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."

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.

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