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."

Monday, 29 December 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as orangutan gets new rights

Should apes have rights?
er.... have you not seen the films?

A good day for orangutans, a bad day for circuses with animals or a step closer to The Planet of the Apes?

An Argentinian court has ruled that an orangutan called Sandra be recognised as a “non-human person” and therefore entitled to her freedom from a Buenos Aires Zoo. She will be transferred to a sanctuary that will afford her a degree more liberty.

Sandra’s case was argued by Agentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) and represents a breakthrough for the animal rights lobby in its battle to free animals from human ownership.

The court decides...
Earlier in December, the New York Appeals Court rejected an attempt by the Nonhuman Rights Project to free a chimpanzee called Tommy from private ownership. The judges concluded that Tommy could not be recognised as a "legal person," as a chimp "cannot bear any legal duties".

The judges ruled: “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.''

In 2011, the animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) filed a lawsuit against marine park operator SeaWorld, alleging five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. A San Diego court dismissed the case.

But will Sandra’s case set a new precedent that could affect all animals in captivity?

According to Paul Buompadre, a lawyer for AFADA, "This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories."

The problem with the argument, of course, is that it assumes animals in captivity would be happier if freed. But since the animals can't speak for themselves, are animal rights advocates any better placed to speak on their behalf than the people who work with captive animals on a daily basis?

The zoo's head of biology, Adrian Sestelo, commented, "When you don't know the biology of a species, to unjustifiably claim it suffers abuse, is stressed or depressed, is to make one of man's most common mistakes, which is to humanise animal behaviour."

But what I want to know is where will it all end?

"You finally gave them rights!"

For my thoughts on the issue of animal rights versus welfare, click here.

And to read the 100 year history of attempts to ban animals from the circus, click here.

Zippos Winter Wonderland

Love this aerial shot of Zippos circus 'Mega Dome' big top nestled among the fairground rides and stalls of Winter Wonderland in London's Hyde Park. And my hat's off to whoever took it from the very high vantage point of a thrill ride called Schneider's Power Tower.

Roll up, roll up until January 4.

For the inside story on the birth of Zippos circus, meanwhile, read my chapter-long interview with founder Martin Burton in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus. Click here to buy it from Amazon.

Russells International Circus Christmas Spectacular, Stonham Barms, Suffolk

Roll up, roll up... to fill those empty seats at Russells International Circus Christmas Spectacular at Stonham Barns near Stowmarket in Suffolk! But what sort of acts to they have to tempt you in? Click here to view the full gallery of images in the local paper.

They're there till Sunday, Jan 4. Tickets and times: 07752 218805

How to market a circus

The lights are on, the doors are closed and the show has begun...
but what lies in wait inside the big top?

If you read my previous post about Circus Fantasia, you might be thinking: yeah, nice lorries, nice ticket wagon, but what's the show like?

Unfortunately, the posters and flyers give us little idea of what to expect inside the big top. I doubt if their clown looks anything like the generic one on the poster, which gives us no idea what sort of acts they have. Definitely a case of you pays your money and takes your chance!

But shouldn't a circus poster do more to tempt us? Like showing us a must-see act, for example?

It was very different in the days of Bertram Mills, when the show that put the "Oh!" in Olympia would plaster a town with a whole range of posters - often one dedicated to each act and others that listed every act on the bill.

If you fancy treating yourself to a late Christmas present, The Posters of Bertram Mills by Steven B. Richley lets you flip through some of the greatest circus posters ever designed. And if you want insight into how a circus should be promoted, read The Advance Man by Jamie MacVicar. Click here to read my review.

There's a lot in both books that today's circuses could learn from. Because it doesn't matter how good a show may be if nobody rolls up to see it.

For more circus art, click here.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Fake pandas in Italian circus

Someone called the cops and said an Italian circus was bamboo-zling
the public with these dogs dyed to look like pandas. The circus
retorted that it "should have been obvious" what the animals
were to the public who paid to have their pictures taken
with them. 

From robot elephants in Mexico to rhinos going walkies in Germany and now an Italian circus in trouble for passing off painted chow chow dogs as pandas... it's obviously the silly season for circus stories.

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of the last circus elephants
to appear in Britain.
But should circuses have animals at all? That's one of the recurring questions that became a theme of my book Circus Mania. The Mail on Sunday called it "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read the 5-star reviews on Amazon. Download it to your e-reader for a backstage journey through Britain's circuses this Christmas.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Circus Fantasia Christmas Spectacular, Snetterton

The advance men for Circus Fantasia have been working hard to promote their Christmas Spectacular in Snetterton Park on the A11 bypass in Norfolk. The town of Wymondham has been plastered with posters as these ones outside a boarded up pub show - and Wymondham is miles from Snetterton. Phone for bookings: 0844 888 9991 or just roll up, roll up from now till Sunday Jan 4.

Click here for pics of the Circus Fantasia big top and transport.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Circus Vegas in Wigan

The Circus Vegas Showgirls

Welsh circus fans are in for a treat as the American-themed Circus Vegas rolls up in Wigan, until January 10.

The circus will make a visual splash with its array of American trucks and according to director John Courtney there will be plenty of thrills inside the  red white and blue big top, including the rip roaring motorbikes in a Globe of Death (one of the most dangerous of all circus stunts, as was proven by the headline-making collision at Uncle Sam's Great American Circus in Ipswich on Bank Holiday Mondayand one of the world's fastest jugglers!

According to the company's operations director Matt O'Hanlon"It will be a fun-filled event for the whole family to enjoy and there will be something for all ages.
"It will be a traditional circus with all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. It will bring together traditional tricks with death defying performances."
Hope it's not this cold!

The Circus Vegas Globe of Death riders
Circus Vegas is in Wigan until Jan 10. Tickets: 07572 982 749

For more American trucks in the UK, click here to see the transport of Uncle Sam's American Circus.

What's life like for those who run away with the circus? Read my interviews with clowns, trapeze artists, tiger trainers and sword-swallowers in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mexican robot elephant - the future of circus entertainment?

Robo-elephant - the future of the big top?

Is this the future of the circus? Meet Big Yorgi, the $50,000 robot star of Mexico's Magic Spacial Cyber Circus. He curls his trunk. He kicks footballs. He draws a gun and shoots bad guys. Oh, sorry, no - that's Robocop.

But as Mexico stands on the brink of a ban on real circus animals, their robo-replacement has reportedly played to sparse audiences.

"The circus is dying," said one of the show's directors. "When we arrive in town the first thing people ask is 'What animals did you bring?'"

It seems robo-jumbo is no substitute.

But is a ban on circus animals justified? Click here to learn what happens to circus tigers when they retire from the ring.

What's life like in a Mexican circus? Click here for my review of the award-winning documentary Circo.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

What happens to circus tigers when they retire?

Back in October, Alex Lacey, the English star of America's Greatest Show on Earth - the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - retired the two oldest tigers in his act, the first two he ever trained and which he has worked with for the past 19 years.

On his Facebook page, the trainer paid tribute to the long-serving cats and reveals their future:

"Tara and India will stay with me and live along side their offspring and the other cats that they have have formed family groups with. They will continue to be included in morning practice sessions and keep the next lot of youngsters "in line" that are currently being trained. They will stay with me and receive the very best veterinary care available from Ringlings veterinary team. The best possible diet and the best possible team of animal carers. Tara and India have been replaced with Bella and Suzy who performed for the first time in a live show this evening and were excellent :)))
Bella is India's daughter. 
Thanks for everything my old girls xx"

Alex Lacey and his Gold Clown-winning brother Martin Lacey Junior are probably the two most accomplished big cat trainers in the world.

It was a visit to the Great British Circus, which was run by their father, Martin Lacey, that inspired me to write my book, Circus Mania. For a chapter on Lacey Sr and the truth about how circus tigers are trained, click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Animal rights activist goes undercover at the circus

What happens when an animal rights activist goes undercover at the circus? Find out in The Lion's Den, one of three romantic adventures in The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions by Julia Douglas - a perfect read to download to your e-reader this Christmas.

Here's an exclusive extract...

It was love at first sight - for Charlotte, anyway. What the lion was thinking, she had no idea.

A printed sign tied to the wire mesh identified him as Sphinx, and he sat as proud, still and beautiful as the ancient Egyptian monument after which he was named - head up, forepaws gracefully crossed in front of him, in the exact centre of the cage.

It was a chilly evening. Charlotte was glad of her cable-knit tights and the sheepskin coat that had been a real find in the charity shop. But Sphinx, so far from his African home, seemed oblivious to the damp English wind that stirred ocean-like waves in his luxuriant mane. He appeared oblivious, too, of his harem of four lionesses, lounging and washing themselves in the shadowy far corners of the enclosure.

Charlotte wondered if he was aware of her, or the other circus goers - mums and kids who had paid an extra 50p to gawp at the show’s ‘performers’ in a shanty town of pens and tents behind the big top.
If Sphinx was aware, he feigned regal indifference.

Charlotte moved closer, her tied-back copper hair a righteous blaze in the sunset, and dared to touch the cold mesh. She imagined the lion dreaming of the open veldt, its horizons shimmering in the heat haze, with no cruel humans in sight.

That’s where you should be, Charlotte thought, angrily. Not caged among these throbbing generators, caravans and lorries. Not forced to earn your dinner by jumping through hoops.

It was the 1980s, for heavens sake, not the 1890s when people knew no better.

Her pulse quickening, Charlotte glanced around for a door to the enclosure. She’d set him free this minute if she could.

Not that she would dare, with all the families around. She didn’t want anyone hurt, no matter how misguided they were in paying to see an ‘entertainment’ that made slaves of creatures as noble as Sphinx.

She forced herself to be calm. There was a longer game to play.

“Beautiful, isn’t he?”

Charlotte jumped at the sound of a man’s voice, close behind her. She spun around and found herself staring at the broad chest of Guy Starr, the circus owner.

Want to read more? Click here to buy The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions - three stories of women in unique worlds on the fringes of entertainment.

In The Fairground Girl, Beatrice falls pregnant by fairground worker Eddie and runs away to join his world in the rock'n'roll years of the 1950s.

In The Lion's Den, animal rights activist Charlotte goes undercover to expose cruelty at the circus and finds herself torn between two men and two ideologies.

In Blue Eyes and Heels, Angel fights for equality in the world of professional wrestling.

Read all three adventures in The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

When Emily ran away with the circus

If you're looking for a circus adventure to curl up with this Christmas, try downloading The Showman's Girl by Julia Douglas to your Kindle or other e-reader, or pick up the large print paperback at your local library. 

Here's how the adventure begins...

It was ten in the morning, on the first of May, 1932, and the circus on the common was just coming to life. In the roped-off paddocks, horses snorted in the morning sun. In makeshift runs beside ornately carved and painted caravans doves and chickens cooed and clucked. From nearby tents, more exotic animal noises carried on the air: the low, raspy yawn of a lion, and the trumpet of an elephant’s reply.
They found Adam Strand, the circus owner,
in the big top...

Thirteen-year-old Emily Brooke had come to know the sounds and animal smells of the circus well, and its sights, too: gleaming motor lorries and horse-drawn goods wagons, each emblazoned with the
name of Strand’s Grand Circus; simmering, shimmering traction engines that provided electricity; the doll-like circus women, in their silk dressing gowns and headscarves, hanging tiny costumes on washing lines; the men in their vests, painting pieces of scenery or repairing props.

This morning, though, as she hurried across the rough grass, trying to keep up with the long, confident strides of Molly Malone, the elephant trainer, Emily scarcely noticed her surroundings. Her insides were too tied up with nerves.

They found Adam Strand, the circus owner, in the big top. The side panels were rolled aside, like curtains, to let some air under the towering roof, and as Emily’s eyes adjusted to the strange half-light beneath the canvas, the sight of the tall, imposing showman made her catch her breath.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

10 Circus Books for Circus250!

Mabel Stark tussles with a tiger
- a picture of the real life Mabel Stark
from Robert Hough's novel

The circus was invented 250 years ago this year! Join the Circus250 celebrations by reading one of these books!


From cooch dancer to tiger-wrestling star of the Greatest Show on Earth, with half a dozen husbands along the way, the real life of Ringling legend Mabel Stark provides plenty of material for Robert Hough’s novel. But, written like a memoir, this work of imagination probably brings the golden age of the American circus more thrillingly to life than any factual account. The descriptions of life in the big cat cage, Stark’s many maulings and her relationship with her favourite kitty, Rajah, are especially vivid and convincing - informed, as they are, by some letters about her work that Stark wrote to circus writer Earl Chapin May in preparation for a ghost-written autobiography that never materialised.

From the era to the circus trains and the animal training - and even the structure, which flashes back and forth between Stark's older and younger self - there are parallels with Water For Elephants. But this is a far, far better book, not least due to Hough’s glorious evocation of Stark’s spunky, spiky voice which snaps and snarls from every line.


The poster has always been the primary means of publicising a circus. Billed as the Quality Show and the show that put the 'O' in Olympia,  Bertram Mills was Britain's biggest and most famous circus in the first half of the 20th century and they produced the finest artwork. Often every act on the bill would have its own poster, painted by some of the best regarded artists of the day, meaning a town could be blanketed with arresting images. In 1960 alone, Bertram Mills printed more than 60,000 posters. And what became of them? Most were simply ripped down and thrown away when the circus left town, meaning surviving examples now command big sums. You'd have to be a millionaire to collect all the designs in this handsome coffee table book which makes it both a visual delight and a complete snip at under £40 including postage. Order from

GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years
by Nell Gifford

In October 1999, Nell Gifford was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"
The director booked the show. The problem was, Gifford didn’t have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.
In Gifford's previous book Josser (by Nell Stroud, as she then was) she described her apprenticeship as a circus runaway. This beautifully illustrated follow-up tells how she and husband Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own - and one of the most successful of the past decade.
Click here to read my full review.

My Life With Lions by Martin Lacey

It was a visit to Martin Lacey's Great British Circus in 2009 that prompted my book Circus Mania. I’d already become fascinated with the daredevil lives of human circus performers and had written several articles on the subject. But when  Lacey reintroduced elephants to a British circus for the first time in a decade, they called to me with the promise of a glimpse into the history of the art form. The highlight of my visit was watching Lacey in the cage with his Bengal tigers and it was as I sat ringside that I realised I had to document a traditional form or entertainment that was - and still is - in danger of being killed off in the land of its creation. Sadly, Lacey is retired now, but this slim hardback book provides a concise and colourful account of his more than 40 years of working with animals of all kinds. Best of all is a 140-page collection of photos of Lacey and his family with not just lions, but polar bears, zebra, camels, elephants and even a rhino.
Click here to read my full review.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOWMAN - My Life in the Circus by Gerry Cottle

From running away with the circus at 15-years-old to running several of Britain’s biggest big top shows, few have lived the circus life as fully as Gerry Cottle and I have met no one with a greater passion for the sawdust and canvas theatre. This candid memoir provides a fascinating look at the inside workings of the circus industry while entertaining with all the pace, daring-do and belly laughs of any show ever presented by Britain’s Barnum.

THE ADVANCE MAN by Jamie MacVicar

It doesn't matter how good a show is if there's no audience to see it. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - plays in arenas that hold 12,000 to 20,000 people and the job of filling those seats falls to promoters such as Jamie MacVicar - advance men who arrive in a city two or three months before the circus train arrives and strive to ensure it's greeted by a snowstorm of publicity.
MacVicar's account of his time promoting the circus in the early 70s reads more like a novel - at times a thriller - than a memoir as he takes us into offices where deals are cut, backstage as tickets are counted, and out on publicity stunts with the advance clown and Michu, the Smallest Man in the World. Click here for a full review.

THE SHOWMAN'S GIRL by Julia Douglas

When Emily runs away with the circus in the 1930s, she enters a magical world of perilous adventures, intense friendships and deep passions. Growing up in the big top, she admires from afar the charismatic showman Adam Strand. But Adam is torn between his wife, Jayne, a daredevil tight-wire walker and Molly the elephant trainer who's always carried a torch for him. Emily becomes a star, but will she ever be able to tell Adam how she really feels?
Click here to read this atmospheric big top romance on your Kindle - or pick up the large print version in your local library.


If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the 8-14-year-old girl in your life, look no further than the Olivia books by Guardian theatre critic-turned-author Lyn Gardner. Beginning with Olivia’s First Term, the six books follow the adventures of two circus girls - Olivia and her younger sister Eel - who are billeted at their grandmother’s London stage school while their dad Jack, the Great Marvello, busies himself with such stunts as walking a high-wire between the towers of Tower Bridge.
With a huge cast of characters, the books convey all the excitement of a school where students are daily called to auditions, appear in West End shows and pursue careers as pop singers.
On top of all this there are plenty of thrills as Olivia uses her tightrope skills to foil villains and rescue her pals from peril. Click here for more.

INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS by David Lewis Hammarstrom
(Bear Manor Media)

Like a modern day Earl Chapin May, David Lewis Hammarstrom guides us through the American circus as it exists now. Things have changed from the glory days when Mabel Stark ruled the centre ring, with the Ringling Brothers having become the “Ringless Brothers” since moving out of big tops “that you could almost feel breathing in and out,” and into indoor arenas “as exciting to behold as an abandoned airstrip in the Nevada desert.” Alternately bubbling with enthusiasm and seething with frustration, Hammarstrom is rare among circus writers in pointing out the rubbish, rip-offs and peanut pitches alongside the wonderful in his quest to make you “a more discriminating circus fan.”

CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
(Peter Owen)

Modesty forbids me saying too much about my own book, so let’s leave it to Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday“Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Click on the above tabs to read an extract or click on the book cover above right, go to the Amazon page and reader some of the 5-star reader reviews.

The new, 2nd Edition, updated for Circus250, is out now!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Circus rhino takes a walk in Germany

Pick your caption:
"Look left, look right... and if you see a rhino..."
Pedestrian: "I thought this was a zebra crossing."

Poor old circus staff, they just can't win. Normally they're accused of keeping animals confined. But if they take their rhino out for a breath of fresh air...

According to news reports, the staff of Circus Voyage were given a stiff telling off by police after taking a 32-year-old, 2.5 tonne rhino named Hulk for a walk to a local park without a lead or restraint when the big top pitched up in the German town of Luckenwald.

According to keepers, the rhino is completely tame and unlikely to harm anyone.

But how much do they charge for admission, that's what I'd like to know.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Advance Man by Jamie MacVicar - Book review - an inside account of promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus

Most circus memoirs are written by performers or showmen. But it doesn’t matter how good a show is if there’s no audience to see it.

Jamie MacVicar’s book lifts the lid on the life of the promotions men who travel to cities two or three months ahead of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to make sure arenas that hold 12,000 or 20,000 people are packed night after night for the arrival of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The suit-clad advance men may not be as glamorous as the grease-painted performers, but their work is every bit as high stakes and just as skilled. Their job is not just to buy TV, radio, print and billboard advertising, but to multiply the effect of their cash spend by trading tickets for additional ads and arranging promotions that result in a snowstorm of publicity.

MacVicar shows us this world of modern day hucksterism through the eyes of an ambitious trainee and as his narrative unfolds day-by-day, scene-by-scene and conversation-by-conversation, The Advance Man reads more like a novel than a memoir.

Weaving an atmosphere of immediacy rather than reflection, he gives us the sense of being in the office with these guys as deals are hammered out; in windowless backstage rooms as tickets are counted; and in his “beyond seedy” room at the Piccadilly Inn where the relentless pressure builds.

The book appeals on many levels. Circus fans will enjoy visiting backstage where MacVicar carries Michu, the smallest man in the world, to interviews and gets charmed into giving free tickets to the actor Cary Grant.

Anyone interested in sales and marketing - and anyone charged with promoting a circus today - will get a master class in the nuts and bolts of the game.

There’s also a gripping human story here as the young MacVicar’s endless drive eventually propels him to risk his sanity for his “numbers,” the way the high-wire walkers and lion tamers wager their physical being for applause. And, just like the performers in the ring, for the advance man there’s no safety net.

In any book, it’s not so much the story as the way it’s written that creates a satisfying read and it’s in this area that MacVicar delivers with the zeal that drove him during his time with Ringling.

He goes beyond his personal memories to provide us with well-researched digressions into the history of the show’s founders, the Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum; and some of its stars from Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, to Gargantua, the fabled gorilla.

We get a lengthy reflection on the lives of a previous generation of advance men at the dawn of the 20th century - “Would we have been able to adapt to each other’s world? I’d never know. Would we have liked one another? Undeniably.”

There are also insightful passages on small town life, suburbia and the inner city - all viewed by a traveller not sure if he wants to belong or is glad he doesn’t. Such moments give this book depth and, in places, a kind of poetry. They make it more than a book about the circus but a book about America, with a coming-of-age story thrown in. I was reminded of Steinbeck.

Click here to order The Advance Man from Amazon.

And click here to read an interview with Jamie McVicar about how he wrote The Advance Man.