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