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

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.

Watch Douglas McPherson talking about the stories behind Circus Mania in a more recent TV appearance.

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

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