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."

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Gerry Cottle Story

A selection of Gerry Cottle's Circus posters
from the programme for his 2012
50th anniversary show - 50 Years of
Circus and Magic
First of all a big thank you to Gerry Cottle for taking a sneak preview of Circus Mania! and providing some great quotes for the cover ("A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."). Cottle was a great help to me while writing Circus Mania!, not least in setting up for me a great, exclusive, in-depth interview with his former business partner, Brian Austen, the man behind the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus.

Austen is a shy giant of the circus scene. He’s seldom given a press interview in 30 years and admitted, “I probably wouldn’t have done it if Gerry hadn’t called me.” The fact that Cottle did call him, when there was of course nothing in it for him personally, is typical of the man’s attitude towards not just his own circus but circus generally: what American troupers call being ‘with it and for it.’

Cottle is, of course, the best known showman of the past 40 years - the Billy Smart, PT Barnum, John Ringling or Lord Sanger of his generation. His enduring influence became clear while writing Circus Mania! in that there is hardly anybody in the industry who either hasn’t worked with him or is related to him.

It’s 50 years since Gerry turned his back on suburban life as a stockbroker’s son growing up in Cheam and, at the age of 15, ran away with Robert Brothers circus. From humble beginnings as an apprentice, he taught himself to clown, stilt-walk and, most importantly, the tricks of running a circus.

Cottle and Austen's Circus posters
By 1970, he and his business partner Brian Austen had started the first Cottle and Austen Circus. With no cash to buy animals, the owners and their wives performed nearly all the acts themselves. From the beginning, however, Cottle proved a natural publicity magnet. The circus was featured in a BBC documentary, The Philpott Files, and on the cover of the Radio Times as ‘The smallest greatest show on earth’.

By the end of the decade, Cottle and Austen’s Circus had become Britain’s biggest circus, thanks in part to a policy of monopolising London’s parks, and providing the big top venue for Saturday night TV variety show Seaside Special.

Cottle and Austen went on to promote the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus, which were soon established as the UK’s most successful shows, and Cottle became a founding partner in the Circus of Horrors, which has been another of the biggest circus success stories of the past decade.

In 2003, Cottle sold Austen his share in the Chinese and Moscow circuses so that he could buy the tourist attraction Wookey Hole. Proving that old adage that you can shake the sawdust off your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your heart, however, Cottle never gave up his love of the circus. At Wookey, he swiftly established a circus museum and a circus school for local kids.

Gerry Cottle (Left) with Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson (Centre) and Dr Haze from
Circus of Horrors at the launch of Circus Mania 
When I interviewed him for Circus Mania! he said his love of circus was greater than it has ever been. He sees every circus that comes within range and will talk knowledgeably and passionately about any show you mention.

That he has decided to launch a new all-human travelling big top show, commencing March 18 (2010) is undoubtedly the biggest news to hit the circus world in many years. Setting out in the West Country, before travelling to London and the rest of the country, Cottle says the show will travel in an 800-seat tent, feature magic and Las Vegas-style dancers and appeal to all the family.

“The circus scene has been in the doldrums a bit, lately,” Gerry told me at Christmas. If anyone can shake it up, that person is undoubtedly the unstoppable Gerry Cottle.

See also my interview with Brian Austen and interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton.

And for the full story of Gerry Cottle and many other circus stars, from trapeze artists to animal trainers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus by Douglas McPherson.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.


  1. Saw his WOW show in Paignton 3 years ago and cannot wait to see another of its ilk - just wish the website had more info on it as to where the venues will be! Everybody should go whenever possible to support such a gallant stand for something timeless, wholesome and traditional. Kids really need to have this type of live entertainment. Mine cannot get enough. Enough said!

    Adoring Fan, Newport

  2. but now gerry cottles is using Billy Smarts Circus to front his show, the show isnt good at all, its no wonder tickets are only £5.99 for any seat