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."

Friday, 30 November 2012

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson TV debut in The Last Circus Elephant

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
making his TV debut in BBC 1's
The Last Circus Elephant

The 2012 circus season ended with Bobby Roberts convicted of keeping Britain's last circus elephant chained to the ground and allowing a groom to beat her while unsupervised at winter quarters. But was it grounds that a ban on all circus animals is necessary?

Interestingly, the sentence was a conditional discharge - Roberts was given no fine or custody and not ordered to pay court costs. The judge said the circus owner had suffered enough from the adverse press publicity and praised his previous "exemplary" record of looking after animals for most of his 70 years. The judge also criticised Animal Defenders International for their delay in releasing secretly filmed footage of the groom - a delay which allowed the groom, the actual perpetrator of the violence, to escape justice and return to his native Romania before the story hit the headlines last year. No one has seen him since.


Bobby Roberts (far right) with
Anne the Elephant
The BBC Look East documentary - 'The Last Circus Elephant' - which aired at prime time in the east of England on the Monday after the trial took a very balanced view of the case. There was some entertaining archive footage of the elephant, in her younger days, driving a car around the village where the circus is based. Yes, this elephant can not only drive, she had her own car, a bit like a golf cart, which she could apparently steer with her trunk without help on public roads - hardly suggestive of a deprived life. There was also an interview with the chief vet of the safari park to which Roberts was forced to give the elephant after a vicious front page press campaign. Far from confirming the protestors' claims that the animal had been badly cared for, the vet said "Hats off to Bobby - to get an elephant to that age (58) in such good condition, he had to be doing something right."


As the author of Circus Mania, my part in the programme was relating the history of animals in the circus since Philip Astley, a trick horse rider, built the first circus ring, in London, in 1768. Again, my segment of the programme included some excellent archive footage from the glory days of the British big top in the 1950s and 60s - vast tents packed to the rafters and rings heaving with polar bears, elephants, lions and chimps. There was some nice contemporary footage, too, of the all-human Russells International Circus, but also of Britain's last tiger trainer, Martin Lacey, kissing up to his big cats, and Bobby Roberts training horses that were evidently in superb condition.

All in all, for a programme about an abuse trial, I'd say the circus came off pretty well.


Bobby and Moira Roberts leaving court
But, of course, the damage caused by the ADI footage was done long before the case came to court. Roberts had a "financially disastrous" season last year and came off the road a month early. His wife was in tears in the programme as she described the additional pressure put on the family by email threats to shoot Bobby and kidnap their children.


In April, the animal welfare minister, Lord Taylor, announced a probable ban on wild animals in British circuses in 2015 and a new licensing and inspection programme in the interim. Rather than wait "till the bitter end" as he put it, Martin Lacey ended this year's circus season by closing his controversial Great British Circus. He is currently looking to rehome his tigers abroad and will continue next year in a new show, Big Top Circus, with just horses and dogs - although his liberty horse act is also up for sale as he "winds down to retirement."

Whether Bobby Roberts Super Circus will be on the road next year remains to be seen.

Updated 2nd Edition 
out now!
When Circus Mania was published, the Mail on Sunday described it as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." With chapters on my backstage visits to Circus Mondao and the Great British Circus, it may prove to be the final study of Britain's last generation of circus animal trainers. Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon before the circus as Astley created it disappears forever.

Meanwhile in The Guardian...

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson's was
commissioned to share his views on circus animals
in The Guardian G2 at the time of Bobby Robert's trial

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Circus Mania on Kindle

With three in 40 people receiving an e-reader for Christmas last year, and Amazon selling more ebooks than paperbacks and hardbacks combined, the digital revolution is well and truly with us. So I’m proud to announce that Circus Mania! is now available for instant download to a Kindle near you!
Hailed by the Mail on Sunday as “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form,” Circus Mania is my journey through the world of sawdust, spangles and sweat, from traditional big top shows to the spectacle of Cirque du Soleil and beyond, talking to trapeze flyers, clowns, sword swallowers and showmen about their unique lives, traditions, secret language and superstitions.
With traditional animal circuses currently facing extinction from government legislation and animal rights protestors in the land where horseman Philip Astley invented the circus almost 250 years ago, Circus Mania’s conversations with the men and women struggling to keep their shows on the road means the new Kindle edition could not be more timely.

Most recently, the highly respected American circus critic and author David Lewis Hammarstrom blogged on Showbiz David: “Circus Mania will likely take a place of honour on the highest shelf with Antony Hippisley Coxe’s classic, A Seat At The Circus.”

Praising the “illuminating detail” and “cool Brit sense of humour” of this “wonderful book,” Hammarstrom added, “This is a book about the Brit circus scene that puts you right there.”

Now, thanks to the wonders of Kindle, you can click here and be right there in less than a minute!

Monday, 2 July 2012

TRAPEZE Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis & Gina Lollobrigida!

Step right up for the best seat in the house: your favourite armchair in front of your telly. July 30 sees the release on DVD of maybe the most atmospheric circus film ever made.

Directed by Carol Reed in the 1950s, Trapeze stars Tony Curtis as Tino, a young acrobat who travels to Paris to learn how to perform the triple-somersault. The one man who can teach him is Burt Lancaster’s Mike Ribble, a drunk and half-crippled former trapeze star who nearly killed himself performing the same death-defying stunt. Reluctantly, Ribble agrees to train the young flyer and returns to the ring to become his catcher.

But when the ambitious and unscrupulous femme fatale Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) joins their act, relationships in the roof of the Parisian circus building become strained to breaking point.
Lancaster was a real life trapeze flyer before he became an actor, and the vertiginous aerial scenes are thrillingly shot. We really feel the queasy swing of the lofty trapeze bar; the heart-stopping flights through mid-air; the jarring thud of the catches and the stomach-turning plunges into the net.

But perhaps even more compelling than the trapeze scenes are the shots of backstage corridors heaving with ballerinas, harmonica-playing dwarfs, silk-costumed clowns, spotted horses and trumpeting elephants.

Shot in beautiful deep colours, every frame is rich in detail. The backstage menagerie, with its camels, lions and giraffe is so vivid you can almost smell the dung and feel the cobbled floor beneath your feet. Even Carry On film favourite Sid James shows up, trying to sell to anyone who will listen the python he has coiled around his shoulders.
Gina Lollobrigida as circus femme fatale Lola in Trapeze
But how realistic is the portrayal of backstage life in the circus? 

One of the most striking aspects of Trapeze is how closely the Parisian circus building where the film is set resembles Britain’s last purpose-built circus building, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. It was in the unchanged, ghost-filled backstage corridors and former stables of the latter that I met South American trapeze troupe the Flying Neves and interviewed them about their gravity-defying lives. And it was in the Hippodrome’s ring, on the 100th anniversary of the building, that aerial silk star Eva Garcia plunged forty feet to her death during a performance just days after she described to me her life of glamour, grit and peril.

"A brilliant account of
a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday
So if the thrills and spills of Trapeze whet your appetite for the big top (and you are hugely recommended to buy it and enjoy it) find out more about life and death in the sawdust circle by reading my book Circus Mania! and marvel at the stranger-than-fiction tales of real life circus stars.
Read it and wonder at the lives of the circus breed.

The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
- a circus building like the one in Trapeze.
Circus Mania takes you backstage.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Anti-Circus Campaigners Outbid Zippos Circus For Dancing Dog Act

Animal rights organisation PETA has chosen unusual celebrities for its new anti-circus ad campaign: Britain’s Got Talent winners Ashleigh and Pudsey, who are a teenage girl and her dancing dog.

Unveiling the ad in Westminster, 17-year-old Ashleigh, who appears in the ad as a clown, spoke out against the “beatings” circus animals allegedly endure “for the sake of so-called entertainment.”
Keeping animals in the circus
Zippos ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE
(Photo: Piet-Hein Out, courtesy Zippos)
Pudsey the dog, who is dressed as a lion in the ad, declined to comment on the ad’s slogan: “The Saddest Show On Earth - Get Wild Animals Out Of The Circus.” But the message was clear: it’s okay for an animal to dance on prime time TV but not in a circus ring.

Amusingly, Zippos circus had previously made several attempts to hire Ashleigh and her canine companion. According to showman Martin Burton, “It appears I didn’t offer as much money as PETA, and Ashleigh and her agent went for the higher paid job!”

But is Ashleigh right to call for a ban on animal circuses? I looked into the matter in great depth for my book Circus Mania!, making backstage visits to several circuses and speaking to several former and current animal trainers, including Britain’s last lady tiger trainer.

For the full inside story on the way circus animals are kept and trained, click here to Circus Mania! from Amazon.

Or buy direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the SPECIAL OFFER price of just £10 postage-free. Send cheques to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP
Tel: 020 8350 1775

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Gerry Cottle's 50 years of Circus

Back in the Big Top!

Half a century ago, a stockbroker’s son from Cheam ran away with the circus. He went on to become the most famous showman of his time. During the 70s and 80s, Gerry Cottle became as synonymous with circus as Billy Smart had in the 50s and 60s - not least because of the Seaside Special prime time variety show broadcast each Saturday evening from Cottle’s big top. In later years, Cottle was the guiding force behind the enormous UK success of the Chinese State Circus, Moscow State Circus and Circus of Horrors. A decade ago, he retired from the road to revive the Wookey Hole Caves as one of the south west’s most colourful tourist attractions.

But, to steal a line from Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Greatest Show on Earth, you can shake the sawdust off of your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your heart. Before long, Gerry had established a thriving circus school at Wookey Hole. And this year he’s returned to the road with his first travelling circus in ten years: Gerry Cottle’s 50 Years of Circus - 50 Amazing Acts in 100 Minutes!
A selection of Gerry Cottle's Circus
posters in the programme of his
50th anniversary show

Presented in a huge big top with a cast of 35 performers and a live band, the show boasts an outstanding line up including one of Britain’s funniest clowns, Bippo, and big tricks such as Mad Max Newton using a crossbow to shoot an apple off his assistant’s head; a blindfolded high wire act and a heart-stopping Wheel of Death.

There’s also roller-skating, bicycle gymnastics, magic and large scale song and dance routines. According to a review in fairground newspaper World’s Fair, “By the finale the atmosphere inside the big top was electric, with deafening applause the like of which I have never seen at a circus.”

If you're in striking distance of Wookey Hole, why not book into Gerry’s Wookey Hole Hotel (01749 672243)?

For the full story of Gerry Cottle’s life in the circus, not to mention the story of Bippo the clown, the Circus of Horrors, the Chinese State Circus and a whole host of circus performers from trapeze flyers to tiger trainers, read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson, a book which Gerry Cottle himself called “A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people,” and which the Mail on Sunday described as “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Circus Mania retails at £14.99, but you can save £5 by ordering direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the Special Offer price of just £10 postage-free in the UK.
Send cheques to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP
Tel. 020 8350 1775

Or click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson filming on location with the BBC

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
makes his TV debut in BB1's
The Last Circus Elephant

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson recalls a day of filming for a BBC documentary on the trial of Bobby Roberts and the fate of Britain's last circus elephant.

It was a day when we both learned a new word. David Whitely, the BBC Look East presenter, learned that clowns are nicknamed Joeys, and I found out what a noddy is.

We were standing in the middle of a blustery sports field, far enough from Russells International Circus that the red big top would appear just above my left shoulder. Diana Hare, the producer, was sitting on the grass making copious notes, and the tallest camera man I’ve ever seen was filming my answers to David’s questions about the rights and wrongs of animals in the circus.

The subject of animals in the circus is always
a thorny one.
This is how the Daily Mail
reported the return of elephants to the
Great British Circus in 2009
It’s a thorny subject I looked into in great depth in my book Circus Mania! and it’s the subject of a half-hour documentary the beeb are making for likely broadcast in late June or July.

For me, it was fun to see the way TV programmes are pieced together. I arrived early in time to catch circus owner Rusty Russell being interviewed in the empty big top, the light gleaming off his red and gold tunic as he sat with his back to the sawdust circle.

As the audience began to arrive, Diana and the camera man scurried around taking ‘atmosphere’ shots of people taking their seats and buying popcorn. David was filmed speaking his introduction as he walked up to the box office. To the bemusement of the paying customers waiting in line it took three takes until he and the camera man were satisfied.

As the lights went down and the show began, I was ushered into a seat to be filmed watching and applauding the hoola-hoopist and hand-balancers. Then, as the circus continued, I was tapped on the shoulder and hoiked outside to be interviewed in the afternoon sun.

The Last Circus Elephant was filmed at the all-human
Russells International Circus
After the interview had been filmed, the camera man moved to a different position and David asked me the same questions all over again, this time stopping me after a few sentences. The camera man changed positions once more, this time squatting down for a low angle shot, and we repeated the procedure. The idea is that, for visual variety, they can use a long shot of me beginning to speak then cut to a close-up as I continue. And that is where the noddy comes in. The camera man took shots of David literally nodding at the camera as if in response to something I was saying. These reaction shots can then be cut into the finished film to cover the edits in the film of me speaking.

Finally, we filmed some ‘establishing footage’ of David and me and pretending to be in deep conversation as we wandered among the caravans and lorries at the back of the big top.

Circus Mania
Douglas McPherson
With my role as ‘circus expert’ complete, we returned to the tent - the BBC to film some backstage atmosphere and me to watch the final half hour of the show, which I’m pleased to say was very enjoyable. Russells Circus has no animals, in case you’re wondering, but it does have a promising young clown called Alex Morley and an impressive Hungarian springboard act.

How much of my interview will make it into the final film remains to be seen, as does whether the programme will be broadcast only in the eastern region or nationally. As the question of animals in circuses is a national one, David reckoned the documentary could end up broadcast countrywide in the prime time regional news slot.

A case of watch this space for further details, then.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the way circus animals are trained and treated, read about my behind-the-scenes visits and interviews with circus trainers in Circus Mania!

Updated 2nd Edition
for 2018!
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Update: Click here to read my review of The Last Circus Elephant.

Watch a more recent TV interview in which I talk about the stories behind Circus Mania, and the new updated edition. 

Sunday, 29 April 2012



Australian circus girl
Chelsea McGuffin
in an earlier production by
Circa that you can read
about in
Circus Mania

(Photo by Raphael Helle,
courtesy Norfolk and Norwich

One of the most visually unusual circus shows this summer is likely to be How Like An Angel, a mixture of acrobatics and 16th and 17th century choral music that has been specially created to tour four of England’s most striking cathedrals: Norwich, Ely, Gloucester and Ripon.

The show is the brainchild of Yaron Lifschitz, artistic director of Australian company Circa, who has teamed up with Robert Hollingworth, musical director of I Fagiolini to create a show that will see aerial artists flying through the high empty spaces of the four magnificent medieval buildings.

The tour kicks off in Norwich Cathedral June 26 - 28, before moving to Ely (July 2-3), Gloucester (July 16- 17) and Ripon (July 19 - 20). Tickets for Norwich cost £20 by phone on 01603 766400 or in person from the box office of the Norwich Theatre Royal.

In the meantime, you can catch up with the story of Yaron Lifschitz and Circa in Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson.

Circus Mania includes a chapter on Circa’s previous visit to Norwich when the company performed in the atmospheric setting of a traditional European Spiegeltent, or ‘mirror tent.’ A dramatic description of the show’s Chelsea McGuffin being suspended by her front teeth is followed by a next-morning interview with Lifschitz in which the director explains with a chuckle that in circus “Some things just hurt.”

Circus Mania, which also includes some eye-popping pictures of Circa in action, retails at £14.99 but you can save £5 by buying it direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special offer price of just £10 postage-free in the UK (£2.75 postage rest of world). Send cheques to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Also read my interview with Chelsea McGuffin.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

World Circus Day, April 19 2014

The fifth World Circus Day will be celebrated on Saturday April 19, 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls... Saturday April 19, 2014, is World Circus Day!

Organised by the International Circus Federation under the patronage of Princess Stephanie of Monaco, World Circus Day is a global celebration of the glamour, excitement, tradition and spectacle of the sawdust circle - and it’s something EVERYONE can get involved in.

Here is the recipe for a perfect World Circus Day:

1/ Google ‘Circus’ and the name of your town or county. Find the circus appearing nearest to you and go along! If you haven’t been for years, you’re guaranteed to enjoy it!

2/ Buy some paper plates and a can of shaving foam. Spray the shaving foam on the plates to make some nice big custard pies, then go into the garden and have a good old custard pie fight! (Rinsing off with water pistols is optional!)

3/ Get out your face paints and paint clown faces on your kids... and yourself!

4/ If you’ve got any circus skills take your stilts, unicycle or juggling balls out onto the streets and share your passion. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, tell them it’s World Circus Day!

5/ Buy a copy of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson and read all about the unique lifestyle, traditions, culture, history, superstitions and secrets of the world’s greatest circus entertainers as told in their own words. 

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Certificate from Princess Stephanie of Monaco
marking Douglas McPherson's
participation in the 1st World Circus Day
with the launch of Circus Mania

The Mail on Sunday called Circus Mania “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” The Eastern Daily Press called it “Remarkable... captivating... beguiling... a real page turner.” The fairground newspaper World’s Fair called it “The greatest show on earth in a book!”

Circus Mania retails at £14.99, but to celebrate World Circus Day you can SAVE £5 by buying it direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special offer price of just £10 postage-free in the UK (£2.75 postage worldwide).
Send cheques to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or click here to buy the paperback or ebook from Amazon.

May all your days be World Circus Days!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Cirque du Ciel Review

The Chinese circus tradition is more than 2000 years old, but all the old routines like hand balancing and contortionism, double Chinese poles and hat juggling come up like new again in ShangHi, the exciting new theatre show from Cirque du Ciel.
Directed by Zhang Wan who worked with Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Caron on an earlier version of the show called Magical Musical Box, ShangHi has a slender storyline: a sleeping girl dreams of watching and joining in with acrobats. But the stunts come thick and fast against a projected backdrop of swirling colours and a loud, westernised soundtrack given extra energy by a tireless onstage drummer.
Two highlights both feature foot juggling. The men juggle with each other in hip-hop clothes in the first scene that really gets the crowd excited. The women juggle with drums which they also play.
The skill level is high, the large cast routines are slickly choreographed and the glittering costumes are attractive in this high energy show which is touring the UK until August 25.
But what is the history of the Chinese circus and its influence on western circus? The answers can be found in Circus Mania, by Douglas McPherson, which goes behind the scenes of the Chinese State Circus as well as cutting edge cirque shows such as Cirque du Soleil and Cirque de Glace, traditional big top circuses and hybrids like the Circus of Horrors to discover the traditions, superstitions and secrets of the circus breed.

Described by the Mail on Sunday as “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form,“ Circus Mania retails at £14.99, To save £5 off the recommended retail price and buy Circus Mania at the special offer price of just £10 postage-free, send cheques to:Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP
Or telephone 020 8350 1775 to buy what World’s Fair called “The Greatest Show On Earth In A Book!”

Monday, 2 April 2012

Peter Owen New Address

Circus Mania book launch
as reported in The Stage
(L-R: Gerry Cottle,
author Douglas McPherson,
Dr Haze)
If you’d like to buy Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson at the special offer price of just £10 postage free, please note the new address and telephone number for Peter Owen Publishers:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

T. 020 8350 1775

“Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form... an excellent book.”
- 4-star review, Mail on Sunday

Peter Owen OBE
Publisher of Circus Mania
2014 Update: Circus Mania publisher Peter Owen received an OBE for services to literature in the New Year's honours list. Click here for details.

Click here to read about the behind-the-scenes juggling that went into the Circus Mania launch party at Circus Space.