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."

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.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Circus Talk!

Wish me luck... and if you’re in the Great Yarmouth area, come along to my first public appearance promoting Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.

The Time and Tide Museum Of Great Yarmouth Life has invited me to give a reading from Circus Mania and tell some of the stories from the book as part of their Showtime circus exhibition (see post below for more details).

I’ll be appearing at 11.30am on Friday June 25 at the museum, which is on Blackfriars Road, Great Yarmouth, NR30 3BX. Tickets are £2.60, which includes tea or coffee. For more info, phone 01493 743930.

Hope to see you there. Just don’t be late, because the Tide and Time Museum waits for no man.

Also, if you’re in Norfolk, you can hear me talking about Circus Mania on Maggie Seker’s Radio Norfolk show on Sunday June 20 at 3pm.

Circus Mania
Douglas McPherson
Finally, I’ve just got back from seeing the Russian Ice Stars fantastic production of Snow White On Ice. Following their venture into circus last year with Cirque De Glace, it’s good to see that they have retained some circus tricks to enliven this more traditional display of ice dance. Some terrific aerial silk and aerial strap work, including a guy literally swinging from a chandelier, drew audible gasps from an audience clearly not expecting to see skaters take to the air in such dramatic ways.

See this show if you get the chance, and look out for their next Cirque show which is due in the autumn.

Of course, you can read the full story of the making of Cirque de Glace in Circus Mania. It’s in all good bookshops - or you can save a fiver by buying it direct from Peter Owen Publishers for the special offer price of just £10 postage-free. Just send a cheque to Peter Owen Publishers, 81 Ridge Road, London N8 9NP

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Circus Exhibition at Great Yarmouth's Time and Tide Museum

It wasn’t so much a case of bringing the house down as bringing the bridge down when Cooke’s Equestrian Circus became the first circus to visit Great Yarmouth, in 1845. To drum up publicity, Nelson the Clown sailed down the River Bure in a bathtub pulled by four geese. So many people crammed onto the suspension bridge to see him that the bridge collapsed and 79 people were drowned.

A painting depicting the disaster is one of the exhibits of Showtime, an exhibition celebrating 165 years of circus in the seaside resort, at the Time and Tide Museum Of Great Yarmouth Life.

Naturally, much of the exhibition focuses on Yarmouth’s very own piece of circus history, Britain’s oldest circus building, the Hippodrome. Owner Peter Jay has loaned a wealth of items such as posters, paintings, and props from his backstage collection. These include a chimp bicycle used by the Billy Russell chimps in the 1950s, a swan float from the water-shows and an elephant razor. This razor was used by an elephant for pretending to shave a member of the audience, before dousing them in water!

The exhibition also includes a massive collection of memorabilia amassed by circus historian Don Stacey. He has loaned props and costumes such as a big cat pedestal, trapeze and a white-faced clown costume made by Vicaire. Vicaire was a Parisian maker who specialised in creating heavily sequinned costumes to contrast with the well-known style of baggy tartan trousers and red nose favoured by Jacko Fossett, Britain’s best loved clown. A leotard once worn by Miguel Vazquez, the first trapeze artist to successfully complete the quadruple somersault is also amongst Don’s loans as well as paintings, prints, and posters.

The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome as it was
- a picture from the Showtime souvenir programme
Other attractions include film footage of the circus past and present and a display of paintings by Katherine Hamilton during her residency at the Hippodrome.

There will also be a series of talks each Friday morning, including A History Of Clowning by Don Stacy and The Roman Circus by Adrian Marsden.

If you want to get more involved, Rollo the clown will be hosting a drop-in circus skills workshop every Monday from July 26 to August 30.
Showtime is open from 10am - 5pm until October 31, which makes it the perfect taster for a visit to the Hippodrome’s summer season.

Oh, and finally, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Circus Mania in the museum bookshop - there’s plenty in it about the Hippodrome and every other aspect of the circus life, past and present.

If you’re unable to attend the Showtime exhibition, though, don’t forget you can order Circus Mania direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special discount price of just £10 postage-free. Simply send a cheque or postal order to:
Peter Owen (Sales)
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.
COMING SOON on the Circus Mania blog: Meet the Mr Big of British circus!