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."

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.


  1. Fab article, thanks - haven't read The Stage for a while, so good to catch it here. Circus producers take note!

  2. Given some of the above comments, I doubt Douglas would be welcome on many circuses in the future. His attitude towards traditional circus I feel stinks.I think his comments that many circuses are tatty and badly produced is very unfair. Has he visited every UK circus? Somehow I doubt it!
    Progressive circus as he calls it, very often does gets good media coverage, even when the troupe is quite poor, they often get invited to festivals and events and many groups get money from the UK arts council, so they can often 'play' at circus. Traditional circus does not get invited to venues, they have to pay for all their sites, their advertising costs, their daily running costs and hope that the chosen venue each week provides sufficient income to cover all the costs and hopefully provide a small profit. Traditional circus does not get arts council grants, or any grants at all come to that and has to reply on paying customers, this is something I feel is sadly wrong with this country. Other art forms such as ballet and theatre receive big grants from the arts council but not traditional style circus. And if you have animals then you certainly have no chance!
    It appears to me, only progressive circus gets covered in the Stage these days, traditional circus they seem not to bother with. Even the Monte Carlo Circus Festival review this year was only available to on line readers and not in the printed edition.
    The Worlds Fair is the leading showman's newspaper and covers circus every week, usually providing a more detailed review of a different circus each week than is available elsewhere.
    The King Pole magazine published quarterly by the Circus Friends Association of GB contains reviews of most UK circuses, what Douglas seems to have forgotten about the CFA is that these reviews are by circus fans, NOT paid professional journalists.
    All circuses will accept constructive comments, its the manner in which they are delivered that is often unacceptable to many in the business. Circus is difficult enough without someone who thinks they know about circus but in fact knows bugger all and who clearly shows that in some badly written review.

    1. My whole point is that progressive companies get coverage in the Stage and elsewhere because they invite the press to review them. Traditional circuses mostly don’t. It’s extremely rare for anyone in the media to go out of their way to review a company that hasn’t sent a press release. They don’t need to, because every newspaper and magazine gets far more requests for coverage than they could ever cover in print or online. So when someone like myself who actually loves traditional circus goes out of their way to try and write about it, and gets rebuffed by the circuses themselves, I think it really shows why the traditional circus gets so little positive press.
      The Stage is certainly open to traditional circus, even with animals. In the same issue that the above article appeared I interviewed Zippos’ horse-rider Nicky de Neumann. In the past I’ve written a full-page interview with Martin Lacey about his tigers. (Both articles are reproduced elsewhere on this blog).
      Good publicity is up for grabs by anyone who wants it - but that means taking bad reviews on the chin, because there are certainly tatty circuses out there, whether traditional or progressive, just as there is bad theatre and bad films or music and pretending there isn't doesn't help anybody. Showmen like Barnum and Cottle were masters of promotion because they knew how to work with the press. The current generation of showmen seem to have forgotten how to.

  3. Douglas,
    This is a marvelous piece, finely argued, and how surprised I was to learn that, as circuses are reviewed (puffed) by fans in the states, so, too, are they in the UK. Your points are well taken. Creative people in all avenues of arts and entertainment, including the circus, need to be objectively reviewed, to be praised for good work and challenged for the mediocre and the schlock.
    I congratulate you on what you are fearlessly doing. Let your pen flow on!