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 August 2013

Training circus animals - humane, or pain?

How the Carson and Barnes Circus
sells its elephant act to kids
- but is life in the big top
as much fun for the

There’s a thought-provoking post on America’s leading circus blog, Showbiz David, that dares to voice a concern few circus supporters ever admit to - perhaps because they’re afraid that voicing any criticism of the art form they love will leave them open to allegations of treachery or not being “with it and for it.”

Showbiz begins by telling us how much he enjoyed the elephants in the current Ringling show and how, on leaving, he said as much to one of the animal rights activists picketing the gate.

But then, he begins to question that “them and us” divide between circus fans and protestors.

Showbiz’s doubts ferment while watching a YouTube video of elephants being washed and pedicured backstage at Cole Brothers. You’ll find it easily by Googling Cole Brothers Circus Elephants Pedicure Lane Talburt. And you’ll enjoy it. It’s a sweet video showing elephants being treated kindly. They even have a special moisturiser in their shampoo.

But Showbiz’s memory is snagged by the name of the trainer - a big, genial-looking southern good ol’ boy - and he directs us to a much darker and nastier clip of elephants being trained, or should that be tortured, with electric prods and bull hooks on another of America’s leading circuses. Again, you’ll find it easily by Googling Circus Elephants Abuse Carson and Barnes - if you’re brave enough to watch, that is.

In this covertly obtained clip, our good ol’ boy looks a good deal less genial as he instructs an underling: “Don’t touch ’em, hurt ’em! Make ’em scream - that’s when you know you’ve got their attention.”

Elephants have always been
part of the popular image of
the circus, as the cover of this
DVD, The British Circus
1898 - 1972
The film is more damning than YouTube footage of elephant abuse on British circuses that appeared in recent years, notably leading to the Bobby Roberts conviction. The difference is the context.

In both British cases, the perpetrator was an itinerant European groom, a low-level hired hand who conveniently disappeared before the films came to light. In both instances, the beatings seemed to have no context or purpose. However distressing the footage, it was easy for circus apologists to see it as isolated incidents, the actions of a cruel individual or even a staged set-up by militant activists. The trainers, it is said, would never treat or knowingly allow their animals to be treated like that.

The American film, by contrast, features the circus’ head trainer - a man still operating at the highest level of the industry. The elephants aren’t just standing around being hit for no reason. They are unambiguously in a circus ring in a training barn being taught to perform. What’s more, the trainer isn’t acting angrily or losing control in the heat of the moment. There is a cold logic to what he’s saying.

“I’m not going to touch them on the road in front of a thousand people,” he explains to his underling. As he describes the violence as “important,” his meaning is clear: by showing the elephants the pain he is capable of inflicting, he won’t have to use force on the road. These animals that never forget will remember the pain and just the sight of the bull hook, it is implied, will be enough to make them perform out of the fear of the consequences if they don’t.

Hence, animals on the road, being regularly inspected by vets, not to mention viewed closely each night by the audience, show no sign of the abuse suffered in training at winter quarters.

Faced with this clear evidence of the way elephants are treated by at least one trainer, Showbiz David asks the circus industry a simple question: “We have clear evidence of barbaric abuse to circus elephants as they are being broken in and/or trained to perform circus tricks. Have we, for the other side, equally clear and persuasive evidence of elephants being taught the same tricks in a humane non abusive manner?”

Thomas Chipperfield's video diary
demonstrates training with patience
and reward
To try and answer that question, I had a quick trawl through YouTube. I drew a blank with jumbos. But it didn’t take me long to chance upon Thomas Chipperfield's Circus Lion Training Diary. There are several episodes and I recommend you take a look. The series shows a couple of young lions being trained, over a period of time, the way we are always assured they are: with gentleness, reward and infinite patience.

Training, then, can be humane and painless - just as common sense has always suggested it can be. After all, no one suggests guide dogs, sheep dogs or police and military dogs are cruelly treated, yet they have all been trained to a sophisticated level; it’s not just circus animals that are taught tricks.

But the Chipperfield video doesn’t cancel out the one mentioned above. Some circus trainers train with pain and abuses happen. The evidence is a mouse-click away from you right now. Showbiz David is right to acknowledge that and to call for those trainers, and the circuses that knowingly employee them, to explain themselves.

Those managements and fans who claim, blindly, that abuse never happens are doing nothing to end it. The only thing they are being with and for is the thing that the critics of the circus accuse it of.

2016 Update: Trainer speaks out
The most recent 'star' of an undercover film by Peta was Michael Hackenberger, who trains tigers in a ring at Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario. He is also the first to explain how such videos can distort the truth in a video of his own. Click here for more.

Fifty shades of grey...
For more on the far from black and white subject of animals in the circus, read my interviews with several past and present trainers in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

DVD Review of The British Circus 1898 - 1972

Ladies and gentlemen... boys and girls... roll up, roll up for a journey through more than 80 years of circus history as captured by the cameras of British Pathe and Movietone News. And what a show this collection of featurettes adds up to.

In the earliest footage, dating from the very dawn of filmmaking in 1898, we see the Barnum and Bailey Circus arriving in Sunderland, crowds lining the streets to watch the parade of elephants, camels and caged wagons full of tigers.

Elsewhere, as this DVD moves forward through the decades, we watch the Bertram Mills circus arriving on its own train, and watch wartime evacuees helping to erect a big top on a village green.

The short films move constantly between behind-the-scenes clips - of Bertram Mills rehearsals at its winter quarters; of a clown applying his ornate make-up; of football-size crowds arriving at the famous Belle Vue circus building - and shots of the action in the ring: a fast-moving parade of clown cars, human pyramids on horseback, polar bears careening down slides and daredevil stunts by trapeze artists and human cannonballs.

The droll commentary, in its clipped pre-war tones, adds a delight of its own. One horse rider is described as being afraid of nothing on four legs, “Unless it’s a couple of income tax collectors.”

Animal antics abound, including footballing dogs - and what a spectacle they make as they leap high into the air to head the ball - platoons of elephants performing a graceful ballet, and a bear circling the ring on a Lambretta scooter.

Rehearsing the horses
Cruel? The sight of a lion on a swing, with its trainer vigorously pulling the animal’s tail to set it in motion may make you wonder. But then, if the lion wasn’t happy, would you pucker your lips and trust it to give you a kiss rather than bite your head off?

The footage dates from an era when the question of animal rights had yet to be raised. As one commentator puts it, “The showman’s creed is to treat his animals well, before even himself.”

The bear who runs along on his back legs, taps his trainer on the shoulder and gives him a kiss, looks like he’s enjoying himself. There appears to be more cruelty in the way the contortionists are trained - just watch the instructor forcing a girl’s foot back past her head. But her big grin suggests she doesn’t mind.

Beginning in black and white, the footage becomes colour as we move into the era of Billy Smart's, but even the grainiest black and white film is full of colour in the sense of entertainment and surprises.

Great moments include a man riding a bicycle across an open-air high-wire, 60-feet up, with a woman hanging on a trapeze from each axle; the thrilling adagio act of Balliol and Merton, which includes a jump from a high pedestal into a one-armed catch; and a trapeze flyer who leaps to a swing that collapses in her hands. As the audience gasps, she plummets towards the ground, then swings upside down from an unseen safety wire attached to her ankle - her hair almost stroking the sawdust.

Although the prime focus is on the British circus, the bonus features take us abroad for a visit to the Cole Brothers Circus in America - including footage of legendary big cat tamer Clyde Beatty - and some hilariously sped-up film of an Australian circus being built.

It all adds up to more than three hours of unmissable big top action that will delight any circus fan.

For more on the history of the circus and life behind-the-scenes in the big top, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus!

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.
"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Monday, 19 August 2013

National Centre for Circus Arts - A history in pictures

Juliette Hardy-Donaldson
training when Circus Space was just a dusty space.
Read her story in Circus Mania

The Generating Chamber and the Combustion Chamber are perfect names for the main training areas of the former Circus Space - now the National Centre for Circus Arts and the UK’s only school to offer a BA (Honours) degree in Circus Arts. They suggest places where explosive performances may be generated.

Wind back a hundred years, however, and the names of those towering rooms had a more literal meaning. The building that currently houses London’s university of circus was formerly the Shoreditch Electricity Generating Station, where household rubbish was burnt to power the surrounding area.

Circus Space
when the Generating Chamber generated
When Circus Space moved in, twenty years ago, the building had lay derelict for half a century. Juliette Hardy-Donaldson was among those who helped clear out decades of accumulated ash and pigeon droppings, and swung on the trapeze in what was still a building site - “Fighting the pigeons for air space.”

These pictures are from those pioneering days.

You can read the full story of Circus Space, in the words of those who teach and trained there, in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Risen from the ashes
- the Combustion Chamber
when Circus Space moved in
Also in the book, go behind the scenes of...

The Circus of Horrors!

Circus Mondao!

The UK’s oldest circus building!

Gerry Cottle’s Wookey Hole Circus School!

The BBC’s circus sitcom, Big Top!

The Chinese State Circus!

The trapeze net goes up!

Britain’s funniest clowns!

Britain’s oldest circus family!

The UK’s last tiger trainer!


The history of the circus!

The story of clowning!

The superstitions of the big top!

The secret language of the circus!

And much, much more, in what the Mail on Sunday called “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Click here to buy the new updated 2nd Edition f Circus Mania on Amazon!

For more on the future of the National Centre for Circus Arts, and in particular what the future holds for the graduates of its degree course, click to read my article: So you've got a degree in circus, what next?
Douglas McPherson, author, launches the first edition
of Circus Mania at Circus Space with
Gerry Cottle, left, and Dr Haze from Circus of Horrors

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Circus Comes To Town

Sara Petite is the latest country singer to turn to the circus for inspiration, with new album Circus Comes To Town. The glossy gatefold sleeve opens to reveal pictures of Petite in clown make-up; spread-eagled on a knife-thrower’s target; and, in a bizarre piece of S&M imagery, cowering bare-backed with a bear headdress in the shadow of a man with a whip.

Sadly, the title song isn’t as colourful as the packaging. Kinky Friedman's Wild Man of Borneo and Gretchen Peters' Circus Girl are much more evocative of big top atmosphere.

Sara Petite
- Clowning makes her
brown eyes blue
But, disappointing though the title song may be, this is still a darn fine album of traditionally-slanted country delivered in an upbeat and modern way by a singer with a seriously backwoods twang and a feisty two-fisted attitude.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dr Who goes to the Circus!

To celebrate 50 years of Dr Who, here’s a souvenir of the 7th doctor’s trip to the circus - the Psychic Circus, no less - in the 1989 adventure The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Now available on DVD, the four-part adventure is widely acclaimed by Who fans as one of the best to feature Sylvestor McCoy as the Timelord, and as well as a cast of creepy clowns we get to see McCoy perform a range of circus tricks from juggling to escapology.

Whether the scary setting made many young views want to visit the big top is debatable. Sidekick Ace (Sophie Aldred) begins the serial by announcing her fear of clowns and, by the end, the Doctor admits no longer likes them much either!

There’s a Dr Who connection to Circus Mania, by the way. When I was casting around for a title, my eye fell on a calendar featuring Dr Who’s big screen films of the 1960s. It’s title? Dalekmania!

The calendar also inspired my short story, My Dalek Days, which originally appeared in My Weekly with the first in-print mention of Circus Mania. You can read it here... while hiding behind the sofa if you wish!  

The headline says it all!
The World's Fair review of Circus Mania.
Oh, and don't forget to read The Greatest Show On Earth... In A Book! As Circus Mania was described in the fairground newspaper World's Fair!

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Circus Girls and Circus Horses

Sophie Coles
Ring-mistress of the
Great British Circus
where the idea for
Circus Mania
was formed.

My fascination with circus began after meeting aerial silks artiste Eva Garcia, just days before she fell to her death during a performance at Britain’s oldest circus building, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

From there, I embarked on a journey into the circus world, taking every opportunity to review shows and interview performers. But it was not until my visit to the Great British Circus in 2009 that the idea for a book, Circus Mania, fully formed in my mind.

Having before that seen only all-human shows, it was sitting ringside in a proper big top, watching parading horses, camels, elephants and the tigers in their big cage that I caught a true glimpse into the deep history and rich tradition of an art form that began in the UK almost 250 years ago.

Ironically, it was the media storm kicked up by animal rights protestors over the Great British Circus’ reintroduction of elephants to a British circus ring after a ten-year absence that alerted me to the GBC’s existence.

The picture above, of ring-mistress Sophie Coles, is from the souvenir programme that I picked up on that day. Sadly, that programme, and the record of my visit in Circus Mania is now all that remains, the Great British Circus having closed last year, ahead of a new licensing regime and proposed ban on wild animals in circus in 2015. Read the story of my visit in this extract from Circus Mania.

But the GBC was not the only circus with animals soldiering on in the face of protests. A week after my visit, I chanced upon Circus Mondao, a new circus run by two sisters descended from probably Britain’s oldest circus family, with roots in the sawdust circle dating back to the early 1800s. From the Circus Mondao progamme is this picture of ring-mistress Petra Jackson.

Circus Mondao is still on the road, and one of the last places where you can see circus as it used to be. I urge you to go if you get the chance and, whatever your preconceived ideas about animals in circus, defy you not to be moved by the sight of their spotted horses entering the sawdust ring. You can read the story of the company, and my investigation into the truth about animals in circus, in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to buy the updated 2nd edition of Circus Mania.

And, as they say in the traditional big top: May all your days, be circus days!

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Greatest Circus DVD on Earth?

Just received this fantastic DVD, The British Circus 1898 - 1972: The Golden Years. Three hours of vintage film that I can’t wait to watch from the company that brought us Variety Acts and Turns of the Pre-War Years and Post-War Years. Click here to read my review!

And check out my review of Circus Acts of the 30s and 40s. 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Circus Mania first and Second Edition cover change

Okay, it doesn’t show the performer from the most flattering angle, but I think the anonymity of the cover image on the first edition of Circus Mania creates a sense of intrigue. Designer Nick Pearson chose the image to convey the idea of “plunging into” the world of the circus, which is what Circus Mania does.

But in case you’re wondering who that is on the cover, it’s Denis Remnez, flying through the fountains of the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

Here's another picture of him from the same performance.

New Edition
Out Now!
And here is the cover of Circus Mania's 2nd Edition with a more traditional illustration to reflect the fact that 2018 is Circus250, celebrating 250 years since Philip Astley founded the first modern circus in 1768.

I like the way designer Pablo Cambariere turned the tail of the 'R' into an elephant's trunk!

Click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition from Amazon..

Circus Mania
First and Second Editions

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cirque du Hilarious review - The Funniest Show on Earth!

Clive Webb
Ringmaster of mirth
in the funniest show on Earth!

It must be the Law of Attraction - you get more of what you focus on. For the past week, I’ve been posting pictures and old show flyers of Clive Webb and Danny Adams to celebrate International Clown Week. Then today I was driving into Southwold for an afternoon at the sea when what should I see but a poster for Cirque du Hilarious, the all clown vehicle (or should that be clown car?) of Clive and Danny!

The Laughter Dome
being built up on
Southwold Common
Naturally I headed for the Common where the slapstick duo’s red and yellow big top - the Mighty Laughter Dome - was set up against the clear blue evening sky - and I’m mighty glad I did, because I haven’t laughed and grinned so much in years.

The comic twosome usually work in theatres, with extensive engagements in the Butlins resorts of Minehead, Bognor and Skegness this year (see dates below). So it was great to see the former Circus Hilarious, now rebranded Cirque du Hilarious, in a proper circus tent where they were appearing, in Southwold, for one month only, throughout August.

Setting the stage
as tweeted by Danny Adams
- follow him
With 1950s rock’n’roll playing and creating a fairground atmosphere as we took our seats, the big top has been divided internally with a proscenium arch to create an intimate cabaret-style space. The semi-circle of tiered bench seats brings the audience much closer to the half-circle stage than you’d normally find either around a normal-sized in-the-round circus ring or in an ordinary theatre - and the intimacy of the set-up made every aspect of the show even better.

The show is called Daredevils and Clowns and some genuine daredevilry was provided in the first half by Sascha Williams who built a high-altitude rola-rola tower on an already tall platform... then proceeded to play a Led Zepplin electric guitar solo while balancing precariously on the summit! A slick juggler added more circus in the second half, while the Cirque du Hilarious Dancers performed in a number of classy costumes to give the show a fast-moving variety show feel.
As always, though, it was ringmaster Clive Webb and clown Danny Adams who dominated, with a non-stop barrage of genuine belly laughs. The thing with both performers is that their anarchic delight
in everything they do is both palpable and infectious. Never just going through the motions, you can feel them pushing and pushing themselves and each other to new heights of cheekiness.

Anarchy in the UK
Danny Adams - Britain's funniest clown.
Read his story in Circus Mania
The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of
Running Away with the Circus
The bit where Danny torments a singer by squirting her with a water pistol, covering her in toilet paper and spraying her with foam? Of course it’s scripted, but Danny plays the part with such a mad gleam in his eye you’d really think he was making it up as he went along. Surely he won’t really squirt it up her skirt, you think. And the moment when you can almost see him thinking about it, like a naughty kid wondering if he’ll get away with it, makes it all the funnier when he does.

“How do you get a fat girl into bed? Piece of cake!” quipped Danny in an opening minutes gag that set the tone for his endless stream of one-liners.

The humour was cartoonishly visual, too. A piano and a Punch and Judy tent are blown up in gleefully noisy explosions. Two of the funniest moments come when Danny, dressed as Elvis, is first shrunk to a couple of feet tall then blown up to sumo wrestler size.

Then again, some of the biggest laughter comes from embarrassment and tension, and Danny milks every drop of Mickey-taking from an eye-wateringly funny skit involving four audience members and a unicycle.

Add a custard pie fight, a royal baby fart gag that’s a literal blast, and a musical climax by clown rock band Clown Force, and you have the funniest afternoon or evening you could ever enjoy in a circus tent.


To see Clive and Danny on tour,
 Click here for tour dates.

And don’t forget, you can read a full chapter on Clive and Danny, plus behind-the-scenes visits to all Britain's top circuses in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Do you find clowns SCARY? Don't click this link to a report on the Northampton Clown and Britain's clown crime-wave!
The Northampton Clown

Eva Garcia's final appearance - Thirteen years ago today

Eva Garcia
She died doing the job
she loved

“You have to really love it to live in the circus. It’s very tough, mentally and physically.” So said Eva Garcia, thirteen years ago.

I was talking to the aerial silk star a couple of days after watching her performance at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. It was the venue’s 100th anniversary season and my first trip to the circus since I was a kid.

Not knowing what to expect I was blown away by the atmosphere of the ancient building, with its ring that transformed into a pool for synchronised swimming, and by the death-defying antics of the performers, not least among them the Valez Brothers and their heart-stopping Wheel of Death.

The world of the ring became fascinating to me, and Eva took me deeper into it, telling me about the tradition that ran through generations of her family, and the hard work, dislocations and operations behind the glamour.

Eva in the Laura Croft
costume she wore in her final
For all the hardships, it was a life she loved, so much so that she had just ended a ten-year relationship with a man who asked her to choose between him and the circus. Eva chose the circus, believing that, at 38, she still had another ten years of performing ahead of her.

The following week, on August 8, 2003, the very day my interview with her appeared in The Stage, Eva fell from the ceiling of the Hippodrome and was killed, during her act.

Eva’s death brought home to me the very real danger that circus performers dice with every day. It made me want to find out more about a breed of entertainer unlike any other.

And so began my journey through the world of the big top, talking to trapeze artists, clowns, sword-swallowers, animal trainers and showmen, about their lives, traditions, superstitions, history and secrets. The result was my book Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

The Mail on Sunday called it “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

This Is Cabaret said “Pack your bags before getting stuck into McPherson’s book; it may leave you yearning to run away with the circus.”

Read it, then go to the circus, thrill to the performers and think of Eva, who died doing the job she lived for, thirteen years ago today.  

Some of the press acclaim for
Circus Mania
Click here to read the coverage
Read more about Eva Garcia in this extract from Circus Mania

Or click here to read the 5-star customer reviews of Circus Mania from Amazon.

Watch Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson talking about Eva Garcia and other stories behind the the book.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Bucket load of laughs!

It's the last day of International Clown Week and, being fond of circus art, here is a flyer for Circus Hilarious' Easter 2008 show Aquaphobia!
According to the copy on the back, "Kids of the world have united and demanded the return of the bucket, so Clive and Danny have a ball getting themselves wet, the kids wet, the mums and dads wet..."
Read a full chapter on Clive Webb and Danny Adams in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

See also: 10 Facts about Clowns for International Clown Week!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Are clowns scary...?

...naw, it's only Clive Webb larking about!

Don't worry folks, you're only
going to get a little... wet!
If you're the sort of person who dreads being picked out of the audience and picked on by the clowns, read the secrets of how clowns target their 'volunteers' before the show has even begun, in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Read also: 10 Facts About Clowns

And if you suffer from coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - DON'T read this report on the Northampton Clown and the clown crime wave that's sweeping Britain!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Bring in the clowns! It's International Clown Week!

Delbosq Clowns
currently starring with Zippos

To celebrate International Clown Week, here are some clown pics!

Chico Rico

Danny Adams

Bippo, third from left, and friends
in the Circus Mondao panto

Circus Mania
Loved by clowns!
To read more about Danny Adams, Bippo, Zippos and the history of clowning, buy Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the circus direct from Peter Owen Publishers for just £10 including postage in the UK:

Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

See also: Ten Facts About Clowns for International Clown Week.

And if you find clowns SCARY, don't click here to read about the Northampton Clown and Britain's clown crime-wave!