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."

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Alex Lacey, his lions and tigers, star in Ringling Brothers Greatest Show on Earth!

Man and beast in purr-fect harmony
Alex Lacey and one of his cats*

In the world of circus, every country has its own speciality. Flying trapeze troupes often come from South America, and springboard acts from Hungary. Britain is most renowned for animal trainers and clowns - ironically, considering this country’s antipathy towards Joeys and circuses with animals.

Ringling star Alex Lacey
So it’s nice to know English big cat trainer Alexander Lacey is currently starring in the world’s most famous circus, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth.

Lacey, who is presenting five lions, six tigers and a leopard, is the son of British circus trainers Martin Lacey and Susan Lacey and grew up in a house where tiger cubs roamed wild.

He was quoted in a Philadelphia newspaper as saying, “My parents loved interacting with the animals. The secret to being an animal trainer is being able to communicate with them... to find out what they like to do. Some cats are good at a couple of movements and some are good at other things. They’re all good at their own things.”

Martin Lacey
- read about his
Great British Circus
in Circus Mania
It was seeing Alex’s dad Martin Lacey in the Great British Circus that inspired me to write Circus Mania.

I’d become fascinated by the daredevilry of human performers after meeting aerial silk artist Eva Garcia just days before she fell and died during a performance at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. After that I’d taken every opportunity to review circus shows and interview the performers. But all the circuses I’d seen up to that point were modern all-human shows.

When news broke that the Great British Circus was bringing elephants back to the British big top for the first time in a decade, it was amid a blaze of negative publicity. Animal rights protesters were up in arms. But the pictures of the elephants called to me with the promise of a glimpse into an earlier and more circus tradition that I’d witnessed so far, because it was with the trick horse-riding of Phillip Astley that the modern circus began, nearly 250 years ago.

I went along with mixed feelings, because like many people I’d been brought up with the belief that training animals to perform was wrong or cruel. But sitting in a real big top, watching the elephants, horses and Martin Lacey’s tigers told me there was a much more complex story to be told.

Read my personal journey through the circus world, talking to animal trainers, trapeze stars, clowns, sword-swallowers and showmen in Circus Mania, what the Mail on Sunday called “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Click here to read half a dozen 5-star customer reviews of Circus Mania on Amazon.

Alex Lacey relaxing with the big cats
a picture from My Life With Lions
by Martin Lacey
* The fabulous picture at the top of this post and the one of the left, of Alex Lacey relaxing with a lion and tiger are two of many fantastic circus images in Martin Lacey's book, My Life With Lions. Click here to read my review.

Last chance to see...
Britain's only big cat act
Thomas Chipperfield at
Peter Jolly's Circus
And click here for my pictures of Thomas Chipperfield's big cats - the only such act currently appearing in a British big top.

What happens to circus tigers when they retire? Click here to find out.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Scary Clowns - The History!

Just ignore them, they only want attention. That was the advice of Norfolk police as an outbreak of 'clown crime' spread across Britain this past winter, with copycat clowns aping the antics of internet sensation the Northampton Clown. (Click here for more)

Tony Eldridge, secretary of Clowns International, has said the outbreak of anti-social clowning is no laughing matter and is damaging the reputation of professional clowns. “We have to reclaim clowning as a positive thing which brings happiness,” said Eldridge, who’s clown name is Bluebottle.

But are the clown pranksters really souring our perception of men with big shoes and red noses, or simply capitalising on a widespread and deep-seated fear of clowns that has existed as long as clowns themselves?

In the following extract from an article that originally appeared in The Stage, I trace the history of scary clowns.

Joker's wild
Clownhouse, Mr Jingles, In Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson voiced childhood fears with the mantra, “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”

In 2008, a University of Sheffield study of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 was commissioned to determine the best choice of hospital decor. The results found clowns to be “universally disliked” and regarded as “frightening and unknowable.”

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own email address).

Bart Simpson
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
Clowns, in one form or another, have always been with us. The court jester of medieval times is just one historical example of an anarchic fool licensed to poke fun at society’s mores.

The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.

Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”

The first Joey
Joseph Grimaldi
- an illustration from
Circus Mania
Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate), traces the enduring cliche of the sad man behind the clown face directly to Grimaldi. And it’s perhaps the fact that a clown’s make-up disguises the wearer’s true emotions that makes us suspicious of them.

According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.

Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.

The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.

Ronald McDonald
making another fan for life
Cairoli’s generation had become established as children’s entertainers whereas earlier clowns like Grimaldi provided satire for adults. But it was the association with childhood innocence that allowed horror writers to make clowns scary - for what could be more frightening than a homicidal maniac loose among kids?

Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.

“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.

Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.

Danny Adams
Just clowning
Many British clowns, such as Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, have reduced their make-up to a minimum.

“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”

Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”

But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?

Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.

The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.

But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.

Then again, maybe the current fad for public pranksters dressed as clowns is proof that a scary sense of otherness has always been part of the appeal of clowns.

As the Northampton Clown puts it, “I just want to amuse people. Most people enjoy being a bit freaked out and then they can laugh about it afterwards. It’s like watching a horror movie. When people get scared, they start laughing.”

2nd Edition out now!
For the full story of clowning and interviews with some of today's funniest clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Circus picture of the year award : Codie Prevost's All Kinds Of Crazy album cover!

When I first posted this picture I assumed it was faked. After all, would you look so calm in front of two rampant elephants? But it turns out Codie Prevost is a cooler customer than I thought. He emailed to say: "Crazy as it seems the Elephants are real. I am
living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and the Tarzan Zerbini Circus came through town. My graphic designer went down and we got permission to do the
whole photo shoot for the new album there. It was so amazing!! You cannot see in the photo but the Elephant Trainer is off to the left side. He actually told the
Elephants to rear up like that!!"

Must have been been a great day. And, listening to Codie's album All Kinds Of Crazy as I write, I'm happy to report it's a great slice of contemporary country. No circus songs, but some top notch balladry such as the mid-pace opener, I'll Be Your Whiskey. The album's out March 1. Click here to pre-order All Kinds Of Crazy from iTunes. 

Me and the Elephant
Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson (right)
Meanwhile, back in the circus, here's me with Sonya at the Great British Circus, where I watched one of the last ever appearances of ellies in a British big top. Read my backstage journey through the world of circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. 
Click here to read half a dozen customer reviews of Circus Mania on Amazon! 

Read Gretchen Peters'
Confessions of a Nashville
Circus Girl
(Click the link on the right)
For more country songs about the circus, click here!

Click here to read a review of The Hank Williams Reader

Monday, 3 February 2014

Jumbo - The Unauthorised Biography by John Sutherland

Just came across this fantastic picture of JUMBO, the Victorian elephant that PT Barnum bought from London Zoo and turned into the most famous elephant in the world. His very name became a byword for large. So next time you see a jumbo jet or eat a jumbo sausage, remember who it was named after, because before Jumbo packed his trunk and joined the Greatest Show on Earth, the world jumbo didn't exist.

But was Jumbo an alcoholic? That's apparently the contention of John Sutherland in a new book, Jumbo - The Unauthorised Biography (Aurum). I say apparently, because I haven't read it yet. But it says something about Jumbo's enduring mark on history that he has now become the subject of not one but two biographies, Paul Chambers' excellent book Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World having come out just a couple of years ago.

Click here to read my review of Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World by Paul Chambers.

Me and the elephant
Read about the always thorny subject
of animals in the circus in
Circus Mania
by Douglas McPherson

And here's a picture 
of me 
having my own jumbo moment, when I met Sonja, one of the last elephants ever to perform in a British circus. Read about my encounter with Sonja at the Great British Circus, and my backstage visits to other circuses from the Circus of Horrors to Cirque de Glace in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to read six customer reviews of Circus Mania on Amazon.

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form." - The Mail on Sunday.


From circus to country music... more than 60 years after Hank Williams passed away in the back of his chauffeured Cadillac in the small hours of New Year's Day, 1953, this new book, The Hank Williams Reader, celebrates the enduring legend of the Father of Country Music.

The book contains more than 60 articles, essays and book extracts written during Hank's lifetime and in the decades since, which have seen him become recognised as one of the most important figures in American music history.

Contributors include Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and... Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson, who contributed the article Sex, Drugs and Country Music - A Profile of Hank Williams, America's Darkest Legend.

But although I'm in it, and might therefore be considered somewhat biased, I have to say that this is an incredibly good portrait of Hank's life and legacy.

They say journalism is the first draft of history, but wait long enough and the contemporaneous accounts of journalists, unfiltered by the benefit of hindsight, become a walk through history itself, and that is what has happened to the many articles gathered in this volume.

The editors have done a tremendous job in bringing us the earliest newspaper features that were written about the singer in his lifetime. From there, the articles move forward through time to show us the reports of his death and funeral - which drew 20,000 people from all walks of society. It was the biggest funeral the southern states had ever seen.

Readers letters to newspapers reveal the depth of the loss felt by his fans. But as we move onwards through the posthumous writing about his life we see the many ways in which people have tried to interpret or shape his story, from tabloid writers who sought to sensationalise it, to family members who tried to sanitise it and diligent music historians who strove to uncover the truth decades later.

The book ends with an extract from Steve Earle's novel, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, in which the drug-addled anti-hero is haunted by Hank Williams' ghost.

From living picker and singer to fictional character, the Hank Williams Reader takes us on a rollercoaster journey through the making of an American legend. It's a remarkable book, and having read it, I feel honoured that my essay, written 20 years ago at the very beginning of my career, was considered worthy of inclusion in what I have no doubt will endure as one of the most important works on one of music's most important figures.

Published by Oxford University Press, the Hank Williams Reader can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here.

Update: Nice to have a quote from my article singled out in a review of the Hank Williams Reader in no less a publication than the Wall Street Journal:

"British entertainment writer Douglas McPherson fantasized in 1978 that "perhaps his ghost is there in the smoke and whisky fumes as some unknown singer shoots up, drinks up, and carrying his guitar in trembling hands, walks into the blinding spotlight. . . . Perhaps he is . . . trading guitar licks or one last beer with Gene Vincent, Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley. "

Click here to read the review.

Click here for some country songs about the circus.