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.

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