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, 20 December 2010

Circus meets Pantomime!


Valerie Murzak
in a publicity shot from
Cirque de Glace
- Read the behind-the-scenes
story of that show
and many other circuses
in Circus Mania
What could be more fun this Christmas - a pantomime or a trip to the circus? At the Norwich Theatre Royal there’s no need to choose between the two, thanks to an inspired decision to set this year‘s Jack and The Beanstalk in a travelling circus.

Yep, Jack (played by Hollyoaks heartthrob Stephen Uppal) has been transformed into the star of the Trott Family Circus, which even boasts a pantomime elephant instead of the traditional pantomime horse.

With scenes set inside the big top and during the circus parade through the panto village of Norwichvale, as well as scenes around the Trott Family caravans, the circus costumes and scenery give the production a huge infusion of life and colour.

Genuine circus thrills come from rising star Valerie Murzak (one of the stars of my book Circus Mania) who gets some of the biggest audience reactions of the night for her glamorous and dramatic performance on aerial silk - as well as standing on her hands and spinning a hula-hoop around her ankle.

Not to be out-done, writer and director Richard Gauntlett, who plays the Dame, turns in a slick plate-spinning routine, while a stilt-walker and dancing clowns add to the carnival atmosphere of the crowd scenes.

Other visual treats come in the portrayal of the Giant, represented by an enormous foot and hand descending from the proscenium arch.
Comic Andre Vincent gets the biggest laugh of the night when the giant is slain. “Give him a big hand!” says Vincent, as an enormous forearm flops from the wings and flattens the funny man.

This is Gauntlett’s tenth panto at Norwich and, thanks to a slick, fast-paced show - plus the magic of the circus - it’s undoubtedly his best yet.

Jack & The Beanstalk runs until Jan 16. Box Office: 01603 630000.
If you want to learn more about aerial silk star Valerie Murzak and her anglo-Russian circus family, meanwhile, look no further than Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus. Just click up the button above right for speedy delivery from those nice people at Amazon.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

You know your life’s a circus when your first Christmas card of the year comes from Gerry Cottle, but that was the case here at Circus Mania towers!

It’s a shame I live on the other side of our snowbound country as Gerry’s Christmas show at his famous Wooky Hole Caves sounds like the perfect alternative to panto.
50 Acts In 50 Minutes does exactly what it says and stars the kids of Gerry’s Wooky Circus School alongside circus pros Bippo the clown and his acrobatic fiance Lucy Ladbrooke. If you’re in the west of England hurry along to see them before the final show on Jan 3.

Here in East Anglia, meanwhile, there’s a panto theme - Oh yes there is! - to the Christmas show at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, so don’t miss your fix of circus thrills and spills, between Dec 11 and Jan 3.

Finally, are you stuck for Christmas presents? Why not treat your friends to a copy of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus, which the Mail on Sunday called “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form”?

Click the link to Amazon above right for speedy delivery complete with gift-wrapping. Or why not buy a copy for ALL your friends? Buy six or more and you’ll qualify for wholesale prices. Just call Michael O’Connell at Peter Owen Publishers on 020 8350 1775.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Murder at the Circus

Part 3
by Douglas McPherson

A serial killer is stalking the circus and an arsonist is on the loose. Can the four fiesty ladies of the Blue Rinse Brigade catch the killer? Find out in the final part of my three-part comedy crime caper which first appeared in My Weekly. (If you missed Parts 1 and 2, just scroll down the blog and find them below).

Murder at the Circus as it originally appeared
in My Weekly
Big Ted Telford came running across the green with the two constables Mervyn had left on duty while he went back to the station to interview Tommy the Clown.
"Shall we call the fire brigade?" asked one of the officers, waving aside the smoke.
"Bit late for that," said Evelyn as she set a fire extinguisher down on the grass. "But nice of you to stroll over and say hello."
"If it hadn’t been for these ladies, I’d have been burnt alive," said the girl who had been serving in the hotdog wagon.
Ted gazed at the badly blackened back of the otherwise intact wagon and said, "If the fire had reached those gas cylinders it would have wiped out half the circus."
"I think that was the intention," said Pam. She pointed her walking stick at a paraffin can casually discarded next to the remains of some hay bales that had formed the seat of the fire. "This was deliberate."
A little way off, Jane used a pair of eyebrow tweezers to pick up a matchbox. "It looks like the arsonist went this way."
"Heading for the caravans," Evelyn deduced. "I reckon whoever sawed through Tamsin’s tight-wire realised their plan had been foiled and stayed around to wreck more havoc."
"Which means they could strike again," Maude said, darkly.
"Agreed," said Evelyn. Turning to Ted, she asked, "Are there any particularly dangerous stunts in the second half of the show?"
"Well, there’s the knife-throwing, Marko catching a bullet in his teeth, Luigi juggling with chainsaws... nothing out of the ordinary."
"You’d better warn the performers to be on their guard for another attack," said Evelyn. "Maude, you’re needed as the plant for Tony’s gorilla routine, so you can keep an eye on things ringside. Pam, cover the backstage area. Jane and I will search around the lorries and caravans for clues to where our saboteur may be hiding.
"As for you two," the former Chief Inspector pointed at the constables, "Guard the main entrance to the big top - and if anything happens, try to react a bit quicker this time."
"Yes ma’am!" One of the officers saluted.
"The killer must be someone who knows their way around the circus," said Evelyn, as she and Jane perused the vehicles that encircled the big top. "Always watching and able to slip away unseen. But where can they be hiding?"
"Over here!" Jane hissed, suddenly. She pointed to a wet handprint on a caravan door and mouthed: "Paraffin!"
They checked the windows, but the blinds were down.
"Shall we call for back up?" Jane whispered.
"From Pinky and Perky back there?" Evelyn scorned. "I think we can handle this. Cover me."
Jane drew her miniature pistol and Evelyn rapped loudly on the door. "Open up! We‘ve got you surrounded!"
There was no sound from inside the caravan.
"Looks like nobody’s home," said Evelyn, "Shall we take a look inside?"
"Allow me," said Jane. Taking a hairclip from her blue rinsed ‘do, the former spy poked it into the lock and sprung the simple mechanism.
Inside, they found just the normal signs of recent habitation: the remains of a meal on the worktop, some clothes on the bed.
"Well, there’s no sign of... Eeeek!"
Having idly opened a wardrobe door, Jane jumped back as a young man fell forward and crashed full length on the floor.
"Is he...?" Jane asked shakily.
Evelyn nodded grimly and pointed to a flash of glittery nylon wound tightly around the man’s neck: "Strangled with a pair of circus tights."
"But who is he, and who’d want to kill him?"
Evelyn noticed a brightly illustrated circus poster on the wall and said, "My guess is someone wanted to steal his identity."
For more adventures
of Evleyn, Pam, Jane
and Maude,
download new ebook
The Blue Rinse Brigade
from the
Kindle Store
The backstage area was hectic, with brightly costumed performers coming and going from the ring.
"Where’s the Masked Assassin?" Helga shouted above the music coming through the sparkly curtain.
"The Masked Assassin?" Pam asked, dubiously.
"He shoots the bullet I catch in my mouth," explained Marko the Magician, who was checking the mechanism of a powerful rifle.
"That doesn’t look like a fake gun," Pam observed.
"It’s real!" Marko said proudly. "The trick is he aims past my head, at a sandbag concealed in the wings, and I produce another bullet from under my tongue."
He grinned, and was suddenly holding a bullet between his teeth.
"He fires that rifle straight past you?" Pam marvelled. "You must trust him like a brother."
"He is my brother," said Marko.
At that moment, the rear tent flap was thrust aside by a sinister looking figure, clad in a long black trench coat and slouch hat. His ‘face’ was a featureless black satin mask.
"And about time," snapped Helga.
Ignoring the ring-mistress, the Assassin strode towards Marko and reached out with leather gloved hands to take the rifle.
"Don’t give it to him!" Evelyn shouted, as she and Jane burst into the tent.
As the Assassin spun around in surprise, Jane covered him with her pistol and Evelyn yelled, "Grab him Chewbacca!"
Still dressed in his gorilla suit, Tony wrapped his arms around the Assassin from behind.
"Get your paws off me!" came a muffled hiss from behind the mask. But although the trench-coated figure squirmed and struggled, the self-defence instructor’s grip was unbreakable.
"Now let‘s see who the circus murderer really is," said Evelyn.
Tugging off the Assassin’s hat and mask, Evelyn stepped back in surprise as she revealed the red with rage face of a woman in her 60s.
"Cora!" Ted exclaimed. "I thought you’d joined Zippos!"
"What as?" Cora snarled, "A 65-year-old trapeze artist? Not that you cared what happened to me as long as I was out of the way and you could shack up with this harlot!"
"How dare you!" exclaimed Helga.
"And how dare the lot of you steal my circus!"
"It’s my circus," Ted corrected.
"What do you know about circuses?" Cora raged. "It might have your name on it, Elvis, but it should bear the name of this country’s finest circus family, The Flying Flynns!"
"You had a generous divorce settlement," Ted mumbled.
"But where’s my brother?" Marko asked, confused.
"Gone to that great curtain call in the sky!" Cora spat unrepentantly. "Just as I’d have picked off the rest of you, one by one, if it wasn’t for these geriatric crime-busters!"
"You killed my brother?" Marko stammered. Suddenly he began stuffing bullets in his rifle. "Then I’ll kill you!"
"Stop him!" Evelyn commanded. "The law will take care of Cora."
As Helga and Tamsin tried to wrest the rifle from Marko, it went off and shot a hole in the canvas roof.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Cora stamped on Tony’s foot and elbowed herself out of his embrace.
"Sorry I can’t stick around for the rest of the show," she said, "But I promise I’ll be back!"
"You’re not going anywhere!" said Ted.
The grey-haired Teddy Boy grabbed the lapel of his ex-wife’s coat. But with an acrobat’s ease, Cora slipped out of the coat and left him holding the empty garment.
Underneath, she was wearing her old trapeze costume.
"Yes, it still fits!" Cora crowed. "And I can still do this!"
With a high kick worthy of a can-can dancer, Cora booted the pistol out of Jane’s hand. It went off with a loud bang and shot another hole through the roof.
Turning on her heel, Cora darted through the sparkly curtain towards the ring.
"After her, Galen!" said Evelyn.
In the spotlight, Luigi almost dropped the dumbbell he was holding, but the audience cheered as Cora ran across the ring chased by a gorilla.
Evelyn pulled a whistle from her bag and blew it loudly, causing the two constables to join the affray and try to block Cora‘s escape.
Around the edge of the ring were four metal pillars that held the tent up. Each was made from criss-crossed steel, like a crane.
Nimbly evading the police, Cora dashed towards one of the pillars and began climbing it, hand over hand.
Tony, in his gorilla costume, began scaling it behind her.
"He’s gaining on her!" Jane cheered.
Just out of Tony‘s reach, Cora came to a rope coiled around the pillar. The audience let out an admiring "Oooooh!" as she uncoiled the rope and swung diagonally across the ring.
There was applause as she leapt off the rope and landed with a loud clang on another pillar.
"Follow that, monkey boy!" Cora taunted.
As the rope swung back, Tony made a grab for it, missed and lost his footing. The crowd gasped as he hugged the pillar for dear life.
Cora, meanwhile continued climbing, past the spotlights into the murky heights of the roof.
"Where’s she going?" asked Jane.
Evelyn shaded her eyes against the spotlights and made out a faint ring of light around the top of the pillar where it poked through the canvas into the evening sky.
"She’s going onto the roof!" Evelyn shouted. "Everyone outside!"
Evelyn, Pam and Jane rushed towards the tent flaps as fast as their joints - collective age 236 - would carry them.
Backing against a caravan, they and the rest of the cast squinted up at the huge dome of the big top, which was silhouetted like a mountain against the sunset.
"There she is!" said Pam, as a tiny figured shinned up one of the four columns that poked through the roof of the tent, each topped with a flag.
"And there she goes!" said Evelyn, as the silhouetted figure disappeared over the central ridge.
"I’ll get her!" Helga sprinted off around the perimeter of the tent.
"I‘ll come with you!" said Tamsin.
"Me too!" said Ted.
In the meantime, a second, hairier silhouette emerged on the roof.
"It’s Tony!" Jane cheered.
On the sunny side of the big top, Cora sat on the canvas and whooshed down the steeply sloped roof as if on a toboggan.
At the bottom of the slope, she rolled athletically over the edge and dropped the final six feet, feet first into a clown car waiting below.
As Cora started the car, the noise was drowned by a protracted "Waaaaaaagh!" as a gorilla came slithering and rolling down the slope of the tent in a much less graceful manner.
Unprepared for the drop at the bottom, Tony flew straight off the edge and landed face first in a heap of straw that had recently been mucked out of the horses’ paddock.
Having no idea what was happening on the other side of the tent, Jane suddenly said, "There she is!"
As the Blue Rinse Brigade watched powerlessly, Cora came into view around the edge of the big top, driving a spluttering and bouncing clown car that sporadically let out a fire cracker bang from the exhaust pipe, accompanied by several clangs as various doors and mudguards fell off onto the grass.
Despite its condition, the car was moving remarkably quickly.
As it bumped away, heading for the edge of the green, it was followed by a straw-covered gorilla on a wobbly bicycle, which was in turn being chased by the leggy shapes of Helga and Tamsin in their circus tights.
A grey-haired aging Teddy Boy followed them, angrily shaking his fists, and two policemen brought up the rear, waving their truncheons.
"If only Mervyn was here to see this," Evelyn breathed.
"I’ve just called him," boomed Maude, who had finally emerged from the tent. "By the way, do you think she’s forgotten this?"
Maude was holding a remote control handset with a long, floppy aerial. She began thumbing the controls and the clown car abruptly veered away from the edge of the green.
For a moment, the car appeared to be on a collision course with the box office wagon, then it swerved away once more.
"Ah, I’m getting the hang of it now," said Maude.
As Cora wrestled uselessly with the steering wheel, and Tony and the other pursuers tried to keep up with the constant changes of direction, the little car settled into a wide arc that brought it trundling back the big top.
With a final shudder and bang, the brightly coloured vehicle came to an obedient halt right in front of the four ladies of the Blue Rinse Brigade.
"Nice driving," said Pam, clapping Maude on the back.
"It seems all those Sunday mornings playing with my great-granddaughter’s boats in the park finally paid off," Maude smiled.
"Give me that!" Cora made a grab for the handset, but Jane levelled her pistol and stopped the trapeze artist in her tracks with a stern, "Not this time."
"That was quite a performance," said Evelyn, "But you can save your encore for the judge."

After the formalities had been completed at the police station, Ted invited everyone back to the big top for a much needed drink.
Evelyn watched fondly as Tamsin threw her arms around Tommy the Clown, who had been released without charge.
"I tried to tell them I wasn’t doing a runner," he explained. "I was chasing a suspicious looking woman dressed as a fortune teller. But you know what the Old Bill’s like - they didn’t believe a word I said."
Mervyn blushed and cleared his throat, awkwardly. "Well you must admit, sir, it seemed an unlikely story at the time."
Ted clinked his glass with Helga and said, "I can’t believe Cora went so psycho... although she was always a bit fiery."
Helga slipped her arm around the showman’s waist and said, huskily, "I thought that’s how you like your women."
Noticing Tony glancing wistfully from Tamsin to Helga, Evelyn said, "Well, Kong, you may not have got the girl, but I’m sure that after your performance today there’s a job for you on the circus anytime you want it."
"I‘ve had enough monkey business for one lifetime..." Tony began.
But the electric blue sleeve of a Teddy Boy jacket was suddenly draped around his shoulders.
"I’ve been thinking," Ted began, "We should recreate that chase every night. The audience would love it...!"
As Ted moved away, with an arm each around Tony and Helga, making plans for the show, Mervyn sidled up to Evelyn, Jane, Pam and Maude with a sheepish expression on his face.
Evelyn gave her son-in-law a triumphant look and said, "Have you come to apologise for once again doubting our ability to assist in the fight against crime?"
"Well, the thing is," Mervyn began, "I thought Cora would turn out to be responsible for those cat burglaries the circus was accused of. But it seems I was wrong again. So I was wondering..."
Evelyn exchanged a look with her friends and said, "It sounds to me like another case for the Blue Rinse Brigade."

For more adventures of Evelyn, Pam, Jane and Maude, download new ebook The Blue Rinse Brigade from the Kindle Store.

For more circus fiction visit Polka Dot Dreams

Friday, 12 November 2010

Murder at the Circus

Part 2

by Douglas McPherson

A clown has met a sticky end and a serial killer is stalking the circus. In the second part of this comedy crime caper, which first appeared in My Weekly, can former police chief Evelyn and her doughty friends in the Blue Rinse Brigade catch the villain and save the day? (If you missed Part One, scroll down to find it below)

Murder at the Circus as it originally
appeared in My Weekly
The drums rolled, the music struck up and spotlights spun around the inside of the big top as six leggy dancing girls, clad in feathers and sequins, skipped into the circus ring for the opening spectacle.
While the dancers flashed their toothy grins, Luigi the strongman stood in the spotlight and ripped a telephone directory in half.
Backstage, there was just as much of a performance in progress.
Amid the jostling circus stars waiting to take their turn in the ring, former police chief Evelyn, retired pathologist Pam, former spy Jane, wartime codebreaker Maude and self-defence instructor Tony examined the split in the tight-wire used by Evelyn’s granddaughter, Tamsin.
"That saw cut looks like the work of someone who knew what they were doing," said Pam. "My guess is it would have only broke when Tamsin was half way across."
"Sabotage!" said Helga, an Amazonian blonde dressed in the red tailcoat, top hat and black tights of a ring-mistress.
"This isn’t sabotage," Evelyn declared, "It’s attempted murder."
"But who would do such a thing?" The gravel-voiced speaker was the aptly named Big Ted Telford, the circus owner. He was a big, grizzled man with a grey quiff, wearing an electric blue Teddy Boy jacket with a black velvet lapel.
"It was probably the same person who dropped a kitbag of cement on Rory the Clown, earlier," said Evelyn.
"Then that proves Tommy wasn‘t the murderer," said Tamsin, who was wearing a skimpy, yellow sequined costume, ready for the ring. "He might have fallen out with Rory, but he’d never do anything to harm me."
"Who else had access to your equipment?" asked Evelyn.
"It could have been anyone on the show," Tamsin shrugged. "I just left it here with all the other props."
As if to confirm the constant to-ing and fro-ing through the backstage area, the music grew briefly louder as Luigi’s muscle-bound torso emerged through the sparkly curtain from the ring. Two evening-suited magicians ducked past him to take their turn in the spotlight.
"It must be the Varneys!" Helga said, fiercely. "Messing around with our equipment so we start blaming each other."
"The Varneys?" Jane enquired.
"A rival circus," Ted explained. "They’re in the next town and they’re always trying to spoil our business."
He took the half-sawn-through tight-wire from Evelyn’s gloved hands. "But I can’t believe even the Varneys would stoop to this."
"I wouldn’t put it past them," Helga said darkly.
"Either that or it was someone closer to home," said Evelyn.
"More to the point," Helga addressed Tamsin, "Have you got another wire?"
"In my caravan."
"Then go and get it," Helga snapped. "The show must go on, and you’re on after me."
"Are you sure you’ll be alright up there after the shock you’ve had?" Evelyn asked her granddaughter.
Tamsin hesitated, her eyes wide with fear. But Ted said, "Helga’s right. We’ve already lost the clowns, we can’t afford to drop another act from the show."
"Don’t worry," Tamsin reassured her grandmother, "I’ll be alright."
"That‘s my girl," Evelyn said proudly. "As you can see, Pam, a stiff upper lip runs in the family."
As Tamsin hurried off, Evelyn turned to Ted.
"If you’re running short of performers, Mr Telford, I may be able to help you."
Ted gave her a dubious look. "What do you do, ride a unicycle?"
"We form a human pyramid," boomed the 91-year-old Maude, straight-faced, from where she was sitting on a plastic chair nearby.
"Not us!" Evelyn said, hastily. "Tony here is the funniest clown since Charlie Cairoli."
Tony dropped his candyfloss and turned to Evelyn with his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
"See what I mean?" said Evelyn, "Perfect comic timing! If you’ve got a spare costume he can start straightaway."
"Now hang on a -"
Before Tony could complete the sentence, Evelyn said, "This is no time for false modesty, Coco. The circus is in trouble and we must all rise to the occasion."
Ted didn’t look convinced but said, "I suppose I could try you out with the old escaped gorilla routine."
"The old escaped...?"
Evelyn put her heel onto Tony’s trainer and sank her weight onto it, causing him to whoop like an ape: "Oow, oow, oow, oow!"
"The escaped gorilla routine is his speciality," Evelyn smiled.
"Oh, I saw that at Bertram Mills in the 30s," Maude put in, brightly. "I could be a plant in the audience and you can pretend to steal my handbag."
"Perfect!" said Evelyn
"Alright then," said Ted. "You can have Rory’s gorilla suit and I’ll put you on in the second half. Helga can be the straight woman and you can work out the details between you in the interval."
Helga rolled her eyes and grumbled, "As if I’m not doing enough in the show with the hula hoops and the sword-swallowing!"
"That’s because you’re the star," Ted mollified her. "The public can’t see enough of you."
Tony, meanwhile, suddenly looked a little keener at the prospect of teaming up with Helga. She was quite a looker, even if her face was far from friendly.
"By the way," he asked, "What happened to your last clown?"
"Oh, didn’t anyone tell you?" Pam said breezily. "He was murdered."

As the music from the big top wafted on the balmy evening air, Big Ted ducked under the police tape that surrounded Rory the Clown’s caravan.
Evelyn followed him, a little more stiffly. As she straightened up, she took a closer look at the circus boss.
"Didn’t you used to be a singer?"
The grey-quiffed showman smiled for the first time since she had met him.
"Big Ted & The Teddy Boys," he confirmed. "We had a few hits in the 60s... although everyone mixes us up with Showaddywaddy."
"What made you run away with the circus?"
"Blame my ex-wife. She was a trapeze artist. The rock’n’roll was drying up a bit, so I thought I’d give it a go. As it turned out, the circus thrived but the marriage didn’t."
"And you got custody of the big top?" Evelyn surmised.
Ted nodded. "Cora didn’t think I’d be able to make a go of it without her, but I leave a lot of the day-to-day management to Helga. She cracks the whip a bit with the performers, but she knows the business inside out."
Following Evelyn and Ted past the lorries and throbbing generators that circled the big top, Jane slowed Tony down so she could whisper to him without being overheard.
"It’s what we call a honey trap - and you’re the honey. Use your charm to get as pally with Helga as you can. Find out all the show‘s secrets, one artiste to another. Think you can handle it?"
Tony thought of Helga‘s statuesque figure and said, "I‘m starting to look forward to it."
Ted let them into Rory’s caravan and said, "The police have taken a lot of his personal things away, but luckily they left his costumes."
Ted held the furry gorilla suit up to Tony and looked a little misty eyed as he said, "Rory would have wanted it to go to a good home.
"You‘ll need this, too." Ted shoved an outsize handbag into Tony’s arms and said, "The washing line’s inside."
"Washing line...?" Tony was baffled.
"For when you rummage through the contents."
Ted reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of polka dot bloomers that would have fitted an elephant. They were attached to a washing line with a pair of stripy socks, an enormous bra and a whole series of other comedy underwear hanging from it.
"Are you sure you’ve done this before?" Ted frowned.
"He’s just a little rusty," Evelyn cut in. "He spent the last two years on the Chinese State Circus and they speak a completely different language."
Turning to Tony, she said, "Why don’t you put it on outside. You’ll have more room to practise your monkey moves."
When Tony was gone, Evelyn gazed around the interior of the caravan, looking for insights into the life of the man who had lived there.
"What was Rory like?" she asked, casually.
Ted smiled, fondly. "Trouble Brothers was about right. They were a right pair of tearaways, Rory and Tommy both. But he was a good lad. It was never more than youthful pranks."
"What sort of pranks?" asked Evelyn
"Well, like I said, there’s always been a bit of antagonism between us and the Varneys - papering over each other’s posters and things like that. If ever anything like that was going on you can bet Tommy or Rory were involved."
With a chuckle, Ted added, "We’ve had a few jealous husbands looking for them as well. Rory in particular was a bit of a ladies man."
Evelyn and Jane exchanged a look. Evelyn said, "Were they ever in more serious trouble? Anything the police might be interested in?"
Ted looked shifty. "What makes you ask that?"
"I just wondered if there was anything Tommy wouldn’t have wanted to be questioned about? Anything, other than the obvious, that may have made him flee the scene of the crime?"
Ted glanced from Evelyn to Jane, then admitted, "We had the Old Bill sniffing around recently. There were some cat burglaries in the last town and some bright spark had the idea it might have been circus performers. You know, people good with heights and ropes.
"But I can’t believe Rory and Tommy would be involved in anything like that. I put it down to a malicious tip-off by someone trying to blacken our name."
"The Varneys?" Evelyn guessed.
Ted nodded. "Although the bad blood was really between the Varneys and my ex-wife’s family, the Flynns - two old circus families who’ve been at each other’s throats since the 20s. Since I split with Cora I thought all the trouble had died down."
"How long have you been divorced?" asked Jane.
"A year ago today. This would have been our 30th anniversary."
Evelyn‘s eyebrows shot up. "What went wrong after all those years?"
Ted looked sheepishly down at his blue suede shoes. "Er, that was when Helga and I discovered our love for each other."
At that moment, the James Bond signature tune filled the caravan. Jane pulled out her iPhone and went outside to take the call.
"I think the tension is starting to take its toll on the performers," boomed Maude, who was stationed backstage. "The Hungarian tumblers have just come out of the ring arguing furiously with each other."
"What about?"
"No idea," Maude said dryly, "Hungarian isn’t one of the six languages I speak.
"But we did notice Marko the Magician exchanging dark whispers with his assistant. Pam’s followed them to see if she can earwig anything pertinent to the investigation."
"Good move," said Jane.
As Jane put her phone away, Evelyn came out of the caravan and cast a critical eye over the six-foot gorilla cavorting rather unconvincingly nearby.
"Can’t you act a bit more ape-like?" Evelyn asked.
His voice muffled by his mask, Tony said, "I feel like a narner, to be honest."
"Well that‘s a start," said Jane. Reaching into her handbag, she offered him the banana she’d been saving as a snack.
Bang! Bang! Bang! As Ted locked Rory’s caravan, three loud reports cut through the music coming from the big top.
"Gunshots!" Jane drew her pistol, ready for action.
"I don’t suppose it’s part of the show?" Evelyn asked, without much hope.
"Not as far as I know," said Ted.
As the foursome hurried towards the backstage area, the source of the bangs suddenly became clear.
A spluttering, backfiring vintage car was racing around the perimeter of the tent and heading straight for them. It had an open top, brightly coloured paintwork... and no driver!
"Evasive action!" Evelyn commanded.
As she spoke, the rickety little car veered to one side of its own accord, crashed through the police tape and came to a halt with a clang against the corner of Rory’s caravan.
Luigi the strongman came running around the tent behind the car. He was holding a remote control handset with a long, floppy aerial.
"Sorry boss!" he panted. "I thought we could still use-a the clown car without-a the clowns."
"Not until you’ve had more practise," Ted said darkly. "We’ve had enough fatalities for one day."
"Luigi!" snapped Helga, running up behind the muscleman, "Put that car back where you found it!"
Luigi fiddled with the remote control and the little car backfired as it reversed away from the caravan, just missing one of the guy ropes that held up the big top.
"Give that to me!" Helga snatched the handset from the muscleman’s grip. "Just drive it normally, before you cause any more damage."
As Luigi got into the car, muttering like a scolded child, Helga pointed her whip at Tony and said, "As for you, Cheetah, we’ve got fifteen minutes to work out an act. Quick march!"
As Helga stalked off, with Tony lumbering behind her in his gorilla suit, Ted let out a loving sigh. "I love it when she takes charge."
While Helga put Tony through his paces, Evelyn, Pam, Jane and Maude convened for interval teas at a table near the hotdog wagon.
"Unfortunately they don’t sell biscuits," said Evelyn as she set down the tray of plastic cups.
Like a conjurer, Maude reached into her bag and produced a packet of Hobnobs.
"Never go on a mission unprepared," she intoned.
As all hands reached for a sugary fix, Evelyn called the meeting to order.
"So what have we got?"
"If Marko the Magician can be believed, Helga has to be among the suspects," said Pam. "The other performers don’t like her because she rules them with a rod of iron. And because she’s thirty years the boss’ junior, some of them think she’s only with him to get her hands in the till.
"Marko overheard Rory accuse her of just that and reckons Helga dropped the kitbag on him to shut him up."
"She certainly looks ruthless enough," said Jane.
"But it wouldn’t explain her cutting through Tamsin’s tight-wire," said Evelyn.
"Perhaps Helga was jealous of her," Jane ventured. "After all, Tamsin’s one of the rising stars and Helga likes to be queen bee."
Evelyn rubbed her chin and said, "Something doesn’t smell right."
Pam sniffed the air. "Actually, something about those hotdogs doesn’t smell too good."
"Smells like they’re burning to me..." Maude boomed.
Four blue rinsed heads turned in puzzlement. Their mouths dropped open in horror as they saw an enormous plume of black smoke rising into the air. The girl serving clearly hadn’t noticed, but the back of the hotdog wagon was on fire!

Next week: What other disasters await the circus? And can our plucky heroines catch the felon responsible?

Click here to read the next thrilling installment!

For more adventures of Evelyn, Pam, Jane and Maude, download the new ebook The Blue Rinse Brigade from the Kindle Store.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Another Great Review for Circus Mania!

CIRCUS MANIA - “A Delightful Book.”

My thanks to Seamus Doran for posting such a great review of Circus Mania on the EuVue website: . Here’s what he wrote:

Circus Mania - All the fun of the Big Top (8/10).
Review by Seamus Doran

We all have circus memories.
Parents taking us to the local travelling one with bright coloured clowns, their rude sounding cars and glamorous tiny women hanging precariously above our heads.
My first experiences were of elephants and clockwise trotting ponies dressed up like Christmas trees.

Who were these death defying performers who after a few days packed up and moved on until next autumn?

This book tells you the story of this noble and fascinating tradition and the people who ran away to the circus, found themselves and found an audience .
The circus started in ancient Rome with horse presentations and gladiatorial displays.
Acrobatic performance emerged from Chinese Theatre, clowning and clowns from pantomime .

All of this came together eventually under The Big Top with entrepreneurs in America such as Barnum and Bertram Mills in England.

Going to the circus was always an event with its unique smells and sense of real danger, author Mc Pherson tells us that this was the fruit of “low budgets and high spirits” a mixture of “the tacky and the amazing”.

Contrary to my sense that this art form was dying out, it appears to be alive and well.
The stories and interviews in this delightful book illuminates what remains a grand place of wonder, escape and romance.

Modern circus doesn’t have many animals (the do gooders of this world saw to that) but it still presents great excitement and fun, the very sap of life.

In an age of Cirque du Soleil circus playing shows all over the world and with their Beatles “LOVE” (the must see Las Vegas show), reading this book will prompt admiration for this special brand of show business and this author’s talent in presenting its magic.

Circus Mania retails at £14.99 but can be ordered direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special price of just £10 including postage. Just send a cheque or postal order to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road

London N8 9NP

But why not solve all your Christmas present problems in go by ordering Circus Mania in bulk? Described by the Mail on Sunday as “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form,“ and by Gerry Cottle as “A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people,” Circus Mania is a beautiful looking book full of glossy photographs and original line drawings that would make the ideal Christmas present for anyone who ever went to the circus. For wholesale rates on orders of more than six copies, call sales manager Michael O’Connell on 020 8350 1775.

Saturday, 30 October 2010


Part 1

by Douglas McPherson

Roll up, roll up as ex-detective Evelyn and her fearless friends return for another thrilling adventure.

Murder at the Circus
as it originally appeared in My Weekly
"It’s murder!" Boomed Maude.
"Are you certain?" asked Jane.
"Positive. Six letters, third letter ‘r’, couldn’t be anything else."
There were advantages to having a friend who had been a code-breaker in World War Two, thought Jane, as she filled in the cryptic crossword.
Mind you, it was handy having been a spy in the Cold War herself, she reflected, as she completed 13 Down: E-S-P-I-O-N-A-G-E.
As Maude turned back to her own newspaper, the peace of her sunny conservatory was disturbed by the sound of her mobile phone ringing with the theme song from Dad‘s Army.
She had the sound turned up to maximum because at 91 she was more than a little deaf. But she had no trouble recognising the ever crisp tones of her friend, the former Scotland Yard detective Evelyn Winstanley-Hughs.
"How do you fancy a trip to the circus?" Evelyn asked without preamble.
"Sounds fun," said Maude. "What time does the show start?"
"As soon as we get there. A clown’s been murdered in front of 500 witnesses and Mervyn’s arrested the wrong man!"


Evelyn’s maroon and cream Citroen 2CV was at Maude’s door within five minutes.
"We’ll rendezvous with Pam in the high street," said Evelyn, as she pulled away. "Ah, there she is, right on time!"
Mentally back in her youth, as the first woman leader of the Met’s Rapid Response Unit in the 1970s, Evelyn swung her rickety little car up to the kerb just as retired army medic and police pathologist Pam Saunders stepped out of the Dye Hard hairdressers with her freshly blue rinsed ‘do.
"It’s not quite dry," Pam said crustily, "But a Code One is a Code One."
"Reminds me of East Berlin," enthused Jane, who enjoyed some James Bond-style chases behind the Iron Curtain in the 60s.
"Let’s hope you won’t need your Licence to Kill," said Maude, dryly.
Jane whipped a miniature revolver out of her handbag and assured her friends, "I’m locked and loaded, just in case."
Evelyn made the tyres spin and soon the fearless foursome were bumping up onto the grass of the village green.
An orange and blue-striped big top dominated the green, like a pointed fairytale castle surrounded by a circle of lorries and caravans.
A blonde girl leaned out of a pink wagon marked ’box office’ and shouted ’Hey! Have you got a ticket?’ as Evelyn drove straight past her and right up to the front of the circus tent.
Two uniformed police constables guarding the entrance looked up in alarm as the little car chugged and bounced across the grass towards them.
"Who are these clowns?" one PC muttered.
His colleague snapped to attention as Evelyn climbed out of the car. "Good afternoon ladies. Please go straight through..."
When the ladies had gone into the tent, the better informed PC explained to his baffled colleague, "That’s the Blue Rinse Brigade. Led by the Guv’nor’s mother-in-law."
With a smirk, the policeman added, "Mervyn will be happy..."
The big top was empty, and dark except for the spotlights trained upon its central sawdust ring.
Evelyn marched around the perimeter towards the sparkly curtains at the far end as fast as her 81-year-old legs would carry her.
Pam, who was a year younger, trailed behind, using her walking stick to compensate for a hip overdue for replacement.
Jane, who was the youngest of the friends at 75, brought up the rear because she was holding the arm of Maude who was no longer as steady on her feet as she used to be.
Sweeping aside the sparkly curtain, Evelyn found her son-in-law, Inspector Mervyn Pickles, drinking tea from a paper cup and chatting to a uniformed constable in a small backstage area crammed with circus apparatus.
On the grass at their feet, a tarpaulin covered the unmistakable shape of a body. Two enormous red and white clown boots protruded from under one end.
"Never too busy for a cuppa and a good gossip, I see," said Evelyn.
Caught off-guard, Mervyn said, "Actually, we’re waiting for the police pathologist."
"Well you’re in luck," said Evelyn, "Because I’ve brought the best in the business."
"I mean the real police pathologist..." Mervyn began.
Before Mervyn could stop her, Pam reversed her walking stick and used the handle to lift one edge of the tarpaulin.
She winced at what she saw.
"Looks like someone dropped a ton of bricks on the poor fellow."
"That’s not so far from the truth." Mervyn indicated an army-style kitbag on the grass by the wall of the tent.
"At the end of his act a bag full of feathers was supposed to fall out of the ceiling and burst on his head. Unfortunately someone replaced the feathers with that kitbag. It’s full of cement."
At that moment, Jane and Maude caught up with the others. On the way, Jane had picked up one of the plastic patio chairs that formed the ringside seats.
She set it on the grass beside the tarpaulin, and Maude sat down, saying, "Have we missed much?"
"Just one badly flattened funny man who appears to have brought the house down," said Pam. "On his head, unfortunately."
Mervyn said to Evelyn, "Not that I should be telling you lot what‘s going on. How did you hear about this so quickly, anyway?"
Evelyn gave him a triumphant look. "You’re forgetting that your niece is also my granddaughter. When she saw you‘d made such a hasty arrest, she thought the case needed a fresh pair of eyes."
Mervyn bristled. "Now look here, Evelyn. I know you and your friends were very helpful with that dreadful business at Christmas, but that doesn’t give you permission to poke your noses into any investigation that takes your fancy."
"Poke our noses...!" Evelyn protested. "Do I have to remind you of my twenty years at Scotland Yard, ten of them leading the murder squad...?"
"I think you’ve reminded me quite often enough," Mervyn sighed.
"But in this instance your assistance will not be needed. As it happens an arrest has been made but this is an ongoing inquiry and I don’t want you trampling all over it."
Before Evelyn could respond, her mobile rang, with the theme music to The Sweeny.
"Hello my dear," she answered. "I’m in the big top right now. I’ll come to your caravan directly."
Evelyn pocketed the phone and gave Mervyn a smile of mock-innocence.
"Are you forbidding me to pay a social visit to my granddaughter on the rare occasion she comes to town...?"
Mervyn rolled his eyes and wondered if he’d ever win an argument with the formidable leader of the Blue Rinse Brigade.


"Oh, Granny Evelyn, I’m so glad you’re here!"
Tamsin Connor’s cheek was wet with tears as she wrapped her grandmother in a fond embrace.
"There, there," Evelyn soothed the girl. "Why don’t we go inside and have a cup of tea and you can tell us everything that’s happened."
The little caravan rocked and squeaked as the four blue-rinsed ladies followed Tamsin through the narrow metal doorway.
The inside quickly filled up, but somehow there was room for everyone to sit down. As Jane took charge of the kettle, Tamsin regained her composure.
Evelyn remembered when the raven-haired tightrope walker was a child. She used to love nothing more than playing with toy police cars while Evelyn regaled her with real life tales of catching murderers and bank robbers.
When Tamsin ran away to join the circus, her parents didn’t approve, but Evelyn told her, "If ever you’re in trouble, just call Granny Evelyn."
"I couldn’t believe it when Uncle Mervyn arrested Tommy," Tamsin said, as she wiped her eyes. "I told him Tommy would never hurt anybody, but he wouldn’t listen."
"Leave Mervyn to me," Evelyn said briskly. "Now, if I can just get the facts straight, I take it Tommy is the other clown?"
Putting on her reading glasses, Evelyn leaned towards a framed picture on the wall beside her. It showed Tamsin in a sequined leotard flanked by two handsome young men.
One was wearing a brightly coloured clown suit but had yet to apply his make-up. The other was clad from the neck down in a furry gorilla suit and carried the head under his arm.
"They called themselves the Trouble Brothers but they weren’t really brothers," Tamsin explained. "Tommy’s the one in the clown suit and Rory’s the one who... oh, I can’t believe what’s happened to him."
Tamsin started crying again and Pam handed her a tissue, saying "Chin up, girl."
"It’s all my fault," Tamsin wailed as she dabbed her eyes. "I should never have got involved with someone on the show, it only ever leads to trouble. But when your job moves to a different town each week, who else do you meet but the people you travel with?"
"What happened?" Jane asked gently.
Tamsin took a moment to gather herself, then said, "I joined Telford’s Circus at the beginning of this season. Rory showed an interest in me from the beginning but, like I said, I didn’t want to get involved with someone on the show.
"Rory seemed to accept that. But then Tommy asked me out and, well, I broke my own rule."
"How did Rory react?" asked Evelyn.
"Badly," said Tamsin. "He and Tommy were very competitive and he couldn‘t accept that I‘d chosen Tommy over him. He kept pestering me to go out with him and, of course, that made Tommy jealous."
"It must have taken the fun out of their clown act," Pam ventured.
Tamsin nodded.
"Helga, the ring-mistress, thought I was breaking up the star act. I think she had a word or two with Big Ted, the circus owner, trying to have me thrown off the show. And now... and now this has happened."
For a moment, Tamsin looked on the verge of tears once more. Instead, she fixed pleading, make-up-smeared eyes on Evelyn.
"But I’ll never believe Tommy killed Rory," she insisted. "Yes, he was angry with him, but he’s not a violent man. You have to believe me, Granny Evelyn. Tommy wouldn’t hurt a fly."
As it was such a sunny afternoon, the caravan door was open - and at that moment a shaven headed giant with a huge handlebar moustache shoved his muscle-bound torso through the gap.
"Justa letting you know, Tamsina," he said in a gruff Italian accent. "Big Ted say the evening show willa be going ahead as normal."


Word of the murder hadn’t reached the general public. When the lights went out and Rory the Clown was dragged from the ring, the audience thought it was all part of the act.
As a result, there was a jolly mood among the families strolling across the green for the evening performance.
The sun was still high and Pam and Maude watched the arrivals from a table beside a hotdog wagon.
Jane joined them, saying, "The circus loos are very clean."
"It’s zoo loos you’ve got to watch," Pam chuckled. "It was the zoo loos that did for Michael Caine."
As Evelyn returned from the hotdog wagon with four teas, Pam said, "You’ve got to admit Mervyn’s got a good case against young Tommy."
"Poppycock!" Evelyn snorted.
"He had the opportunity," Maude pointed out. "There are witnesses to him winching the bag of supposed feathers into the ceiling."
"That was after last night’s show," Evelyn reminded her. "Anybody could have switched the bag in the meantime."
"He also had a motive," Jane said gently. "If Tommy thought Rory was a rival for Tamsin’s affections, that could have driven him to murder."
"Tamsin told Tommy she wasn’t interested in Rory," Evelyn countered.
"She admitted that hadn’t stopped Tommy and Rory arguing, though," Jane returned.
"Then there’s the little matter of Tommy doing a runner immediately after the deed," Pam said darkly. "You have to admit that looks suspicious."
"He probably panicked," said Evelyn.
For a long, pointed moment, nobody spoke. Eventually, Jane said what Pam and Maude were clearly thinking: "I can see why you want to believe your granddaughter when she says Tommy wouldn’t do it..."
"But...?" Evelyn challenged her, icily.
Jane hesitated, then said, "Do you think you might be too close to the case?"
"I’m no closer than Mervyn," Evelyn retorted. "Tamsin’s his niece - and he clearly doesn’t believe her. No, I’m quite capable of looking at this case impartially.
"As it happens I do tend to believe Tamsin’s assessment of Tommy’s character. But whether she‘s right about Tommy or not, there’s no harm in looking into the matter and satisfying ourselves that Mervyn’s got it right for once."
"Where do you propose we start?" asked Pam.
Evelyn opened a circus programme and turned to the cast list. "Well, these are our suspects..."
"That Italian strongman has to be in the frame," said Pam. "He’d have no trouble manhandling a kitbag full of cement. What’s his name again?"
"Luigi," Jane said warmly. She held up her iPhone to show a picture she’d snapped of the shaven headed visitor to Tamsin’s caravan. "He’s quite a dish, isn’t he?"
"I expect you’re volunteering to pump him for information, Mata Hari " Pam chuckled.
Jane held up her hand to show a diamond ring, and said with mock primness, "I’ll thank you to remember that I’m engaged."
"Remember that you landed the millionaire owner of Burbridge’s department store?" Pam scoffed, "I don’t think you’ll ever let us forget!"
"Jealous as always," Jane said smugly.
"Getting back to the matter in hand..." Evelyn cut in, "I propose we divide ourselves into two pairs to interview the artistes."
"Will they talk to us, though?" said Pam. "Mervyn’s made it clear we’re operating unofficially, and I’ve heard circus people are a clannish, secretive lot."
"Perhaps we should launch an undercover operation," Jane enthused. "Infiltrate their secret world and overhear things they‘d never tell an outsider!"
"Good suggestion," said Evelyn.
Maude gave her a level look and said, loudly, "If you’re suggesting we disguise ourselves as the world’s oldest trapeze troupe I don’t think my knees are up to it."
"We could call ourselves the Wheezy Chesty-coughs," joked Pam.
"Or the Flying Zimmer Frames," Jane said, playfully.
"If we could all be serious for a moment," Evelyn rapped her knuckles impatiently on the table. "I don’t think we need to dig out our leotards. But we do know the circus is short of a clown. So who do we know who could fill his outsize shoes?"
"Have to be someone fit enough to do a bit of tumbling..." said Pam.
"And who wouldn’t mind getting the odd custard pie in the face..." said Maude.
"Afternoon ladies, fancy seeing you here."
The four friends looked up to see Tony Size, the fit young self-defence instructor better known to the ladies of the WI as Tony Thighs.
As four light-bulbs lit up in the air above the heads of the Blue Rinse Brigade, Tony’s stick of candyfloss froze half way to his open mouth.
"Er, why are you looking at me like that?"
Evelyn turned to her friends. "Now that looks to me like a young man who always dreamed of running away with the circus."
"A daring young man on the flying trapeze if ever I saw one!" Jane enthused.
"The roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd," cackled Pam.
Tony instinctively put his free hand on his behind.
"If this is another of your missions..." he began warily, "I’ve only just recovered from the mauling that boxer dog gave me at Christmas..."
"Oh, this wouldn’t be anything like as dangerous as that," Evelyn reassured him.
"Just a bit of clowning round," Pam said breezily.
"Well I might as well tell you straight," said Tony, "that I’m really not..."
Before he could finish, the theme music from The Sweeny burst loudly from Evelyn’s pocket. She whipped out her phone.
"Hello my dear..." Evelyn abruptly fell silent, a serious look on her face. "We’ll be right there," she said, and cut the line.
"Tamsin was checking her tight-wire backstage," Evelyn explained. "Someone’s sawn halfway through it and if she’d walked on it, it would have snapped. At 30-feet up, the fall could have killed her."
Pam pointed her walking stick at Tony. "So Sherlock, are you going to stand there and ignore a damsel in distress? Or are you going to help me get out of this chair?"

Next week: Is a serial killer stalking the circus? And will our four friends crack the case before the murderer strikes again?

Click here to read Part Two!

To read more adventures of Evelyn, Jane, Pam and Maude, download The Blue Rinse Brigade from the Kindle Store.

For more circus fiction visit Polka Dot Dreams

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Rave Review for Circus Mania!

For Circus Mania!

My thanks to Tina Jackson for writing a fantastic review of Circus Mania on the Writers’ Hub website ( Here’s what she wrote:

CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
Review by Tina Jackson

Circus is having a moment at the moment, with every creative Tom, Dick and Harry borrowing from its rich imagery to add motifs of magic to their endeavours. But how many people actually take themselves under canvas and experience for themselves the spectacular skills and very real risks undertaken by performers who take their lives in their hands to show their audience, for five miraculous moments, that they have transcended the limits of what human bodies are usually capable? A trip to the circus will usually reveal more bare seats than this wonderful form of art and entertainment deserves.

The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
- Britain's oldest circus building.
Circus Mania takes you behind the scenes.
Perhaps a read of Circus Mania Douglas McPherson’s lovely, lively account of the world of the circus might tempt people to see for themselves the tricks they’re missing. Just like his subject, McPherson’s terrifically readable account is a mixed bag: colourful and populist, high culture and trash culture, mingling tales of outrageous daring, skill and beauty with things that are more tacky, if not tawdry. It’s a journey of discovery as well as a labour of love, prompted by the writer’s experience interviewing Eva, a performer on the aerial silks. McPherson’s interview was the last Eva ever gave; the day after she spoke to him, she fell 30 feet during her act, and died instantly.

McPherson’s approach – a combination of candid curiosity and passionate fascination – allows him access to people from a tight-knit community whose way of life is rarely penetrated by outsiders. He talks to members of old circus families who provide him with a sense of the continuing history of the circus, and representatives of the new, art-driven form of cirque that has largely replaced the older tradition where animals would perform alongside humans. His most fascinating chapters, in fact, concern the issue of performing animals and the shift away from the practice that took place in the 1990s, prompted by the question of animal cruelty – something which, after much investigation, McPherson finds no evidence to substantiate.

The Chinese State Circus
- Just one of many circuses explored
in Circus Mania
McPherson wears his heart on his sleeve about his admiration for circus performers of all kinds, for their dedication and physical skill. He is clear-sighted and non-judgemental at the same time as taking an unmistakeably partisan stance on the subject. He does not pretend to be an insider, however, merely a great enthusiast. This approach gives the book an appealing freshness and creates the sense that, with each new anecdote, the writer is sharing what he discovers. He speaks with equal fervour to traditional seaside clowns, to members of The Circus Of Horrors who have revived the old-school freak show for a rock’n’roll audience, and to European performers of theatrical cirque.

Like a good old fashioned circus – McPherson’s favourite kind, in the end – the book rollicks along at a cracking pace, delivering a cast of colourful characters, and a parade of stories of the life-is-stranger-than-fiction variety. There are thrills and spills, acts of derring-do, heart-in-mouth moments, and laughs aplenty. The circus deserves this book and, like the circus, McPherson deserves for Circus Mania to reach a very wide and appreciative audience.


Want to read it for yourself? Circus Mania retails at £14.99, but you can save £5 by ordering direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special offer price of £10 postage-free. Just send a cheque for £10 to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Circus Mania review in Mail on Sunday - "Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form,"

Not my words, but the view of Britain’s best selling Sunday paper, the Mail on Sunday. Here’s the full four-star review by Roger Lewis, which appeared in the Mail on Sunday on August 8.

Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson
**** FOUR -STARS ****
Review by Roger Lewis.

The Mail on Sunday's
4-star review of Circus Mania
"A brilliant account of a
vanishing art form."
In the old days, the best way of disposing with a killer elephant was to change its name and sell it to a rival circus. You wouldn’t get away with that now. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find elephants in any travelling circus, according to Douglas McPherson in this excellent book. Mostly gone, too, are the footballing poodles, unrideable mules and snarling lions and tigers.

The public finally turned against performing animals in 1998, when Mary Chipperfield was convicted on 12 counts of cruelty against a chimp called Trudy. Animal rights charities have also been persistent, putting pressure on shops not to display posters advertising circuses and getting their fanatics to yell ‘child abuser!’ at parents who take their offspring to see a show.

Circus Mania traces the rich
history of the circus ring
It is illogical. Animal rights people ought to vent their rage on the horse-racing fraternity, or on anyone with a goldfish. The Government has recently completed a two year investigation which concluded circuses are ‘perfectly capable of meeting the welfare needs of animals in their care.’ Furthermore, animals are inspected by local authority vets and the RSPCA at every new site the circus visits. McPherson says circus animals have ‘always been fantastically looked after.’

Nevertheless, I agree with him when he says there is no need to see elephants or horses do demeaning tricks, as it is a privilege simply to be able ‘to admire them in motion at such close quarters.’
For that is the appeal of the circus: there is no computer-generated trickery. The galloping palomino stallions are real. The acrobats feats of strength and balance on the trapeze are real. The risk of sudden death is real.

Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form. McPherson vividly describes the frisson of entering the big top, the pulsating music and ‘the strange light beneath the canvas.’ Part of the appeal, he says, is the combination of ‘low budgets and high spirits,’ a mixture of ‘the tacky and the amazing.’

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of the last circus elephants ever to
appear in Britain in what the Mail on Sunday
called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
The circus has a venerable and noble tradition. It commenced in the arenas of ancient Rome - the Circus Maximus, the Circus Flaminus and the Circus Neronis - with equestrian displays and gladiatorial contests. Acrobatic feats derive from the Chinese theatre. Horsemanship was a Cossack and Hungarian gipsy skill. The clowns came from pantomime and the music halls described by Charles Dickens.

McPherson’s interviews with today’s circus artistes are particularly interesting. Circus families are tight knit and have been slaving away for centuries. ‘There are no sick notes in the circus,’ one performer told him. ‘You go on and do the same act with a smile on your face, even if you are in pain.’

Such stoicism and dedication are only to be admired, for it can be a pitiless existence, living in ‘rusty, showerless caravans,’ and taking down and re-erecting the Big Top at a new ground every week or so.

Helynne Edmonds
- a picture from Circus Mania
To become an escapologist or juggler, or to perform gravity-defying stunts high in the air, takes immense concentration and years of practise. The great clown David Konyot was shot out of a cannon before he could walk. Anyone who wants to become a sword-swallower must train their oesophagus to open at will by poking a coat hanger down the throat.

Not everyone is cut out for the circus ring, despite their best efforts. Saddest of all are the likes of Otis the Frog Boy and Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf, deprived of their livelihood by disability rights activists.

McPherson also tells of a duff fire-eater who set fire to his finger and chin at an audition for Gerry Cottle. He tried to put out the flames on his chin and his finger reignited. Eventually, Gerry had to run over and cover him with a blanket. ‘He turned up at the show three days later with his finger all bandaged up and wearing his McDonald’s uniform.’

Perhaps the success of Cirque du Soleil, which currently has 19 shows running worldwide, means that the circus will stage a comeback. Fifty years ago, the Queen used to go regularly to Bertram Mills and Billy Smart’s, and I’m glad to see that Norman Barrett, ringmaster and budgie trainer, was included in a recent honours list.

If that review makes you want to read Circus Mania, click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition direct from Amazon.

More press coverage for
Circus Mania!

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Great British Circus tiger trainer Martin Lacey

Martin Lacey and Shaka
- A picture from Circus Mania

What’s life like in a cage with six man-eating Bengal tigers? I asked Great British Circus star Martin Lacey, presenter of Britain’s last big cat show.

Tigers and lions are like chalk and cheese. Or, as Martin Lacey puts it, “Tigers are a bit like French swordsmen. If you look at them the wrong way you can lose an ear. Lions are more like all-in wrestlers. You can have a laugh and a joke and cajole them, but don’t let ‘em grab you, because they’ll all gang up on you.”

The reason for the difference lies in millions of years of evolution. “Male lions live on the open veldt. They get lots of warning if there’s problem, so they’re more laid back. Only uptight, nervous tigers have survived because when you’re going through thick undergrowth, with one step you can scare away a wild boar or walk into a trap.”

Lacey knows big cats better than probably anyone in Britain, because he’s spent the best part of fifty years working with them, currently as director and star of the Great British Circus.
Britain's last tiger trainer
Martin Lacey
pictured in the
Great British Circus's
2009 programme

“You have to become a practising animal psychologist,” says Lacey. “To train a lion, you have to think like a lion.”

He gives an example: “If a lion is going to have a go at you, they take their time and work it out. One day you’ll notice that when the lion goes from A-B, instead of moving in a straight line, he’ll bow in towards you slightly. The next day he’ll come just a little bit closer, until in the end he’s coming straight at you.

“What you do is, the day before he’s got it in his head that he’s going to hook you, you step forward, clip his ear and say, ’Hey! Behave yourself!’ And he goes, ‘Aw, I’ve been found out!’”

Watching Lacey in a cage with five tigers is a mesmerising experience. The presentation couldn’t be more relaxed or gentle. The 300lb predators are as docile as domestic ginger cats as he commands them to make an effortless leap from one pedestal to another with a shrug of his shoulder and a, “Are you ready? Go on then.”

Lacey describes training and performance as “A bit like taking your dog to the park and throwing sticks for him. It’s something you both enjoy.”

How this article originally appeared in The Stage
But tigers remain genetically programmed killers, as Lacey discovered during a practise session nine years ago, when he accidentally stood on a tiger’s paw.

“Suddenly I’ve got a tiger on one leg, then another tiger thought, ‘This looks like a good game, I think I’ll join in.’ So the next thing I know I’m on the ground with a tiger on each leg.”

He shouted to his assistant, “’Get out of the cage, there’s no point two of us getting killed!’ Because it had got to the stage where I thought I was going to become a lump of meat with two tigers fighting over me.”

Fortunately, his protégé Helyne Edmonds ignored the advice to save herself and saved Martin instead.
The aftermath “looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” says Lacey. It took him six months to walk properly again.

Despite that near fatal encounter, it’s hard to imagine a man talking about his animals more fondly. To quote his catchphrase, “A day without lions and tigers is like a day without sunshine.”

Lacey discovered his affinity with animals at Chester Zoo, where he rode the zebras and camels and organised chimpanzee tea parties. “I didn’t want to be a jailer. I wanted to work with the animals,” he recalls.
Great British Circus
2009 programme

During the 70s, Lacey found television fame as a regular animal presenter on children’s show Magpie and provided the tigers for Esso’s ’Put a tiger in your tank’ adverts. Moving into the circus world, he developed his own style of presenting big cats.

“I used to cuddle and kiss them, ride them around the ring, stick my head in their mouth... it was all very nicey-nicey, and fortunately, that’s what the public liked.”

Today, Lacey’s is the last big cat act in Britain, although he is training his Great British Circus co-director Helyne Edmonds to follow in his footsteps with a mixed lion and tiger act of her own.

Lacey’s sons Alex and Martin Jr present big cats in Germany. Martin Jr this year became the first Englishman to win a Gold Clown at the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo. Lacey is “disgusted” that this achievement - the circus equivalent of winning the Olympics - went largely unreported in the UK.
On the continent, Lacey says his sons are “treated like film stars.” For his own part, however, he says fame and fortune are no longer his motivation for twice daily getting into the tigers’ cage.

“I just go in and play with my animals, which I enjoy doing. As opposed to wowing the audience, the act is really for me to play with my pets.”

Big cats back in Britain
at Jolly's Circus
2013 update
In 2012 the British government announced a ban on wild animals in circus in 2015 with a new licensing regime in the interim. Rather than "wait till the bitter end," Lacey closed his Great British Circus at the end of last year. His tigers went on to perform in Courtney Brothers Circus in Ireland.

But the issue of animals in the circus never goes away. In late 2013, lions and tigers returned to a British circus ring when big cat presenter Thomas Chipperfield joined Jolly's Circus. Click here for more.

Thomas Chipperfield
presents Britain's last
big cat act
2014 update
Next year's ban seems to have receded, with the government failing to introduce its Wild Animals in the Circus bill in the next Parliamentary session. It won't now be debated before next year's general election, and if the government changes... who knows what will happen? In the meantime, Peter Jolly's Circus and Circus Mondao are the only two British circuses licensed to use wild animals, and Jolly's is the last with a big cat act.

2016 update
With the government having taken no action on a ban, the Welsh Assembly has promised a ban in Wales and has appointed Professor Stephen Harris to complete a study on the subject. 2015, meanwhile, saw Britain's last lion tamer, Thomas Chipperfield, set out on a tour of Wales with his own show, An Evening of Lions and Tigers.

Click here to read my review of possibly the last such act the UK will ever see.

The above article first appeared in The Stage. For the full story of Martin Lacey and many other circus stars, from trapeze artists and sword swallowers to tight-wire walkers and clowns, buy my new book 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 read an interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome review

Review of FEARLESS!

Britain's oldest circus building,
where the ring becomes a pool!
Now in its 31st year under the helmsmanship of Peter Jay, a trip to the Hippodrome just gets better. The new summer show, Fearless, may well be the best I’ve seen there since my first visit, in the circus venue’s 100th anniversary year, back in 2003.

Among the highlights is a Wheel of Death that finds Columbia’s Duo Vanegas skipping a rope, walking blindfold and turning a death-defying somersault atop their huge, revolving contraption. Fearless, indeed!

But it’s not just the stunts that make this a great show. There’s a huge sense of enthusiasm coming off all the performers that communicates directly with the audience to make this one of the must-see circus shows of the year.

The Hippodrome as it was...
Nowhere is the show’s energy and vibrancy more apparent than in a new cloud-swing routine by Robert Foxhall, set to Queen’s high energy disco classic Don’t Stop Me Now (Cos I’m Having A Good Time). Foxhall’s gleeful showing off above the fountains and swimming pool of the Hippodrome’s near-unique Water Spectacular gels so perfectly with the exuberance of the music that the routine is not just impressive but lifts the soul.

Another great moment comes with Vladimir Georgievsky’s frantic, cartoon-paced comedy trampoline. It’s the best such routine I’ve seen for a long time. Again, it’s not just the technique, but the charisma Vlad brings to the routine. Plus, of course, the way director Peter Jay has dressed the act up with dancing girls and music - in this case Frank Sinatra’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head?

...and as it is today.
Jay’s window dressing also adds hugely to a hand-to-hand balancing act by Poland’s Duo Vector, who here perform on an island in the middle of the swimming pool. Now, where else short of Las Vegas would you see that?

Backstage at the Hippodrome
After the show... there’s another treat. In traditional circuses you pay a quid to visit the animals in the ‘zoo’ at the back of the tent. At the Hippodrome, the old stables are now home to a fantastic museum of circus artefacts that Peter Jay has been collecting for the past three decades.
A clown car... gorilla suit... chimp’s bicycle... enamel signs... posters... unicycles... pianos... props... scenery... it’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave that’s all the more interesting for the explosion in a jumble sale look with which it’s all piled up in the Hippodrome’s labyrinth of atmospheric backstage corridors. With a unique piece of circus history at every turn, the collection will delight circus lovers almost as much as the show itself.

In the foyer, meanwhile, it was good to see my book Circus Mania! displayed front and centre on the merchandise table for just £10 - pre-signed by Yours Truly. That’s £5 less than in the shops - another reason to get along to the Hippodrome this summer!

"Roll up, roll up
for a glimpse
behind the
grease paint."
- Eastern
Daily Press
There’s loads about the Hippodrome in Circus Mania! plus behind-the-scenes visits to the Chinese State Circus, the Circus of Horrors, Circus Mondao, the Great British Circus and many more. The Mail on Sunday called the book "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Buy Circus Mania for £10 post-free from Peter Owen Publishers. Call 020 8350 1775 or send a cheque or postal order to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Brian Austen - Secret Showman behind the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus

Meet the Mr Big of British circus!

Who is the biggest player in the British circus industry? Douglas McPherson hears the sawdust to riches story of Brian Austen, promoter of The Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus.

Brian Austen puts it like this: “Gerry Cottle is probably the most successful circus person of the past 25 years, in terms of people knowing who he is. Whereas if you said ‘Brian Austen’ to anybody, they wouldn’t have a clue who I was.”

In fact, as promoter of the Chinese State Circus and the Moscow State Circus, Austen is the biggest player in the British circus industry - and his rise to the top has been intertwined with Cottle’s since the two men set up their first circus together in the early 70s, when they had barely two lorries and a second-hand tent between them.

Looking back, Austen admits, “I suppose I feel hurt sometimes that Gerry always got the recognition for everything we did together and, actually, behind it all, I don’t think he was the key to it. I think he carried the credit for a lot of ideas that were mine and, financially, the money was mine. But he’s a great showman, and that’s his prerogative.”

Although he began his career in the ring, where the walked the high wire as El Briarno, Austen has never shared Cottle’s love of the limelight.

In fact, it was only thanks to the persuasion of his old pal Cottle that Austen agreed to give his first interview in decades, for my new book, Circus Mania!

Read the full story of Brian Austen and
many other circus stars and showmen
in Circus Mania
- described by the Mail on Sunday
as "A brilliant account of a
vanishing art form."
He attributes his media-shyness to the fact that, “I came from a poor background and I probably lacked confidence. I was happy for Gerry to do all the talking, to be the mouthpiece and the leader, if you want. But in me he had somebody who, whatever he wanted to do, I could back it up. As a team, we were unbeatable.”

Austen ran away with Count Lazard’s Anglo-American Circus when he was 15.

With a chuckle, he remembers, “I always said to Gerry, the one thing I learned from the Anglo-American was to do nothing they did, because it always ended in chaos!”

The first time Austen encountered the ramshackle operation it didn’t even have a tent.

“They’d had a blow down, so they circled the lorries and set up the seats in the middle.”

Brian’s accommodation was a caravan that he shared with the Count’s collection of snakes.

“I never ever got paid. But I wasn’t bothered. They used to feed me and look after me.”

Brian joined the circus as a horse groom but quickly taught himself an impressive repertoire of circus skills including wire-walking, bare-back horse-riding, lion training and knife-throwing - with his girlfriend as target girl.

“I only nicked her once,” Brian confesses, “And it was just her tights. I don’t think it even marked her.”

In particular, Austen discovered an aptitude for the technical and logistics side of circus.

That came in handy when the Anglo-American embarked on a South African tour and arrived to find the promoter had vanished, along with the money. Brian ended up building the seats for an outdoor circus, using wooden pallets discarded by a car factory.

“I used to do four acts in the ring, do the whole build-up and drive - as a 17-year-old with no licence. It was incredibly hard work, but it was a phenomenal adventure.

A selection of Cottle and Austen Circus posters
from the programme of Gerry Cottle's
50 Years of Circus and Magic
“We were the first circus ever to go into Swaziland. I remember places where they’d never seen a circus and the sight of someone on stilts was frightening to them.”

The African adventure ended when Brian ran away with the Count’s sister-in-law. To raise the fare home, “I went to work on South African railways, cleaning the coaches. I used to collect all the Coke bottles and take them to the shop to get the sixpences.”

Back in Britain, Austen joined James Brothers Circus, where his accommodation was, “A caravan with no door and absolutely nothing in it!”

It was at James Brothers that Austen teamed up with Cottle - a stockbroker’s son turned clown and stilt-walker who had big ideas about owning Britain’s biggest circus.

In 1970, the pair founded Embassy Circus, which quickly became Cottle & Austen’s Circus - with the proprietors and their wives performing nearly all the acts.

In addition to his duties in the ring, Brian recalls, “I was the tent master and the transport manager. I never went to bed two nights a week, because I moved the circus all through the night on my own.”

Was he as ambitious as Cottle?

“No, I was never ambitious. I went through life without any great plans. I just enjoyed what I did. But I suppose at the end of the day I was aggressive enough to want a little bit more all the time. I was never content to sit back with what I had.”

Cottle and Austen got their big break when they were featured on TV’s Philpott Files, and the cover of the Radio Times, as ‘The smallest greatest show on Earth.’

By the mid-70s, they had achieved Cottle’s ambition of being Britain’s most successful circus, thanks in part to a decision to monopolise London’s parks, where no circuses had appeared for years.

In retrospect, Austen considers, “We never had a brilliant circus, but we had an entertaining circus. We put it together well and made it gel.”

The headline says it all!
Read the full story of Brian Austen and
the Chinese State Circus in Circus Mania,
reviewed in Worlds's Fair as
"The greatest show on Earth in a book."
The partnership dissolved over Cottle’s decision to start a circus on ice, which proved a loss-maker, and Brian continued with his own Austen Brothers Circus.

Austen and Cottle would later work together on various circus ventures, most notably promoting the hugely successful Chinese and Moscow State circuses, which have now been on permanent tour in the UK for a decade.
In 2003, Austen bought out Cottle’s share and took sole control of the Chinese and Moscow.

But while Cottle’s career - and personal life - has had more highly publicised ups and downs than a trampoline act, the less conspicuous Austen has trod a steadier path.

“I’ve never been bankrupt. I’ve never been in any sort of financial trouble in my life. I’m a plodder, a careful person rather than a chancer. I set my sights lower and move on from there.”

Austen invested the profits from his circuses in a wide range of other interests, including helicopter sales, a 250-acre industrial estate, an engineering business that manufactures specialist circus vehicles, and a company that supplies grandstand seating to prestigious events such as the Trooping of the Colour.

Roll up, roll up, for a glimpse
behind the greasepaint
- Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
profiled in
The Eastern Daily Press
Always looking for new enterprises, he says, “I’m developing houses, building nursing homes... I think I’m a real entrepreneur in that I see opportunities in all fields and I have a go at them.”

He attributes the enduring popularity of the Chinese and Moscow circuses to a policy of reinvestment, particularly in customer comfort.

“I was the first to put aluminium doors on a tent, or even doors at all. The first to have proper heating... the rest didn’t seem to care.

“In my view, the problem with circus is the people who run it. They’re not prepared to put money back into it, to make it a better circus. The old circus families, in particular, are a disgrace. You pull on the ground and see the transport with the paint hanging off...

“When Gerry and I started, we put the lorries around the front and they were always well painted. It’s first impressions, isn’t it?”

On a personal level, Austen attributes his success in business to honesty and loyalty. Many of his staff have been with him for decades.

“If I’ve shook my hand on something, I’ve shook it. I don’t need a lawyer or a contract to remind me.

“I think that’s the best way to be, because I believe there’s always another time. I’m not after a quick buck, I’m after the long haul, and I would like to have the people I deal with around for a long time.”

Claiming to be unmotivated by money, the 61-year-old adds that he has no plans to retire.

“The truth is, I’m not good at doing nothing. I have a big boat in the Med. I’ve got a helicopter. I’ve got nearly everything I want. But I still get up at half-past-six every morning and go to work.”

(This article originally appeared in The Stage. For the latest circus reviews, visit

For the full story of Brian Austen, Gerry Cottle and many other colourful circus folk, buy Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson.