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, 31 July 2013

10 Clown Facts for Circus 250 in 2018!

Every day is something day, but forget clown day, because clowns have an entire week, from Aug 1 - 7 every year. It was even written into American law by tricky Dicky President Nixon. To celebrate, here are 10 more clown facts!

1 - The word clown is believed to come from the Icelandic word klunni, meaning a clumsy person.

Clowning around
- Danny Adams
in a picture from
Circus Mania
2 - The earliest record of the word clown dates from around 1560.

3 - Clowns are nicknamed Joeys after the early 19th century pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi.

4 - The full name of Krusty the Clown in The Simpsons is Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yercham Krustosky. He’s voiced by Dan Castellaneta.

5 - The declaration of International Clown Week was passed into US law by President Richard Nixon on August 2, 1971.

Clowns have always been
a big draw, as this 1946 poster
6 - The world’s oldest clown society, Clowns International, was founded in 1947.

7 - There are an estimated 20,000 clowns in the world.

8 - Johnny Burnette had a hit with Clown Shoes, written by PJ Proby.

9 - Ronald McDonald was first played by Williard Scott in a 1963 TV commercial.

Killer clown
- serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
10 - Serial killer John Wayne Gacy was known as Pogo the Clown.

Read more about clowns, from Victorian star Joey Grimaldi to todays masters of mirth, including Bippo, the Chipolatas and Clive Webb and Danny Adams, in Circus Mania! - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Bonus Fact: Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. If you suffer from it, DON'T click here to read about the Northampton Clown and Britain's clown crime-wave!

The Northampton Clown
- the clown who started a craze!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

10 Facts about Tigers for International Tiger Day!

No one knows more
about tigers than
Martin Lacey
- Read his story in
Circus Mania

July 29, 2018 is International Tiger Day. Here are 10 tiger facts to roar about.

1 All tigers have a marking on their forehead that resembles the Chinese symbol Wang, which translates as ‘king.’

2 A tiger’s stripes are as unique as a fingerprint.

3 A tiger’s tail averages four-feet in length - about half the total length of its body.

4 A tiger’s teeth can grow up to 3 inches long.

Martin Lacey was passing his love and knowledge
of tigers to Helyne Edmonds, but their
Great British Circus is sadly no more.
5 Unlike domestic cats, Tiger eyes have round pupils.

6 A tiger’s night vision is six times greater than a human’s.

7 Tigers don’t purr. They make a chuffing sound through their nostrils.

8 No wild tigers live in Africa. They come from China and Asia.

Circus at its roarest
A Chipperfield tiger backstage at
An Evening with lions and Tigers
9 Tiger cubs can gain up to 100 grams in weight each day.

10 A group of tigers is called a streak.

How do you train a tiger? I got the low-down from two of Britain’s last tiger trainers, Martin Lacey and Helyne Edmonds of the Great British Circus. Read the story of the UK’s last circus with tigers and elephants in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Or buy direct from Peter Owen Publishers for £10 including postage within the UK (add £2.75 for worldwide orders; sterling only).

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

T. 020 8350 1775

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form"
- Mail on Sunday

Big cats in the big top
Thomas Chipperfield and Tsavo the lion.
Summer 2015 update
When Martin Lacey closed his Great British Circus at the end of 2012, with a ban on wild animals in the circus due to come into force in 2015, it looked as though the last tigers had left the British big top. At the end of 2013, however, Thomas Chipperfield brought his mixed lion and tiger act across the sea from Ireland and is this year travelling an educational show called An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Click here to see my pictures of him in the ring and backstage. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Who named the circus?

Astley's Amphitheatre
- a circus by another name

The circus as we know it was created in 1768 by cavalryman turned trick horse-rider Philip Astley. From humble beginnings giving open air performances on a patch of land south of Westminster Bridge, Astley built one of London’s most celebrated venues - Astley's Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts, later simply known as Astley’s - by mixing horse-riding stunts with clowns, acrobats, strongmen and other acts that make up the traditional circus bill. Astley established the still-standard size of the circus ring at 42-feet in diameter.

But although regarded as the father of the circus, Astley didn’t name his entertainment as such.

The first circus to use the name, in 1792, was the rival Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy in nearby Blackfriars Road. The Royal Circus was popularised by showman and star rider Charles Hughes who made important contributions to the history of circus in his own right. It was Hughes who introduced circus to Russia, and a pupil of his, Bill Ricketts, who founded the first American circus.

But the man credited with resurrecting the word circus from its Roman origins, when it graced amphitheatres such as the Circus Maximus, was Hughes’ partner in the Royal Circus, Charles Dibdin, a theatre manager and composer best remembered for writing Poor Tom Browning which is still aired at the proms today.

For the full history of the circus, plus interviews with acrobats, clowns, sword-swallowers, tiger trainers, clowns and showmen about their lives, culture, superstitions and secrets, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pablo Fanque - Britain's First Black Circus Proprietor

Today I walked down Ber Street in Norwich, childhood home of Britain’s first black circus proprietor, Pablo Fanque.

Born William Darby in 1810 (or possibly 1796; accounts vary) Fanque made his name as a horseman and appeared at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London. He later established his own circus which toured as far as Ireland and Scotland but mainly worked in the north of England.

Almost a hundred years after his death, John Lennon chanced upon a circus poster for a benefit show Fanque arranged for one of his performers. The result was the Beatles song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!, which mentioned Fanque in the lyric.

Pablo's plaque on the wall of
John Lewis department store
If Fanque’s success and celebrity in Victorian England seems remarkable in an era when America still had slavery, then the Rev Thomas Horne, chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain put his achievements in the context of his profession:

“In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test - ability.”

To read about more great characters from the circus of yesteryear and today, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to read the 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Click here to watch Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson talking about Pablo Fanque on TV!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

World Circus Day - a missed opportunity?

Young Afghanis celebrate World Circus Day
but how many UK circuses used the day to
raise their profile?

This year’s fourth World Circus Day was celebrated with events in a whopping 47 countries from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and from Peru to Japan. But, writing in the World Circus Day edition of Planet Circus, the magazine of the European Circus Association, editor Dirk Kuik lamented the lack of involvement by the majority of professional circuses. It was mainly amateur circuses, schools, community projects and circus fans who took part.

What a wasted opportunity that was for publicity-starved circuses everywhere!

Awareness-raising days like World Circus Day and World Juggling Day may be easy to ignore - after all, every day is world something day. BUT, journalists, radio presenters and even TV stations love linking a feature to such days. Emailing a local radio station to say next Saturday is World Circus Day will almost guarantee an invitation on air to talk about the circus - and YOUR circus - and if you mention a tie-in promotion such as cheap tickets or a free juggling lesson before the show, you will get more people in your big top.

Circus Mania
was launched on the first
World Circus Day
- as reported in
The Stage.
I know, because a) as a journalist I’m always linking stories to various awareness-raising days and b) as the author of Circus Mania, I’ve arranged a ton of local, regional and even national publicity for the book linked to the past four World Circus Days.

So come on, circus owners, when the next World Circus Day comes around on April 19, 2014, how about you all arrange a related promotion and make a concerted effort to get some World Circus Day publicity for your own show and circus in general?

Oh, and why wait until next April? August 1st is the beginning of International Clown Week. If a circus can’t get its funny man in the media in that week it never will!

See also: Royal approval for The Showman's Girl!
and Banned from the big top - why circuses don't get reviewed.

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

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The daring young man on the flying trapeze

Sheet music for
Flying Trapeze

In my recent post on Jumbo, I asked if the name of any other circus performer had become a noun in the English language. The answer, of course, was the French pioneer of the flying trapeze, Jules Leotard, who gave his surname to the tight-fitting outfit that he wore for his act.

Leotard was immortalised in the 1867 song That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, with lyrics by George Leybourne and music by Gaston Lyle - although the name of the flyer in the song is the fictional Signor Bona Slang. Well, he was depicted as a cad who stole the narrator’s girl, so Leotard might have sued...

Jules Leotard
as I drew him in
Circus Mania
The story of Leotard is one of many told in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

But now you can hear the song in a new rendition by Graham Parker that is one of many Victorian songs recorded by contemporary artists such as Richard Thomson, Kimmie Rhodes and Christine Collister on an album called The Beautiful Old. For more info go to or preview the disc at CD Baby.

All together now:

"He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze..." 

Friday, 19 July 2013

Royal Approval for The Showman's Girl!

Congratulations to author Julia Douglas for receiving this certificate from HRH Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Honorary President of the Federation Mondiale du Cirque, for participating in World Circus Day, on April 20, by giving away free downloads of her romance novel The Showman’s Girl.

The Showman’s Girl follows the adventures of Emily, who runs away with the circus in the 1930s.

If you missed the free download, you can still buy it from iTunes for just 49p!

Or borrow the Linford edition paperback from your local library for free!

The fourth World Circus Day was celebrated by participants in a whopping 47 countries from Afghanistan to Vietnam and Peru to Japan.
World Circus Day 5 will be celebrated on April 19, 2014. But if you can't wait until then to indulge in some circus slapstick, International Clown Week begins this August 1st!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Timber! - the lumberjack circus is a show to fall for!

Cirque Alfonse
- Circus hillbilly style!

A circus needs something new and different to pull a crowd. Even if the newness is just the refreshingly different way an old trick is dressed up, a show has to give us something we haven’t seen before, and can’t see anywhere else, or else why should we buy a ticket?

Zippos is currently cleaning up in Scotland with Nicky de Neumann’s Roman horse riding. Now that’s something Andrew Ducrow was doing in Victorian times - and the Romans were doing 2000 years ago! But, hey, you’re not going to see it anywhere else in the UK today, so the prospect of seeing Nicky recreating such a powerful piece of old circus in a modern big top is something to get excited about.

Cirque du Soleil revolutionised circus in the 80s with a style of presentation we hadn’t seen before. But too many ‘new circus’ companies that have tried to grab a bit of Soleil’s sunshine have lost sight of the novelty factor that circus needs. In search of art, they’re often dowdy and straight-faced to the point where even their posters look dull.

- fun in the barn!
Timber! by Canada's Cirque Alfonse, however, has got the novelty element spot on. The very concept of a lumberjack circus makes you sit up and think, wow, that will be different - and it is!

Imagine all your favourite circus tricks transplanted to a barn, with hillbilly music and bearded performers in braces and long-johns (or, to save your imagination, just Google their promo video on YouTube). Here we have Russian bar on freshly sawn planks, juggling with axes, hoop jumping through steel barrel hoops, whip-cracking (naturally) and even some running on rolling logs.

It all adds up to a barrel-load of homespun fun and the critics have been loving it, even if some hacks couldn’t resist pointing out that at 90 minutes in length the show could so with some, well... chopping.

Timber! is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank until July 31, before heading to Europe on tour. Go down and give them a big yee-hah!

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson Banned from the Big Top - why circuses don't get reviewed

Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson
-banned from some
circuses for telling it
like it is.

"He went berserk and accused me of stabbing him in the back."

Actors are often portrayed as being over-sensitive to criticism, but it's circus owners who are really thin-skinned, I've found - as I wrote in this article, which originally appeared in the world's oldest theatrical newspaper, The Stage.

Circus folk think nothing of being fired from a cannon, walking a high-wire or turning somersaults on the flying trapeze. Offer them a review of their show, however, and their bravery deserts them.

Just this month a showman who would clearly prefer not to be named in print refused to give me press tickets for his show because he was still smarting from a bad review I gave him three years ago.

“A bad review is worse for me than no review,” he emailed - which didn’t show much confidence that he might actually get a good review. In fact, I’d seen his show, but not reviewed it, last year and it had improved a lot on the one I’d criticised. There was every chance I would have given him a better review this time, but clearly he wasn’t prepared to take the risk.

This is not the first time I’ve effectively been banned from a circus for daring to criticise the show - something I have never experienced in twenty years of reviewing music or theatre.

"He shouted. He waved his arms about."

In 2010 I arrived at a box office and was told the boss wanted to see me. As I’d been giving him favourable reviews for several years, and had written a number of features about his circus, I was expecting a friendly greeting. But clearly my most recent notice hadn’t been favourable enough.

He went berserk. He shouted. He waved his arms about. He accused me of “stabbing him in the back,” and told me he didn’t need a review in The Stage.

Naturally, I couldn’t review his show after such an outburst. Irrespective of the show’s merits, if I gave it a good review it would appear I’d been intimidated into doing so. If I gave him a bad review it would look like I’d acted out of spite. So we’ve respected his wishes and not reviewed him since.

The BBC has sought out the views of
Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
but his opinions have made him unwelcome
in certain circus tents.
The irony is that traditional circuses frequently complain about a lack of publicity. Unlike progressive circus companies on the arts festival circuit, which employ PR firms and acquire a trendy reputation through reviews in the national press, traditional British circuses almost never get written about unless in connection with animal rights issues.

I would have thought that a critic with a keen interest in circus actively seeking to write about the traditional big top would be welcomed with open arms. But that would mean accepting that critics are not part of the PR machine and that to be reviewed means having faults and flaws reported alongside the highlights. Circus owners, it seems, are too thin-skinned to be told they could do better.

Of course, nobody likes to get a bad review - it’s always going to sting. But everyone likes a good review, and most theatrical professionals accept that you can’t have the latter without occasionally getting the former. However badly they may react to a sniffy notice in private, most also know better than to complain to the critics or newspapers concerned if they want to be in with a chance of a better write-up next time.

Perhaps circus owners should remember that there is no such thing as bad publicity. You only have to open a paper to see the harsh words handed out daily to the biggest names in show business. But does it harm their fame or fortune? Quite the opposite.

Gerry Cottle (L) and Dr Haze (R) from the
Circus of Horrors join Douglas McPherson
at the launch of Circus Mania
but other showmen are less keen on his writing.
The power of a bad review is often overestimated. There have been countless examples of shows and performers panned by the critics who have gone on to be an enormous success with the public.

I’ve often read a bad review and, putting aside the critic’s judgement, decided the show was something I wanted to see. In some cases, if it hadn’t been for that bad review, I would not have known the show existed.

But reviews are more than heckles from the stalls. The opinion of experienced, impartial critics can help directors and performers improve their work, and raise standards across the industry, by pointing out faults that the creators are too close to their own work to see.

"My crime was to single out the boss' son."

In the second instance I described above, the one where the showman really blew his top, I’d actually given the show a broadly positive review. My ‘crime’ had been to single out the boss’ son who had been promoted to a major role he was neither ready for nor particularly suited to. I’d obviously hit a raw nerve by attacking the showman’s kin. But the nepotism was hurting the show and surely by pointing that out I was helping him.

When Bobby Roberts' stood trial over
Anne the Elephant, The Guardian 
commissioned Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson to write this article
- but some circus owners are less keen on
his opinions.
Then again, perhaps he reacted so badly because he knew I was right but couldn’t bear having an uncomfortable truth exposed. If so, he shouldn’t kid himself that silencing the critics will stop audiences noticing and perhaps not coming back next year.

Most areas of the arts have long benefited from robust and illuminating criticism keeping the artists on their toes. But when I wrote my book, Circus Mania, I realised there was almost no serious criticism of circus.

The only reviews that most traditional circuses get are in fan magazine King Pole where they are almost guaranteed a reverential write-up. Most of the magazine’s notices are a simple listing of the acts and if a ‘critical’ element is introduced it is invariably to say that this year’s show is better than last.

Given such lenient reviews, is it any wonder that many traditional circuses are tatty, badly produced affairs that generally play to tents more empty than full?

Perhaps the dwindling fortunes of an art form that Britain invented could be revived if circuses opened their doors to critics prepared to tell it as it is.

Circus Mania
2nd Edition out now!
Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania, described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." 

Click here to buy the updated 2018 edition of Circus Mania from Amazon.

See also: World Circus Day - A missed opportunity?

Click here to read a dozen reviews of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Kinky, freaky, wild and dangerous

Kinky Friedman has been singing the same dozen songs since the early 70s. Perhaps it’s because the sometime detective novelist and politician has known all along what the rest of the world may eventually realise: that they’re some of the finest songs ever written. A leaning towards the satirical and downright outrageous has stopped the Kinkster getting the recognition of more ‘serious’ songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark and Tom T Hall. His appearance on famed TV show Austin City Limits was the only edition deemed too incendiary for broadcast at the time. It languished in the vaults for thirty-odd years, but its eventual release on DVD a couple of years back proved second only to Jerry Lee Lewis’ tornado-like appearance as the tautest, most compelling performance ever filmed by that programme.

What’s all this got to do with Circus Mania? Well, aside from the funny songs like the feminist-baiting Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed, Kinky has written some moving and sharply observed songs about the tawdry side of showbusiness, including the tales of down and out country singers Sold American and Nashville Casualty and Life.

One of his best compositions, meanwhile, is a dark, poetic reflection on life in the big top, Wild Man From Borneo. The loneliness of the circus freak is sublimely evoked, along with the blindness of a credulous audience: “We come to see what we want to see, but we never come to know.”

The fakery behind the glitter and the disillusion of the performers is exposed in lines like, “The tattooed lady left the circus train, and lost all of her pictures in the rain.” But so, too, is the air of danger and fascination that is part of circus’ siren call. “Don’t you get too close to me, don’t you get too near,” warns our “hairy, scary, legendary, living souvenir” of a narrator.

This is circus that bites. But then, Kinky is a singer and writer who bites, too. He sounds as good as he ever has on this mature and assured vocal and guitar live performance (Kinky Friedman’s Bi-Polar Tour - Live From Woodstock) that puts the spotlight on some of the best lyrics ever penned.

author Douglas McPherson with
Circus of Horrors founder
Dr Haze (right) and showman
Gerry Cottle (L) at the
launch party for
Circus Mania
But what of the real Wild Men from Borneo? The celebrated dwarf, Tom Thumb? The stuffed mermaids and white elephants presented by PT Barnum? The circus freaks enmeshed in legal battles to defend their right to work from disability rights campaigners who want to end their exploitation? And the modern day freak show that is Britain’s Circus of Horrors?

Delve into the world of circus freaks in Circus Mania - if you dare; one eminent critic confessed there were lines he was too squeamish to read.

Buy Circus Mania direct from Peter Owen Publishers by sending a cheque for £10 (including postage in UK; add £2.75 for overseas orders) to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

And, in the words of Kinky Friedman, may the best of your past be the worst of your future.

Read also: Confessions of a Nashville Circus Girl, my interview with Gretchen Peters about her song Circus Girl.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Scots flock to Zippos

Good to see Zippos pulling big crowds on its Scottish tour, as this picture of the queue on opening night in Edinbugh shows. For latest dates and venues, go to

Scroll down to read my interview with Zippos star horsewoman Nicky de Neumann.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Zippos Circus Girl in Circus Picture of the Year!

Nicky de Neumann
Putting the circus back in the circus
- Roman style

Here’s a picture that puts the circus in the circus for me - Nicky de Neumann riding three horses Roman style in the Zippos big top. At a time when the traditional circus is in retreat and animals have all but disappeared from the British big top, Nicky’s equestrian daredevilry recalls the spirit of the circus as it was invented by British trick rider Philip Astley in 1768 and, indeed, the thunderous arenas of ancient Roman from which circus takes its name.

In an interview that originally appeared in The Stage, I asked her how a girl from Croydon became a star of the sawdust circle.

How long have you been interested in horses?

“The first time I encountered a horse was when I was four or five. I went to see a friend’s horse and from the moment I set eyes on it I was smitten. I started saving up for my own pony when I was seven. By the time I was 11, I had £500 and my grandfather was so impressed he doubled it and I bought my first pony.”

"When you're a kid
you're fearless."
When did you start trick-riding?

“When I was 14 I had to do work experience at school. They wanted me to go to a solicitor’s office and I was like, ‘No way, that’s not for me!’ So I found a guy called Rodeo Dave and did my work experience in his shows at county fairs - throwing myself on and off, up and down and underneath horses, going as fast as possible!”

Sounds dangerous...

“It is. But when you’re a young kid you’re fearless. I loved it. I then went on to work with racehorses and train young thoroughbreds for about 13 years.”

You also took a drama degree at Italia Conti. Were your ambitions in the theatre or the horse world at that point?

“I wanted to do both and everyone said couldn’t. At drama school they wanted me to get rid of my horses, because it was such a big distraction. Everyone in the horse world said I should forget about acting. But I was determined to do both, and I have. I’ve done a lot of fringe theatre, singing and cabaret. But I always seem to be called for more horse work. I worked for Euro Disney for five years as Annie Oakley. I did a couple of years in Giffords Circus. I also created my own all-girl stunt team and toured the country.”

Nicky de Neumann
- the horse whisperer of Zippos turns rescue horses
into circus circuses
Does it take a special kind of horse to do the work you do?

“They need vast amounts of training, but you can train any horse if you spend enough time. I have two rescue horses, one of which was going to be shot because he was deemed un-ride-able and out of control. I took him on with no idea I’d even attempt to get him to be a stunt horse. I just wanted to save his life. But now I’ve got him working and he’s terribly sweet. So it’s about getting to know their personality and working with their strengths. Horses are like kids. They’re not inherently bad and if they display bad behaviour there’s usually a reason. If you become their friend, they want to please you.”

How have you taken to life in a travelling circus?

“It’s lovely, because I get to be with my horses 24/7. I live in the lorry, which is attached to the stables, so we’re all together. They get loads of attention and fuss and I’m there constantly, as opposed to someone who sees their horse once a day and pays someone else to feed them while they’re at work.”

Read more about:

- Animal training in the circus...

- Backstage life at Zippos and other circuses...

- Britain’s oldest circus family...

- The history of the circus...

Backstage at Zippos
Circus Mania
takes you there
In Circus Mania! - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon

Or buy direct from Peter Owen Publishers for just £10 including post and packing in the UK (add £2.75 postage rest of world). Send cheques to:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

See also: An interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton.

"Circus Mania is a brilliant
account of a vanishing
art form."
- Mail on Sunday

And may all your days... be circus days!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The elephant and the tram

Perhaps this pachyderm thought the tram was going to Piccadilly Circus...

The picture, taken in 1936, is one of hundreds of fascinating vintage photos in the Time Out book London Through A Lens. The caption reminds us that elephants weren’t uncommon in London before World War Two, with many appearing in theatre shows. In 1846, the City of London Theatre borrowed two elephants from a Paris circus to star in a play specially written around the tricks they could perform. Animals were first introduced to the London stage as early 1788 by actor and theatre manager John Kemble.

as I drew him in
Circus Mania!
This isn’t the only elephant in the book. There’s also a fine shot, from 1870, of Jumbo, the most famous circus elephant of them all and possibly the most famous circus name of all time. After all, what other big top star’s name became a noun in the English language, other than the 11-foot-tall rubber mule that PT Barnum bought from London Zoo and made so famous that his moniker became a new word for big? Think of him next time you next time you eat a jumbo sausage or see a jumbo jet.

Read more about Jumbo in my review of Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Behind the Big Top by David Lewis Hammarstrom book review

To the 5 Great Circus Books that I recommended in my previous post, I must add a sixth. I’m indebted to David Lewis Hammarstrom, author of the excellent Inside The Changing Circus, for sending me a copy of his first book, Behind The Big Top, which was published by A. S. Barnes back in 1980. Where Inside The Changing Circus provides a clear-eyed guide to the American circus scene of today, Behind The Big Top is an eye-opening journey through its days of glory.

Every chapter is a ringside seat to three-ring spectacle, much witnessed first hand or reported from history with diligent journalism and interviews with the right people and written up with an enthusiasm the spangle-clad subject deserves.

Hammarstrom’s adventures as a “First of May,” with Wallace Brothers circus - “What my mother didn’t know,” as he puts it.... terror on the high wire as the seven person Wallenda human pyramid faltered, then lost its footing and fell... the ticket wagon with a specially built slot to fleece customers of their change... the battle for New York between Ringling and Circus America... band leader Merle Evans calling for “Ten more bars,” to keep the music playing as the big top burns and falls in circus’ worst-ever disaster.

With a large format and huge selection of black and white pictures - scenes of vast circus lots and legions of elephants - this is a book to make you look back and mourn for the circus as it may never be again.

But, then again, with Nik Wallenda taking a half-hour walk across the Grand Canyon on a wire last week... will circus ever lose its ability to shock’n’awe us with what an earlier Wallenda, the great Karl, summarised to Hammarstrom as “Look what a man can do!”

Follow Hammarstrom’s ongoing commentary on the Great American Circus on the Showbiz David blog.

And for a behind-the-scenes journey through the British circus, try my own book Circus Mania - described by the Mail on Sunday as "a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.