’t stop her expressing her opinions.

Most of Ruby’s news bulletins during the first few days’ filming concerned a young make-up assistant called Tina.

The Daleks invade the big screen
Tina was a shy little thing with a Cilla Black haircut - one of those girls who don’t seem to know how pretty they are. But I’d noticed her right away. Well, you couldn’t miss her, really. She came right onto the middle of the set, between shots, and stood on a little stool in her mini-skirt so she could reach Peter Cushing’s head and make sure his shock of white hair was properly teased up for the mad scientist look.

She didn’t notice me, of course. I was inside my Dalek and by the time the day’s filming was over, she was gone.

Generally, Tina tended to stay in the make-up room. And, unfortunately, us Daleks didn‘t need make-up.

In any case, Tina had a boyfriend, a bit-part actor called Steve, who was playing one of the Daleks’ semi-human accomplices, the Robomen - although, if Ruby was to be believed, their relationship was far from happy.

“That poor girl!” Ruby said in a particularly shocked voice one morning.

Twisting around inside my Dalek, I saw through the grill that she was talking to Alf, the burly foreman in charge of building the sets.

Glancing over her shoulder to check no one else could hear her - and clearly assuming my Dalek was empty - Ruby added in a lower voice, “She told him she was expecting, and you know what he did? He laughed in her face and said he wanted nothing more to do with her!”

Alf made an angry noise and put his fist on top of my dome with a heavy thud.

“It’s time somebody took that young man to one side and told him a few home truths,” Alf said forthrightly.

"Daleks are the supreme beings in the circus!"
During the second week, we filmed on location around some abandoned warehouses. It made a change to be working outside but created some problems.

On rough pavements, the Daleks wobbled and shook like shopping trolleys, and in cobbled alleys we couldn‘t move them at all. Alf had to lay plywood tracks for us to roll smoothly along.

While we waited for Alf to complete the task, I watched Steve clowning about as if he were the star, rather than a bit part. He took particular delight in flirting with a slinky-looking continuity girl right in front of poor Tina.

I noticed that Alf was watching him, too, and seemed to hammer in his nails a little more forcefully.

When I arrived for work the following morning, a real-life drama was in full swing. As well as the usual trucks full of lights and cameras, the road to the warehouses was blocked with police cars and an ambulance.

One of my fellow Dalek operators spotted me and said, “I don’t think we’ll be needed today. One of the Robomen was found dead in an alley. It looks like he fell out of a loading bay - from two floors up.”

At the catering van, Ruby had a different theory.

As I stood behind her and asked for a mug of tea, she told Alf, “I reckon Tina arranged to meet him up there - then gave him a push. I certainly wouldn’t blame her.”

“It could have been anyone who shoved him off,” said Alf, between bites of a bacon sandwich. “I heard he owed a lot of money - some of it to some pretty nasty people.”

Looking around, I saw Tina on the other side of the road, a check coat hugged tightly over her mini-dress. She looked distraught, and utterly alone, as if nobody knew what to say to her.

There wasn’t much I could say myself. But my heart went out to her.

On impulse, I took my untouched tea over and held it out to her.

As her pale blue eyes flicked up to meet mine, Tina looked surprised, but then grateful as she accepted the steaming mug.

As it turned out, there was no time to say anything because two men in trilby hats and dark coats had arrived meaningfully by Tina’s side.

“Morning, Miss,” said one of them, “My name’s Inspector Jewel. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you a few questions.”

The next day, I was back in my Dalek. Steve’s part in the film was too small for his death to threaten the picture and, having already lost a lot of time, the director wanted to press on.

The atmosphere on set was tense, though - and the rumour mill was working overtime.

“They kept her at the police station all night,” Ruby told Alf, as he dusted down my Dalek shell. “But they had to let her go because she had a watertight alibi.”

“Well I never believed it was Tina,” Alf said gruffly. “But I’ll tell you this much, Ruby, whoever did it, did her a favour. She’s better off without that wrong ‘un.”

“You’re right there,” said Ruby. Then, more distantly, she said, “I wonder if she’ll keep the baby?”

Don't worry readers
- it's only a toy!
Well, she did, and now he’s in his forties with two lovely children of his own.

They’re both mad about Dr Who, of course, and they could hardly believe it when they found out their granddad used to be a Dalek.

“Did you exterminate loads of people?” they asked enthusiastically.

“Loads!” I laughed.

Well, one, actually.

But even Tina doesn’t know that.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

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

And you can read more fiction by Douglas McPherson in comedy crime book The Blue Rinse Brigade. Click here to download the ebook from Amazon.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Big Flop?

You’d think so, from the custard pies the newspapers have hurled at the Beeb’s new circus sitcom? But is Big Top as bad as the critics would have us believe?

The first thing to say about Big Top is that it looks fantastic. The BBC borrowed Zippos’ number two tent, the smaller one which houses his Circus Academy, for the location filming, and the red, blue and yellow ‘top’ looks fabulous re-branded as Circus Maestro in the establishing shots between scenes.

Everything else in the series is immensely colourful, from the clowns’ costumes to the background detail in the backstage area where most of the action takes place. The caravan interiors are lovingly detailed and convincing, while Amanda Holden, naturally, looks great as ring-mistress, Lizzie.

Get past the eye candy, and it has to be said that the script is pretty silly. The characters are more pantomime than sitcom, the storylines are contrived, and too many of the jokes are thrown in for the sake of it, rather than arising naturally from the characters and situations.

Also, if Boyco the acrobat had been black or Asian instead of Eastern European, his portrayal would have achieved the cheapest ‘race’ laughs since It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Given such a starry cast and the comic potential of the setting, it’s a pity the producers didn’t make Big Top a more realistic comedy-drama; something like those old classics Lovejoy or Minder, or even Only Fools & Horses, where the laughs came out of broadly drawn but broadly believable characters doing broadly believable things.

(And, I’m sorry Big Top, but having Ruth Madoc’s character fake the kidnapping of her own dog to claim a reward didn’t strike me as something anyone would be likely to do in real life. To put such a story in the first episode set the believability bar worryingly low.)

Given the things that go on in the real life circus world, a more grown-up version of Big Top could have been brilliant.

Zippos circus vehicles and tent gave Big Top
an authentic look
But, having said all that, Big Top goes out at 7.30 when it will catch the kids audience. Kids won’t mind the cartoonish humour and, if it‘s their first taste of what a circus looks like, they may even ask their parents to take them along to the real thing.

That’s the best thing about Big Top. True to director Marcus Mortimer’s promise when I interviewed him earlier in the year (see first entry on this blog) the show may portray circus people as a bunch of clowns, but it doesn’t knock circus.

In the first episode, a member of the public actually tells the Circus Maestro crew that he’s just had the best evening’s entertainment he’s had for years. Given how easy it would have been for Big Top to have tipped a bucket of water down the clown trousers of the real big top, could the Beeb have given circus a better plug?

MEANWHILE.... what’s life like in the real big top? You’ll find out in Circus Mania of course (Order now, from the button up there on the right... etc, etc).

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Circus Mondao Pantomime

Ringmistress Petra Jackson (left) and Bippo the Clown (3rd from left)
are joined by Ugly SistersAlan Stratford-Johns and
Oliver Dane Sanders Imbert-Terry esq
(Can that really be his name? Oh yes it is!)
in the Circus Mondao pantomime

- Oh yes it is!

As you drive along the A11, near Thetford in Norfolk, the sight of the light-bedecked Circus Mondao tent poking over the wall of the Elveden country estate like a well-lit Christmas tree is a welcome sight on a wintry day - and the show that awaits you inside the big top is a welcome alternative to the traditional theatre panto.

Circus Mondao's
Christmas Programme
There have always been links between circus and pantomime, not least in the person of Joseph Grimaldi, the early 19th century panto star regarded as the father of modern clowning. Circus clowns are still nicknamed Joeys in his honour, and although Grimaldi never worked in a circus ring, he employed many elements of circus, such as performing animals on stage.

In previous eras, meanwhile, many circus stars, and their animals, found winter work in theatre pantomimes.

So although the idea of a circus putting on a panto may seem novel, it’s not without precedent, and the two genres combine extremely smoothly in this new show, which plays every day from now until January 3.

The story picks up where ordinary pantomimes end. Cinderella has married her Prince Charming, but now that the new has worn off her happy ever after, life for poor Cinders has reverted to domestic drudgery. To relieve her boredom, she asks her fairy godmother to conjure up a circus.

My preview of Circus Mondao's
visit to Elvenden in the
Weekly News
That’s about it, as far as plot is concerned. But, with little story to slow the proceedings, it’s action all the way as a string of high standard circus acts - silk, solo trapeze, aerial straps - are interspersed with panto routines featuring Alex Morley and Ian Jarvis as a pair of well costumed Ugly Sisters.

Panto’s traditional ‘ghost’ routine gets a literal lift from a flying spook that spirits one of the Ugly Sisters away into the roof, and there’s plenty of space in the big top for a very messy ‘slosh’ routine, starring the Uglies and Mondao’s regular clown, Bippo.

The beautiful, plumed spotted horses galloping through the sawdust, meanwhile, add to the impression that we’ve been whisked away to a magical dreamland.

Kids will love the parade of zebras, lamas, camels and Shetland ponies - and the chance to meet them in their own, smaller big top after the show - while dads will have their spirits lifted by the glamorous showgirls performing a can-can.

Perfectly timed to coincide with Amanda Holden’s Big Top on BBC1, this alternative to the traditional theatre panto is the perfect opportunity for a new audience to get their first taste of the real big top.

So roll up, roll up for the greatest Christmas show in Norfolk.

Circus Mondao is run by sisters Gracie Timmis and Carol Macmanus - the youngest generation of Britain's oldest circus family. To read the full story of their 200 years in the circus, plus behind-the-scenes visits to and interviews with the showmen and stars of Britain's most popular circuses,  buy Circus Mania direct from Peter Owen Publishers for the special offer price of £10 including postage and packing in the UK (for overseas orders add £2.75 worldwide)
Send cheques to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or download the Kindle edition from Amazon

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

Friday, 27 November 2009


As we count down to the publication of Circus Mania, it seems like everyone is catching the circus bug, to judge by a couple of CDs sent my way for review.

New singer-songwriter Will Kevans (his parents should have called him Than...) has decorated the cover of his disc, Everything You Do, with an attractive montage of retro circus artwork: elephant, lion and polar bear on pedestals and so on.

No circus songs, but it’s an OK album. A rootsy pop outing somewhere between Squeeze and Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Nashville piano man Phil Vassar, who visits the UK for the first time in January, has taken things even further, calling his latest release Travelling Circus and adorning it with paintings of himself kitted out as a ringmaster.

Again, there are no circus connections in the actual music, which is a pleasing combination of contemporary Nashville meets Billy Joel. A travelling circus is just the way Phil sees life as a touring musician.

“I always say to the band, let’s get this travelling circus on the road,” Vassar told me, in a phone call from Music City. But he admits to being a big fan of the sawdust circle: “Oh yeah. I always liked the fact that it’s so much bigger than life.”

Finally in this musical interlude, the best Christmas album I’ve ever heard is Gold And Green by another Nashville act, Sugarland. I particularly like their rock’n’roll version of Winter Wonderland. You know that line about building a snowman and pretending he’s Parson Brown? Well, strange as it seems, I never realised until now that there’s a second verse that runs: “In the meadow we can build and snowman and make believe that he’s a CIRCUS CLOWN....”

So thanks to Sugarland’s gorgeous Jennifer Nettles for bringing that to my attention.

Thanks, too, to My Weekly for running a nice advance plug for Circus Mania alongside the first instalment of my Christmas comedy crime serial, The Blue Rinse Brigade. Look out for it in stores now.

With the recent release of a film called Cirque de Freak, all these circus references are nicely paving the way for the publication of Circus Mania in the New Year. Why wait until after Christmas, though? You can order now from Amazon, and all other good online stores.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Moving the Chinese State Circus

"Gypsies know not to mix it
with the circus," warns
Chinese State Circus
transport manager
Ingo Dock
as featured in
Truck and Driver magazine

Ingo Dock reveals the secrets of Britain's biggest Chinese takeaway

Moving a circus is a big deal - 13 drivers, 20 trucks and 22 loads of a big deal in the case of the Chinese State Circus. The man in charge of the operation is 34-year-old Ingo Dock, who has been a circus man all his life. He grew up on Uncle Sam’s American Circus where his father drove the lorries before him.

I spoke to Ingo recently for a feature that appeared in the April issue of Truck and Driver magazine to coincide with the publication of Circus Mania, and he told me all about life on the road, from the hazards of waterlogged grounds to travellers who have taken over a site before the circus arrives.

“It happens about once a year,” Ingo sighed, “But on the whole the Gypsies know not to mix it with the circus because we‘ve got forklifts to get them off...”

I also talked about circus transport, this time in days gone by, with retired ringmaster George Pinder, who’s family have been circus for around 200 years (Click here for pictures of the Pinder circus from yesteryear).

The Chinese State Circus
- between shows they travel in lorries...
George is full of amazing stories about the introduction of steam generated electricity in the big top in the 1890s, and the move from horse-drawn transport to lorries between the two World Wars. He supplied some great pictures which will hopefully be in Best of British magazine in the New Year also. There’s even a poster for his great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Ord’s circus, in 1817, which appears in Circus Mania.

George, incidentally, is the uncle of Carol and Gracie, the sisters who run Circus Mondao.

New edition for 2018
For the full story of the Chinese State Circus, Circus Mondao and the 200 years in the circus of Britain's oldest circus family, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Click here to see the trucks of Uncle Sam's American Circus.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Gretchen Peters' Confessions of a Nashville Circus Girl

There’s more to life than circuses... or so I distantly recall. When you spend a year writing a book about circus it tends to become a case of clowns to the right of me, elephants to the left, here I am stuck in the middle with Gerry Cottle.

When I’m not writing about circus, however, I write about music. Sometimes I even combine the two, as I did when I got to interview the massively successful American songwriter Gretchen Peters about her new Best Of, which she titled after her favourite song... Circus Girl.

Here’s an extract of my feature in Country Music People, in which Gretchen explains her affinity with the girl who walks the wire in the centre ring.

She even put a drawing of a big top and a Victorian trapeze flyer on the cover.


by Douglas McPherson

I’ve witnessed some emotionally charged musical moments in my time...

But the only piece of music to give me the full lump in the throat, grit in my eyes, pass me the Kleenex, excuse-me-while-I-just-hyperventilate-a-bit effect, is one I heard a couple of weeks ago. You might not recognise the 100-year-old melody by its title, Entrance of the Gladiators, and you’ve almost certainly never heard of its composer, the unfortunately surnamed Julius Fucik. But if I said “circus music” to you, I guarantee you or anyone else on the planet would be able to dum-dum-dummy-dummy-dum-dum-da-da it to me.

My visit to the Great British Circus
- Britain's last circus with elephants -
where I first heard the famous circus theme music
Entrance of the Gladiators
at ringside with the smell of horses and camels
in my nose
Next to Happy Birthday To You, it must be one of the most widely known pieces of music ever written. It should sound incredibly naff.

Quite why it hit me so hard and unexpectedly was probably because I was sitting in a big, cold tent, with trampled mud and grass beneath my feet, a circle of golden sawdust in front of me, and a whiff of camel wee in the air.

The circus can have that effect on you, as Gretchen Peters found when she took her young daughter to a big top for the first time.

“My daughter was maybe seven or eight and I realised she was getting to that age where she was sort of becoming jaded about things. The circus came to town and I wanted her to see it while she was still young enough to get the magic of it, before she grew up enough to see through it.

“She loved it. But what I really wasn’t prepared for was how wonderful and evocative it was for me. I was really, really inspired by it. The tawdriness as well as the magic. The juxtaposition of both of those things. I went home that night and wrote Circus Girl.”

‘I work the high wire in the centre ring,
Defying gravity, that’s my thing...’

"Defying gravity in the centre ring."
The death of real life
circus girl Eva Garcia during her
high altitude performance at
the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
inspired my book
Circus Mania
When she came to compile her new Best Of, Gretchen had no hesitation in calling the album Circus Girl.

“There are very few songs that you can play for 15 years that you don’t get tired of at some point. Even the ones that sometimes people really like, you need to give them a rest. But that is one of the very few songs that I have never got tired of playing.

“I’ve always thought it was my most autobiographical song. The character is so very close to home. As a metaphor for the music business... I just thought that metaphor was irresistible.”

‘Believe me darlin’ it’s a lonely world,
It ain’t easy for a circus girl.’

Gretchen is best known for writing Independence Day, a 90s hit which remains the career song of country superstar Martina McBride. But Gretchen is a good singer in her own right, and her Best Of is recommended to all fans of thoughtful singer-songwriters.

I certainly think she’s nailed the life of a girl in the big top. Here’s how Circus Girl ends:

‘So I climb that ladder right on up to the sky,
I don’t look down and I don’t ask why,
And just for a moment I’m on top of the world,
Just for a moment... I’m a circus girl.’

Circus Mania
- Mail on Sunday
To read about real life circus girls, and boys, and clowns and freaks and animals, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus. Just £10 including postage in the UK (add £2.75 overseas) from:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Are circuses cruel to animals?

How the Daily Mail reported the
return of elephants to the
Great British Circus

The issue of animals in circuses will always be a thorny one, writes Douglas McPherson in an article that originally appeared in The Stage.

Beneath the star speckled canvas sky of the big top, poor old Neli is being exploited terribly. One minute she’s being suspended by her ankle, without harness or safety net, above a head first drop to certain death.

Ten minutes later, she’s got a fleece over her costume and is selling teas from the refreshment wagon.

But Neli can‘t complain. The Bulgarian former nurse chose this life when she married acrobat Stefan and formed the Duo Stafaneli (Stefan and Neli, geddit?).

It’s Neli’s four-legged co-stars that have put the Great British Circus in the national news, specifically Sonja, Delhi and Vana Mana, the first elephants to perform in a UK circus ring for a decade - alongside director Martin Lacey’s existing menagerie of Bengal tigers, camels and horses.

When the pachyderms made their debut earlier this year, Dr Rob Atkinson, head of the RSPCA’s wildlife department, called it, “A body blow for animal welfare in this country.”

Me and the elephant
Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson
meets Great British Circus star Sonja
David Davies, chairman of the Circus Friends Association welcomed the return, commenting, “From my point of view, a circus without animals is not a true circus.”

But was stirring up headlines such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Police On Standby In War Over The Elephants,’ the direction circus should be heading in?

Human shows such as Cirque du Soleil have taken two decades to make circus as fashionable and successful as it has ever been. So wasn’t the return of elephants a step back to the bad old days when the widely held belief that circuses were cruel came close to killing off the art form?

As both circus fan and animal lover, it was with very mixed feelings that I attended the Great British Circus on its first stop of the season, in March.

The show I witnessed assuaged many of my fears and prejudices. True, I winced at the horse trainer’s party piece of making the animals take an awkward one legged ’bow.’

I could also have done without the ‘elephant pyramid,’ in which two pachyderms stand on tubs with their front legs resting on the back of the third. Such majestic creatures don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.

On the whole, though, the animals appeared in excellent condition. The presentation was relaxed and gentle, and I could see the value of a show that allowed us to get so close to so many exotic beasts. The children in the audience were especially enthralled.

Great British Circus
2009 programme
Talking to Lacey and his fellow tiger trainer Helyne Edmonds afterwards, it was impossible to doubt that they were primarily motivated by their love for their animals, and that their training methods were based on patience and reward, as they claimed.

“It’s organised play,” said Lacey. “If they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t do it. That’s why any suggestion of cruelty is spurious. You have to be rather nice to them.”

I have to say he convinced me.

Then, just when I had begun telling everyone I knew that it was safe to go back to the circus, the Great British Circus burst back into the news amid a rash of even worse headlines.

“Beaten and hit with hooks, the cruel fate of our circus elephants,” screamed the Daily Express, as television news broadcast undercover film made by welfare group Animal Defenders International (ADI) that showed chained elephants being beaten in their stable.

The Great British Circus responded with a statement that the groom seen “behaving inappropriately” in the footage was dismissed as soon as his actions came to the attention of the management (which was three months before ADI released the film).

The Circus added that it was considering installing its own surveillance cameras to prevent future lapses of animal care.

But the damage had already been done.

Lacey and other animal trainers would argue that the malpractice of one groom should not be used to judge an entire profession.

But when it comes to the public perception of circus, one bad apple really does taint the taste of the entire barrel.

Great British Circus
director Martin Lacey
For fans like me, who want to believe that animals are safe in the circus, the expose feels like a betrayal of trust that will not quickly be forgotten. However well kept the animals appear to be, and however nice the trainers, will we ever again be able to watch an animal show completely assured that everything is as it should be behind the curtain?

For the opponents of circus, meanwhile, there is now forever on YouTube irrefutable justification for their picket lines outside the circus gates and evidence to back their on-going calls for a government ban.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Lacey. While other circuses gave up animals in the face of opposition from the welfare groups, Lacey has campaigned for decades to prove that circuses are capable of looking after their beasts.

It’s interesting that the GBC’s press statement repeatedly stresses that the elephants are appearing under contract and not actually owned or trained by the circus.

Perhaps by hiring a German troupe of elephants, complete with its own trainers and grooms, Lacey inadvertently imported lower standards of animal care than his own.

If so, he is presumably kicking himself for scoring a massive own goal for both the Great British Circus and animal circuses as a whole.

Bolivia recently became the first country to ban all animals, domestic and wild, from the circus ring.

It would be a shame if Britain followed suit and lost its last few remaining examples of circuses keeping alive an animal-based tradition established by the British equestrian Philip Astley in 1768.

The elephant in the room
How this article originally appeared in
The Stage
But if animal circuses are ever to be rehabilitated as a guilt-free form of mainstream entertainment, they will have to work a lot harder than they have to clean up their act in the eyes of the public.

They will have to learn to act, both in the ring and backstage, as if the cameras of a hostile animal rights lobby are on them at all times - as indeed they may be.

The lessons from Mary Chipperfield’s conviction for cruelty ten years ago (on the evidence of undercover film) have clearly not been learned.

But will even the most stringent codes of practise, designed to protect both the animals from abuse and their keepers from the suspicion of abuse, ever repair the damage caused by the occasional highly publicised instance of mistreatment, such as this latest?

Sadly, it seems that for as long as circuses have animals, the spectre of cruelty, real or suspected, will always be the elephant in the room.

Big cats back in Britain
at Jolly's Circus
Update 2014
At the end of 2012, Martin Lacey retired from the big cat cage and closed his Great British Circus. His tigers are now in Ireland, leaving only two or three UK circuses with horses, camels and dogs. A ban on wild animals in British circuses has been proposed for 2015. But around the world, the issue of animals in circus refuses to go away. In Las Vegas, the previously all-human Cirque du Soleil recently augmented its magic show with its first live elephant... and in autumn 2013, big cats returned to the British circus ring when Thomas Chipperfield brought his lions and tigers to Jolly's Circus.

See also my interview with Martin Lacey.

It was a visit to the Great British Circus that prompted me to write Circus Mania. Up to that point, I'd become fascinated by the skills of human circus stars and the dangers they diced with in their acts on the flying trapeze of wheel or death. But when I saw a news report on the return of the elephants to the Great British Circus I glimpsed a sight of an earlier, more raw circus tradition, because it was in sawdust rings full of tigers, horses and elephants that the history of circus lay. I went along with mixed feelings, because I'd been brought up with the belief that the idea of performing animals was wrong. But in my ringside seat at the Great British Circus, and in my subsequent interviews with tiger trainer Martin Lacey and other animals trainers, I realised there was a much richer, deeper and more complex story to be told about the circus than I had originally realised.

Read more on the subject of animals in the circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon in paperback or ebook.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Circus Mania on Amazon

& Elephants in The Stage!

Well, it will be a while before it hits the shops, but it’s great to see the cover of Circus Mania on Amazon. Check it out and let me know what you think. I think Nick at Peter Owen has done a fantastic job with the design and I’ve had a tremendous positive response from everyone who’s taken a look at it - some people have even placed an order!

A couple of people have asked who the aerialist on the cover is - and I know he hasn’t been shot from the most flattering angle! - but I like the mystery of this faceless performer against such a deeply atmospheric, almost outer-space-like background, so I’m not going to tell you; you’ll have to buy the book and find out then! If you recognise him, though, let me know. Clue: he’s flying through as much water as air.

It was also nice to get an advance plug for Circus Mania in The Stage this week, along with a full-colour double-page spread of elephant, tiger and horse photos from The Great British Circus. It’s in the shops until Wednesday if you want a nice pictorial souvenir of the year the elephants came back to Britain.

Friday, 18 September 2009


Inside the Academy of Circus Arts
tent as dressed for the filming
of the BBC1 sitcom Big Top.

Free Show

If you want to see the circus stars of tomorrow for free, get along to Hampstead Heath at 2pm on Friday, October 2, for the Academy of Circus Arts Graduation Show.

Martin Burton, of Zippos Circus, set up the Academy after booking a trapeze act trained in a conventional circus school. They had a great act, but because they’d trained in a place where the trapeze was permanently set up, they didn’t know how to rig their own apparatus. They then proved unable to adapt to life on the road in a caravan.

Zippo’s solution was to start a travelling circus school. Each week, the students not only put on a show for the public, they build up and pull down the big top, drive the lorries to the next town, put up posters, work in the box office and do all the other things that are part of life in the sawdust ring.

The result is graduates the world’s circuses can’t wait to snap up. The graduation show is a unique gala performance devised and presented by the students and teachers - and you can see it for FREE, in the Zippos big top at East Heath Road, Hampstead on Friday, October 2 at 2pm.

Seating is unreserved, so just turn up - sorry, I meant to say: roll up, roll up - in good time to get the best seat.

Click here to read an interview with Zippos founder Martin Burton

Friday, 11 September 2009

Must Circuses have Elephants?

Or clowns, for that matter?

Britain's funniest clowns
Clive Webb and Danny Adams
According to the old saying, which may or may not have been coined by Phineas T Barnum himself, a circus is not a circus without clowns, peanuts and elephants.

Well, the elephants made a nostalgic reappearance at the Yarmouth Hippodrome over the summer, if only in an opening archive film sequence that quickly established what the show, Celebrate, was celebrating: Peter Jay’s 30 years at the helm of Britain’s oldest purpose-built circus building.

It was nice to see the old rubber mules, as American troupers used to call them, and reminded me of Peter telling me fond stories about the pachyderms trouping off down the beach to swim in the sea between shows.

Zip back to the present, and not only have the animals long departed the Hippodrome, but this year, the clowns have as well. At the very least, they left their red noses and hoop-waisted trousers backstage in Clown Alley.

The laughs this year were provided by a double act of ringmaster Jack Jay (Peter’s son, taking the straight man role) and young comedian Johnny Mac. What they did was clowning by another name. Both the banter and high percentage of physical slapstick were strongly influenced by Clive Webb and Danny Adams, who ruled summer seasons at the Hippodrome for the past six years, before heading off to Butlins for the entirety of 2009.
Danny and Clive would have been proud of the young pretenders’ use of the Hippodrome’s water feature, including a particularly inspired gag that saw the well-upholstered Jack jump into a boat rowed by Johnny - and fall right through the bottom.

For all this clowning, though, there was not a scrap of motley and slap in sight. So, do 21st century clowns (and circuses) need their red noses, any more than big tops still need elephants (or peanuts, for that matter)?

Peter Jay makes the familiar point that a lot of people are scared of clowns: “When we had the clown posing for photographs outside, we’d have kids in tears before they came in.”

If nothing else, the plain clothes clowning of Jack and Johnny reminds us that many comedy double acts, from Laurel and Hardy to Cannon and Ball, are clowns without the noses.

Indeed, I went to the Seaside Special on Cromer Pier recently and was struck by the similarity of father and son comics Simmons and Simmons to Danny and Clive - the only difference being that the former wore normal clothes instead of ringmaster and clown clobber.

And yet... Simmons and Simmons were on a stage in a theatre, in a traditional variety show. Peter Jay tells me he sees the Hippodrome becoming less of a circus show than a variety show with circus acts in it.

But the fact remains that a circus ring, in a big top, is a very different environment to a theatre. It’s often bigger, for one thing. The exaggeration of colourful ringmaster jackets and clown clothes helps to get the show across to people who may be sitting some distance from the action.

And shouldn’t everything about a circus be bigger, bolder, more colourful, more glamorous and more exaggerated than real life, anyway?

Let me know what you think.

In the meantime, all this talk about clowns has got me thinking: who is Britain’s funniest clown? To find out, stay tuned to Circus Mania. (Or add your own suggestions)

Friday, 28 August 2009


For a sneak peak behind the scenes of the BBC's new circus sitcom.

Zippos 2nd tent rebranded as Circus Maestro
for the BBC sitcom Big Top
- filmed in deep winter
As I exclusively revealled in The Stage, the circus in BBC1’s new sitcom, Big Top, was very nearly called Zippos, after the real-life circus where it was filmed.

According to Zippos owner, Martin Burton, “I sent a memorable email saying that might be possible unless there were drunken chorus girls and badly behaved clowns. An equally memorable email came back saying, ‘There’s all of that and much more...’ So I said in that case we’d better not call it Zippos, and we re-branded everything as Circus Maestro.”

Starring sitcom royalty Tony Robinson and Ruth Madoc alongside Britain’s Got Talent host Amanda Holden, who stars as ring-mistress Lizzie, Big Top promises to do for circuses what Hi-De-Hi did for holiday camps.

Producer and director Marcus Mortimer, of Big Bear Films, recalls the origins of the show, which will be the flagship of BBC1‘s autumn schedule.

“We’d just had a lot of success with My Hero, about a superhero living near Greenford, and the broadcasters said they’d really like an ensemble piece for a mainstream audience,” says Mortimer, who‘s other successes include Jonathan Creek.

“Our head of development, Susie McIntosh, came to a meeting and said, ‘How about a circus?’ And we all went, ‘Do you know? That’s never been done before.’ Nobody has done a comedy, or even a drama, in this country about a circus. Which is absolutely extraordinary.”

To script the series, Big Bear turned to My Hero writer Daniel Peak.

“Daniel is one of the best of the best of the new, young writers,” says Mortimer. “And, amazingly, he turned out to be a big circus fan.

“The BBC asked us to do a read and at that read we had Amanda Holden, Tony Robinson, John Thomson, who plays the clown... everybody turned up. All the actors loved the parts we wanted them to play and about six days later the controller said, ‘I’ll have a series, please.’

Big Top was filmed in mid-winter... and was sadly
to get a frosty reception from TV critics
“I think people were genuinely fired up by the sense of colour and fun and that element of family entertainment that perhaps hasn’t been around that much lately. A lot of comedies are post-nine o‘clock. They wanted something at 8.30 and we said, ‘Let‘s give ‘em a circus.’”
Inevitably, there are those who wonder if Big Top will portray the circus industry in a bad light.

According to veteran showman Gerry Cottle, “The trouble is that whenever you see a circus on television, the boss is always a crook, with a silver waistcoat and an earring, like David Essex in All The Fun Of The Fair.”

The premise of Big Top is that ring-mistress Lizzie has taken over running the circus because her father, the owner, is in jail for fraud.

The interior of the Zippos tent
redressed as Circus Maestro
But, according to Mortimer, “We’re not having a pop at circuses, in the same way that Hi-De-Hi was not having a pop at holiday camps. Maplin’s Holiday Camp was a great, fun place to be. Big Top is about a circus that is struggling to exist in the current climate, but they always manage to pull something out of the hat because they’re actually a good circus.”
Most of the action in Big Top takes place backstage and was filmed in front of a studio audience.

“It’s a bit like Hi-De-Hi,” says Mortimer. “You didn’t see that much of the knobbly knees competitions. Mostly you were in the offices and chalets. But, of course, you do have to show what goes on in the tent, so we went to Zippos and said, ‘Can we borrow your big top?’”
Burton set up a number of circus stunts for the programme, including a scene in which Amanda Holden is strapped to a revolving knife-thrower’s board.

“She needed a bit of hand-holding before she got involved with that, and I can’t say I blame her,” chuckles Burton, who adopted the name Zippo, from the lighter, as a fire-eating clown and street entertainer, in the 1970s.

Although Burton supplied a knife thrower, he didn’t throw the knives at Amanda for real.
“It’s television,” says Burton. “But we did strap her on and spin her around for real.”
Another action sequence involved a dog chasing John Thompson’s clown onto the flying trapeze, where his feet catch fire.

Amanda Holden and the
cast of Big Top
“It was totally implausible, but we had great fun rigging it,” says Burton. “And before you ask, they booked the dog and no, it couldn’t climb the bloody ladder! If I’d booked the dog, they’d have got a dog that could climb the ladder.”

Bruce Mackinnon had a stunt double for his onscreen tumbling as the Eastern European acrobat Boyco. But he prepared for the role by spending an afternoon walking the tightrope at London’s circus school, Circus Space.

“Once, with my arms flailing like mad, I got from one end to the other. You read stories of old tightrope walkers or trapeze artists, and it’s such a poetic thing to them. So it was nice to get a taste of that - although it’s one thing to be just a couple of feet above the ground and another to know there’s nothing beneath you but death. I think that would be a lot harder... or maybe easier!” the actor chuckles.

Did Zippo share Cottle’s reservations about they way circus would be portrayed in the series?

“I’ve had a very long career working with television companies and I’m very aware that television does what it does in order to get ratings,” says Burton, who also recently lent his tent to a forthcoming episode of the ITV series Married, Single, Other.

“I suspected not everything would be as positive towards circus as I might like and I’m sure there will be a few die-hard circus fans who will be outraged and say it mis-represents circus.

“But I ignore all that. Because the truth of the matter is that if you ask the average six, seven or eight-year-old today what a circus is, they probably don’t know. But I’m sure after this programme they will know. I just think it’s great that circus is back on telly.”

See also: Big Flop?
For the complete inside story on the making of Big Top, read Circus Mania.

In the meantime, does anyone know why it’s Zippos rather than Zippo’s?

Click here to read an interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton as he looks back at 2013.