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, 8 January 2014

Circus Mania "captivating and strangely beguiling" says Eastern Daily Press

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
interviewed in the
Eastern Daily Press

Roll up, roll up, for a glimpse behind the greasepaint.

In this double-page feature from the Eastern Daily Press, Steve Snelling interviews Douglas McPherson about Circus Mania.

Roll up, roll up, for a glimpse behind
the greasepaint
- Circus Mania featured in the Eastern Daily Press

There was something extraordinary about Eva Garcia that would live in the memory. Exotic and quixotic in the way of so many great circus performers, she seemed the very personification of beauty and bravery as she held the audience at Yarmouth’s Hippodrome spellbound with her grace and gravity-defying aerial ballet.

Eva Garcia
- her life and death in the
sawdust circle was
the inspiration for
Circus Mania
Climbing two bands of silk, she threw figures and struck poses, “letting go with her hands and trusting her weight to the silk” as she rearranged it in loops around her waist, a knee or ankle.

Among those lost in her thrall that day was journalist and writer Douglas McPherson who could scarcely remember his last trip to the circus let alone recall revelling in so many visceral close encounters with performers whose gymnastic displays teetered magnificently “half a heartbeat from disaster” as they somehow contrived to make the “impossible possible.”

To a man more used to reviewing pantomimes, plays and seaside variety shows, the experience was quite literally breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

“I was amazed,” he says. “We’re so used to seeing all this computer trickery in films, but there’s none of that in the circus. It’s right there, for real, and these guys are doing things that just look impossible, and they’re doing it twice a day, making it look easy.”

Still marvelling at Eva’s act, he sought her out afterwards for an interview.

“Because this was my first real interest in the circus, I wanted to find out what made these performers want to do this,” he remembers. She spoke to him candidly about the harsh realities of circus life, the hazards, the injuries and the loneliness, but he also saw in her a rare passion for something that was not so much an entertainment as a way of life.

“The circus was in her blood,” he says. “She was part of a 100-year-old circus family and had travelled all around the world. I was fascinated by the whole lifestyle.”

At 38, the former wire-walker thought she had 10 years of performing ahead of her and, having talked about the changing face of the circus with its far greater emphasis on presentation, she closed with the comment: “You still have to have good tricks, but you don’t have to kill yourself.”

Eva Garcia
in the costume she wore
for her final
A week later, on the day after his article was published, Eva Garcia fell 30 feet to her death in the middle of her act.

“It was a real shock,” he says, “but it brought home to me in the most powerful way imaginable just how much of a matter of life and death the circus can be. It can happen at any moment. It’s a bit like being a pilot. It all looks safe, all those planes floating around in the sky, but one mistake and you have a terrible disaster on your hands. It’s about being on that knife-edge. And the fascinating thing is these people are addicted to it. They love it.”

Something of that fascination infected him, too. From that moment at the Hippodrome, the writer was hooked on the circus. All preconceptions about an entertainment that had long slipped from his radar were swept away by that intoxicating mix of seemingly reckless skill and grand spectacle.

At every opportunity he found himself seeking fresh circus experiences crammed with a dazzling array of weird and wonderful acts. Though he didn’t know it then, he was embarking on a circus odyssey of his own. It was a heady journey into largely uncharted territory in search of the magical spirit of the circus which has culminated in a real page-turner of a book that shines a bright light on a hidden world inhabited by an extraordinary cast of colourful characters.

In McPherson’s captivating Circus Mania, which he has dedicated to Eva Garcia, the Spanish performer who helped fire his imagination, we are treated  to the literary equivalent of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as we go behind the scenes and beneath the surface of circus life to encounter the likes of the Valez Brothers, and their death-flirting routine on two man-size hamster wheels, sword-swallowing Hannibal Helmurto, the Pain Proof Man who proves that he knows rather more about pain than he likes to let on, and a teenage clown called Bippo who is never more serious than when it comes to making people laugh.

- the boy who ran away with
the circus. His story is just
one of many in
Circus Mania
Bippo’s was an amazing story,” says McPherson. “Often when you meet these guys you can’t imagine them doing anything else, and he was a case in point. I was talking to him backstage. He had all his clown gear on and he was totally unselfconscious about it all. It was as if he never wore normal clothes. You think, this guy was born for this life.”

In fact, Bippo, who’s real name is Gareth Ellis, is one of those who is actually living out the ultimate in childhood dreams. For he actually ran away with the circus. What’s more, his parents ran away with him. His dad became a general handyman, his mum took over as the boss’ personal assistant and he started off selling merchandise before progressing to clowning and juggling.

Though he confesses to never having had such an urge himself as a child, McPherson reckons that after years of hanging around circuses and circus people he can see the attraction. “There’s something very different about that world,” he says. “There’s a sense of community and a realisation that it’s a lifestyle, not a job. In other aspects of show business, people still go home and have normal lives in normal houses like anyone else, but when you sign up for the circus you walk away from real life completely.

“You’re living in caravans, travelling all over the place and you have a completely different set of rules. And I think that appeals to a lot of people.”

That said, many performers, like Eva Garcia, are born into the circus. They know nothing else and, no matter what the risks or hardships, they can never imagine doing anything else.

“Various families have been involved for anything up to 200 years,” says McPherson. “It’s been passed down through the generations. Young kids work their way into it and they seldom leave, they seldom turn their backs on it, and most of them certainly aren’t in it for the money.

The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
- Britain's oldest circus building
where Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson's
journey into the world of
the circus began
“Of course, you see some shows which are phenomenally popular. Companies like the Chinese State Circus and Cirque du Soleil and places like the Yarmouth Hippodrome draw huge crowds. But you can also go and see some of the traditional tent shows and find yourself sitting among half a dozen other people. And it might be the depths of winter, snow piled up outside, when hardly anyone is going to turn up to sit in a freezing cold tent, but these performers are still up there, doing their trapeze acts, risking life and limb. You ask them why and they reply, ‘What else would we do? This is our way of life.’”

During his exploration of the circus in all it’s myriad forms, McPherson has experienced a range of styles both on the grand and the small scale, from the glitzy glamour of the lavish multi-million pound Cirque du Soleil to the raw sawdust magic of the Circus Mondao big top, and from the avant garde artiness of the Spiegeltent in Norwich’s Chapelfield Gardens to the rock’n’roll razzmatazz of Peter Jay’s enduring and endearing family-run, animal-free, water-splashed extravaganzas at Yarmouth’s Hippodrome.

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
with Gerry Cottle (left) and Dr Haze from the
Circus of Horrors
He has rubbed shoulders with entrepreneurs such as Gerry Cottle, a worthy successor to the likes of Barnum and Smart, and he has winced at the gurning feats of Captain Dan, the Demon Dwarf, and a ghoulish host of fiendishly clever performers from the macabre, freak show-inspired Circus of Horrors.

All of them find a place and a voice in McPherson’s strangely beguiling examination of a form of entertainment like no other.

And though he never shies away from the continuing concerns over the alleged abuses of animals in circuses, something he saw no evidence of throughout his journalistic survey, his main interest is in the human performers and their ever more daring quest for thrill-seeking stunts.

“These people push themselves to the limit doing really unusual and phenomenal things that you simply don’t see in any other sphere of show business,” he says. “You have all the atmosphere, that other worldliness, and then there’s that pure spectacle. There’s not a show I’ve been to when one of the performers hasn’t done at least one thing I’ve never seen before, something that makes you think, ‘that’s absolutely amazing. How did they do that? Why did they do that to themselves?’”

Circus of Horrors
sword-swallower Hannibal Helmurto
- one of the amazing characters
who's story is told in Circus Mania
Having said all that, he readily acknowledges that there are many people who have a negative perception of circuses. “People see it as being quite old fashioned,” he admits. “Peter Jay will say the same. He hardly uses the word circus  because he wants to present circus-style stunts within a variety show format, and to a certain extent that’s the way circus is going and where a lot of the future lies.”

For now, though, he reckons diversity is what circus is all about, with different strands of circus offering different things to different audiences while sharing a common heritage.

My feeling in reading his book, however, is that for all his admiration at the polished theatricality and potentially lucrative appeal of the shows staged by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Cirque de Glace, McPherson is more at home in a traditional big top.

He certainly doesn’t disabuse me.

"When you go to the big top, 
it's the real thing. It's like stepping
into the past"
- Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson
“When you go to see the big tent style tradition show there is a sense that this is the real thing,” he says. “It’s like stepping into the past. You turn up on a windswept common where they’ve got the tent surrounded by lorries and you can’t help thinking, broadly this is as it was hundreds of years ago.

“It’s not television. It’s not film. It’s not theatre. You’re sitting around the ring, maybe on muddy ground, on a plastic patio chair, and all these thrills and stunts are right there in your face. There’s a definite romance to that, an appeal that goes well beyond the safe experience of sitting in a theatre and seeing things performed on a stage. And I think because of the appeal of that, those shows will always survive.”

Furthermore, he hopes that by giving people a glimpse inside what he describes as a “totally unique world,” he can assist in ensuring the appeal of circus in all its guises lives on.

Funny men
- Clive Webb and Danny Adams
“I’d like to think my book might make people just go and re-discover the circus the way I did,” he says. “It’s so easy to forget it’s there. So easy to think it’s just something to take the kids to in the summer holidays, when really it’s something for all age groups and something that will get them fired up about.”

Before closing our interview, I can’t resist asking him what his favourite act was of the many he has gasped or simply gawped at over the past eight years. It proves a tough call and after a slight pause he plumps for a couple of clowns he saw perform at the Yarmouth Hippodrome and who sometimes perform their own show, Circus Hilarious.

Clive Webb, who was once the phantom flan-flinger in Tiswas, and Danny Adams are such funny people, funnier than anything you’ll see on TV.” he says. “Some people have a good script, but these guys have funniness inside them. The warmth comes out and you can tell they’re really enjoying themselves.

“They’ve got that passion for it which really characterises so many circus people.”

Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson is published by Peter Owen.
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

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