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, 13 February 2011

Martin Lacey and the Great British Circus - A Life With Lions

Martin Lacey’s Great British Circus was one of the reasons I wrote Circus Mania. I’d already become fascinated with the daredevil lives of circus performers and had written several articles on the subject. But the shows I’d seen at that point had all been contemporary shows in theatres - a sanitised version of the art form that often preferred the media-friendly name ’cirque’ and which was safely removed from its red-toothed roots amid the thundering hooves and flying sawdust of Astley’s first circus in the grittier, gutsier age of the late 18th century.

Me and the elephant
The visit to the Great British Circus
that inspired
Circus Mania
Then, in the spring of 2009, the news was suddenly full of the Great British Circus, which had brought elephants back to a British circus ring for the first time in a decade. Most of the coverage was negative, focusing on the predictable outrage of animal rights protesters. But, when I opened the Daily Mail it wasn’t the words that caught my eye, but a stunning picture of Sonja, a huge, be-tusked African elephant being led into the GBC’s sawdust circle.

The elephant, the golden oasis of sawdust, the towering interior of the big top... that picture called to me. If you want to understand circus, that picture said - and at that point I sorely did want to understand it - If you want to see circus in its purest form and see where it came from, then this is where you will find it.

How the Daily Mail
reported the return of elephants to the
Great British Circus
I went along, and not without trepidation, because like so many other people of my generation I’d been brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals was cruel and distasteful. But I went along and what I saw - and what I subsequently leaned by interviewing half a dozen trainers, former trainers and showmen, both at the Great British Circus and elsewhere - changed my mind about the animal question. It also convinced me that there was a book to be written about this most elemental form of entertainment.

I went on to write about many other circuses, of course: the spectacular ice show of Cirque de Glace, the modern day freak show of the Circus of Horrors, the traditional acrobatics of the Chinese State Circus and, of course, the international phenomenon of Cirque du Soleil. But, throughout the writing of Circus Mania, the memory of my visit to the Great British Circus remained my touch stone - a reminder of what a ‘real’ circus was and a living glimpse into the art form’s origins.

Interestingly, whenever I’ve talked about or been interviewed about Circus Mania it’s always the animals people remember fondly, and it was with reference to the elephants - a supportive, sympathetic and nostalgic reference - that Roger Lewis opened his full-page review of Circus Mania in the Mail on Sunday, in which he described Circus Mania as “a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” (Scroll down the blog to read the full review)

The highlight of that visit to the Great British Circus was watching Lacey in the big cage with his magnificent and beautiful tigers. Mesmerising is the only word to describe his relaxed and gentle interaction with his animals.

So it was great to learn that Martin Lacey has now written a book of his own. My Life With Lions is an apt title for his delightful photo-led memoir, as few can have enjoyed such an intimate relationship with big cats as Lacey and his family, his sons Alex and Martin Jr being big name lion trainers on the continent, and his partner Helyne Edmonds being currently Britain’s only lady tiger trainer.

The concise text, in which Martin shared his stories in conversation with Jeff Link, takes us swiftly through Lacey’s 40-year career in zoos and circuses, providing fascinating insights into the relationship between animal and trainer and revealing many tricks of his trade.

Among the many anecdotes are the time Lacey persuaded a lion to lay down with a lamb for an advert, and the time two cops mistakenly burst into his hotel room only to find a fully grown lion sleeping in the next bed to Lacey.

There’s even a romance worthy of a Hollywood movie, as we hear how Lacey’s partner Helyne Edmonds ran away with the circus, fell in love with the boss and - “Armed with not so much as a rolled up newspaper” - risked her life to save him from a mauling by two tigers.

The best part of the book is an extensive archive of 140 full-page photos of Lacey and family with many of the animals they have worked with over the years, not just lions, but polar bears, zebra, camels, elephants and even a rhino.

The sight of Lacey and family cosied up with their big cats, as if these born killers were as tame as pampered housecats, makes My Life With Lions an absolute treat. Published by Linctrek (ISBN 978 1 872904 47 4) the price tag is £25.

Read my interview with Martin Lacey.

Updated for Circus250
You can can also read lots about Britain's last lion king in 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 for 5 more circus books for Christmas.

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