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."

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)