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, 29 April 2014

Criticism as poetry

Katherine Kavanagh
Bard of the Big Top?

What do critics really think about the shows they review? In an ideal world, you'd like to think their review reflected their reactions exactly. But in our less than perfect world a myriad of compromises can take place between watching a show and writing about it.

How many times have you read a review and thought he or she is just saying that because everyone else is saying the same thing because it's fashionable to do so. It happens - sometimes out of insecurity on the critic's part. "If everyone else thinks Cirque du Soleil is brilliant," the insecure hack thinks, "dare I say I hated it? Or could I possibly be wrong? Perhaps I'll look like I don't know what I'm talking about, so I'd better go with the flow."

Then there are the magazines that give good reviews because the show in question is buying an expensive advert in the same mag. Or the mag is running a big feature on the show, so running a bad review in the same issue would look stupid. Especially if the critic is the same person who wrote the feature - so perhaps it would be better to accentuate the positive?

Then there are a writer's internal pressures. Critics should be impartial, but in a small world critics get to know people who appear in productions they review - they may have interviewed them; or just met up over interval drinks at a previous production. It's hard to be harsh with people you know, easier to be 'diplomatic.'

Telling the blunt truth can make you unpopular, and even critics paid to judge other people can find it hard to be judged.

There's also the question of 'balance.' "Okay, I hated it," the writer thinks, "But I can see why some people would like it. Maybe I should point out those aspects."

All of the above means that a review may sometimes be a long way from a writer's reaction on the night.

Circus critic Katherine Kavanagh found herself struggling to be both honest and fair in a review of Puffball she was writing for So on her blog, she's provided a fascinating glimpse into the work of a critic by presenting her review as it appeared, plus the unedited notes she wrote during the show. Which is the most honest or evocative, she asks?

Well, what struck me was that her unedited notes read like free form poetry! Check out these 'stanzas':

Making lipstick and dress from discarded plastic sheet.
Tenderness as Chrysalis wraps Evans and carries off.
Is this a prologue and a beat is going to kick in?

Hard to be damning about such a personal piece of work, whose roots were in issues that I care about and believe in.
It’s also hard to find positives to write about this show!
25 mins to go and I’m checking the time and my neighbours are talking about when they can get out.

Poet as critic!
Check out the whole thing, here. And Katherine, can we have more in that style, please?

Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson
- his comments have made him
unwelcome in some big tops.
Click here to read more on the pressures on critics.

Marilyn Monroe in the circus ring

What a beautiful creature!
Oh, and that's Marilyn Monroe riding it...

Following my recent post about Elton John and Rod Stewart visiting Billy Smart Jr in the 70s (click here to read it), I couldn't resist borrowing this picture of Marilyn Monroe on a Ringling Brothers elephant in 1955 from America's most penetrating circus blog Showbiz David.

Princess Margaret escorted to Gerry Cottle's Circus
by big cat trainer Martin Lacey
in the days when circus animals had royal approval.
Showbiz mourns the days when celebrities endorsed the circus with their presence and speculates on the boost the big top would be given if Prince William and Kate took the future King George to a circus. The eyes of the world would be upon them, as it was in the days when Princess Margaret visited Gerry Cottle's circus, right.

But have any of today's showmen had the savvy to invite Wills and Kate to an opening night?

Gerry Cottle was perhaps the last British showman to use celebrities to put his circus in the media spotlight. As well as providing the big top for Saturday evening TV show Seaside Special in the 80s, he employed celebrity ringmasters such as then TV favourite Jeremy Beadle.

Cirque du Soleil hardly need the publicity, but their final UK performances of Dralion this summer would surely be a safe, politically correct bet for the young royal couple to attend. But wouldn't it be great to see Wills and Kate posing with the horses at Zippos or the big cats of Peter Jolly's Circus?

Princess Kate has been applauded by the media for supporting British fashion designers. So why not a great British tradition like the circus, which began here nearly 250 years ago and which grew to spread across the globe as one of our most enduring cultural exports?

Circus bosses - send out those royal invites! Maybe you could follow in the  sawdust footsteps of Pinders Circus, which became Pinders Royal Circus after performing three times before Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle.

Princes Stephanie
Royal patron
Failing that, perhaps circus patron Princess Stephanie could invite the the royal couple to the next Monte Carlo Circus Festival in January 2015.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Circus Ferrel comes to school!

Circus Ferrel at Yaxham Primary School

Following on from my previous post on Circus Starr, which puts on shows for disadvantaged kids (click here to read all about it), I chanced to drive past this afternoon a big top that gives children a chance to star in the spotlit circle, Circus Ferrel.

Circus Ferrel transport
Seen here in the grounds of Yaxham Primary School in Norfolk, Circus Ferrel has a unique business model. Each week it builds up at a school somewhere in East Anglia. During the week they give free circus skills workshops to the children. The keenest kids are then rehearsed for a chance to appear alongside professional performers in the shows that the circus puts on at the weekend.

Circus Ferrel is the brainchild of Martin Taylor, who trained as a teacher and enjoyed a varied career as a TV repairman and steam train driver on a preserved railway before finding his calling as Marty the clown; and his wife Lynette who supervises the show as Grandma the ring-mistress.

The couple became fascinated by the world of the big top after attending a local circus and then getting involved as helpers before deciding to live the dream of setting up their own circus.

If you'd like Circus Ferrel to visit your school, the week-long circus experience includes a circus assembly and ideas for incorporating circus themes into regular classes. It's completely free to the host school and funded by the public shows that the circus puts on at the weekend.

What's in it for the circus? Well, they get a free ground to build up on; the kids promote the circus by putting up posters locally and, best of all, they encourage parents to buy tickets. After all, what mum and dad wouldn't want to attend a show their own children are appearing in?

Sounds like a win-win idea to me. Oh, and if the big top in these pictures looks quiet and deserted beneath that moody sky, don't be fooled. The music coming through the canvas told me there was a performance in full swing, and from the frequent bursts of applause and cheers a full house was lapping it up.

Circus Ferrel's Grandma and Marty
...coming to a school near you
For details, go to and click here to read my review in The Stage of a Circus Ferrel show I attended in Suffolk a couple of years ago.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Circus Mondao - inside the real big top with Britain's oldest circus family

Circus Mondao in the Weekly News

Going through the archives, I found the above full-page article that I wrote for the Weekly News shortly before Circus Mania came out. The BBC's new circus comedy series Big Top, starring Ruth Madoc and Amanda Holden, had just debuted on television, so it seemed a good time to take a look inside the real big top of Circus Mondao. Run by sisters Carol MacManus and Gracie Timmis, who's family have been in the circus since the early 1800s, the traditional show was spending Christmas at the Elvenden Estate on the edge of Norfolk's Thetford Forest.

I was pleased with the photo selection, including the shot of Carol, ringmistress Petra Jackson and Gracie's daughters riding horses in a My Fair Lady routine. Sitting at ring side as the spotted horses came into the spotlights was one of the magical memories of the night I saw them there. It's also good to see the picture of the circus' camels being exercised on Whitby beach - proof that a circus animal's life isn't purely one of confinement. On the day I visited Circus Mondao in Elvenden, Petra had just returned from taking the camels for a long run through the Forest. Not a walk - "proper camel running," she proudly reported.

Another striking memory from Elvenden was of young clown Bippo sliding almost the whole width of the ring on his belly during a gloriously wet and messy slosh routine. He must have froze in the weeks to come, because soon after my visit the snow fell, heavily, and stayed throughout the Christmas period. It must have been tough on the performers, because the tent was none too warm when I was there. But as Carol said, when I asked her about working over the holiday season, their only day off Christmas Day itself, "This is our life. If we weren't working, what else would we do?"

Little did I know that during that chilly yuletide, love was blossoming beneath the snow-capped canopy of the light-bedecked big top. Bippo had met German Wheel star Lucy Ladbrooke in a previous engagement at the Yarmouth Hippodrome. They'd kept up a romance by phone as work took Lucy to a holiday resort in Turkey. Back from Europe, she got a job at Elvendon, dressed as an elf and selling Christmas trees so the couple could be together.

The following season, she joined Circus Mondao and, later that year I was able to write a follow-up piece in the Weekly News about Bippo's proposal in the circus ring.

From circus ring to wedding ring
Bippo pops the question

Read the full story of Britain's oldest circus family and Bippo, the boy who ran away with the circus, in Circus Mania, described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Click here to read my review of the Circus Mondao pantomime!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Rod Stewart and Elton John visit the circus!

Recalling the days when big stars and big tops rubbed shoulders much more frequently, here's Rod Stewart and Elton John dropping in on son of the circus Billy Smart Jr and his wife Hannalore. (Not sure what they've got in those tins, but they look suspiciously like they're raising funds for an animal charity to me!)

If those groovy clothes float your boat, get along to Westfield Stratford today, Fashion Revolution Day, where Hannalore will be selling off her 1500-piece wardrobe from the 60s, 70s and 80s, with some of the money going to charity. Don't expect clown shoes and sparkly leotards, though. We're talking the sort of vintage designer gear by Vivienne Westword, Chanel and Versace that a socialite circus wife wore in those days.

Who knows, maybe even Rod and Elton will be there...

Circus Starr - the Circus that helps kids

Miss Lara
-one of the stars of
Circus Starr
which began its latest tour
this week

In an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in The Stage, Circus Starr’s managing director Neville Wilson tells me the story of a circus that helps those in need.

There’s nothing like the atmosphere of a circus tent filled to capacity with excited kids. In the ring is a high calibre cast of international acrobats and clowns. But the 500-seat Circus Starr big top wasn’t sold-out by the traditional methods of a poster campaign or parade. In each of the towns on its annual 75-date tour, the tickets were bought by local businesses then donated to disadvantaged children and their families.

According to director Neville Wilson, “There are a lot of fundraising events where the event is a long way removed from the kids they help. The idea behind Circus Starr was to let the kids have something tangible; to say, ‘Here’s a couple of tickets, come out and enjoy yourself.’”
It’s not just children but whole families that benefit, Wilson continues.

The Valencius Troupe
- part of an international cast
“Our audience is made up kids facing all sorts of challenges from autism to life-threatening illnesses. We’ve even had children come to the show in beds. There are very few places their parents can take them as a family, because they might be worried that the child will make a lot of noise and be disruptive. But when they come to Circus Starr that doesn’t matter, because everybody’s in the same boat.”

As to the timeless ability of a traditional circus to help children forget their troubles, Wilson says, “A lot of kids these days grow up sitting in their bedrooms with computer games and there’s not much interaction with other people. Suddenly they come to this strange place where there’s loads of people around them; something funny happening; something serious; music, colour, life. You can see the effect in their faces: it’s like a light switch going on.”

The philanthropic circus was born 26 years ago, when Gandey’s Circus was approached to put on a fundraising event for a school.

“We did a gala evening and it was so successful that word got around to other charities that wanted to do the same thing,” says Wilson. “So we set up Circus Starr to help low profile local charities like hospices that didn’t have the resources to raise funds for themselves. The original deal was that we would handle the publicity, sell the tickets and split the profits with the charity.”

Initially, Starr used a telesales team to sell tickets to local businesses for their own use. “But over time people started saying, ‘Would you donate these tickets? We’d like them to go to this school...’

It made me realise how many kids there are out there facing really big challenges,” says Wilson.
Today, all tickets are distributed through a variety of hospices, community groups and women’s refuges, researched by Starr from its base in Congelton, Cheshire. 100% of the show’s profits is then donated to a particular charity, such as the air ambulance service, that the circus partners with in each town it visits.

The Circus Starr big top
“We donate over £1 million worth of tickets each year, and every single ticket is used. Then there are a lot of hospices and baby care units that get a nice cheque at the end of the show, too, so everybody wins,” says Wilson.

Circus Starr is a not-for-profit CIC (Community Interest Company) but it benefits financially and artistically from being part of the Gandey Organisation, which produces commercial shows such as the Chinese State Circus and The Ladyboys of Bangkok.

Philip Gandey produces a new show for us each year and spends a lot of time looking for the acts,” says Wilson. “It’s a proper touring circus, moved on six articulated units, that could be sold commercially, no problem.”

Wilson fell in love with big tops and sawdust at an early age.

“My mum and dad took me to Boswell Wilkie’s Circus in South Africa when I was 5-years-old, and I can remember some of that performance to this day,” the director grins.

The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
Britain's oldest circus building, where
Neville Wilson ran away with a
Russian Swing act.
(A picture from Circus Mania)
Many years later, when he was travelling through Europe as a young man, Wilson found himself with a summer job at Britain’s oldest circus building, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

“There was an acrobatic troupe called the Casteinos. One of the catchers in their Russian swing act decided to leave and they asked me if I’d like to try it. I was pretty agile in those days - so I ran away with the circus!”

Retiring from performance when the Casteinos broke up, Wilson joined the publicity team of Boswell Wilkie in South Africa and rose to assistant manager. He moved to England in 1986 and worked with several circuses, including the Moscow State Circus, before meeting third generation showman Phillip Gandey, with whom he has worked ever since.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve done with Circus Starr, over the past ten years especially,” says Wilson. “I live and breathe it and love every second that I’m at work.”

Every night's a full house at
Circus Starr
Wilson admits the economic downturn has affected Circus Starr - but not because people have become more reluctant to give.

“A lot of the businesses we were dealing with ceased trading. That’s made it harder for our telesales team and harder for us to expand. If the recession hadn’t happened we’d probably be visiting another 15 towns by now.

“But the businesses that have remained and the new businesses that have opened have been as generous as ever. Some of the bigger corporations have been phenomenal.”

In fact, even after so many years with Circus Starr, Wilson says, “The generosity of the British business community never ceases to amaze me. The people who buy tickets don’t get anything out of this except a thank you letter from the kids they sent to the circus. But the letters are phenomenal - and the next year when we phone up, they’ll buy two more tickets!”

So far, none of the kids who have visited Circus Starr have gone on to become circus stars themselves. But one did grow up to join the telesales team. Wilson, meanwhile, recalls a meeting he describes as one of the best things that ever happened to him.

“A guy came up to me at a show and said, ‘Many years ago, when I was a kid, my family had a real bust up. My mum and I, and my brother and sister were living in a New Start place. I was so low. We were given tickets to the circus and I’ve never forgotten that. I now have a business in Carlisle and I always make sure we support you.’

“To me,” says Wilson, “That sums up what Circus Starr is about.”


1 - Artistic director Philip Gandey’s commercial enterprises include international big top hire and productions ranging from the Chinese State Circus to the Dubai-based Krystal Dinner Show.

2 - Gandey is a third generation showman and became Britain’s youngest circus proprietor at the age of 17.

3 - The circus has 150 performances a year to an annual audience of 75,000.

4 - The circus is developing an app to enhance the experience of autistic children at arts events. It will be available as a free download from September.

5 - Circus Starr’s patron is actress Sarah Gordy, who made her name as Lady Pamela Holland in the 2010 series Upstairs Downstairs.

For Circus Starr tour dates, go to

Have you ever dreamed of running away with the circus? Find out what it's like in Circus Mania, my backstage journey through the circus world, talking to showmen, sword-swallowers, tiger trainers, trapeze flyers and clowns about their unique lives, history, traditions, secrets and superstitions. Click here to read half a dozen customer reviews on Amazon.  

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Aircraft Circus take to the air at 375-feet at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Taking the plunge
Moira Campbell
and Lucy Francis
go over the edge for Aircraft Circus

The Aircraft Circus training school got their name on the television news in the old fashioned way over Easter, with a free show in the form of a daredevil leap off the 375-ft-tall Orbit sculpture at the opening to the public of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park  - the former site of the Olympics in East London. Appropriately, this picture was taken by Olympic athlete Tom Daley!

And to give you an idea of the height, here's one of the riggers looking over the edge:

Still fancy training to be a circus star?

Read about circus training in the UK, from Zippos Academy, which travels around the country in its own big top, to people like showman Gerry Cottle and Bippo the clown who literally ran away with the circus, in Circus Mania. Click here to buy from Amazon

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Chaplins Circus brings exciting new concept to the big top

Following my last post about the need for big top shows to offer something special if they're to draw audiences from cosy indoor venues comes news of an exciting new show to tour Britain this year.

Chaplins Circus is a theatrical show about the backstage drama of a 1920s circus and it will be travelling the country in one of the biggest big tops on the road - all the better to accommodate its finale human cannonball stunt!

A poster for the real
Charlie Chaplin's
film The Circus
- which was the 7th
highest-grossing film of
all time.
Chaplins Circus is the brainchild of Charlie Pakdel, a veteran Charlie Chaplin imitator; Mark Foot, who ran away with the circus at the age of 8 and went on to run one of the biggest suppliers of seasonal entertainment to shopping malls; and Gary Stocker, a street entertainer and magician.

The show opens in Highfield Park, St Albans, May 24 - June 1. Info:

Given these PC times, the circus features no animals, which is fair enough, and, because they're deemed too scary, no clowns. But hang on, wasn't Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp a hobo clown?

Friday, 4 April 2014

The future of the circus - can the big top survive?

My thanks to Mark for buying a copy of Circus Mania and leaving a great review on Amazon (please click here to read half a dozen more reader reviews):

Great interviews underpin the analysis, I was particularly gripped by the accounts of current and ex people of the traditional circus with wild animals. A type of show now almost universally unloved in Britain. Hardly any exist now. The main wild animal show featured in the book has since changed name and removed the wild animals. A good move since that is likely to be law by 2015. A few, like Zippos, continue with horses only but are sometimes met by animal rights activists bearing leaflets showing elephants and tigers.
The elephant not in the room, - why a tent in a field and sawdust ring if there are no animals? Circus will develop differently. The trend is more theatrical, better lighting, music and production. But the skills remain much the same.

What struck me most was Mark's astute comment:

The elephant not in the room, - why a tent in a field and sawdust ring if there are no animals? 

The elephant in the room
My article in The Stage on the return of elephants to
the Great British Circus
Before I wrote Circus Mania I wrote an article in The Stage about the return of elephants to the Great British Circus after a decade-long absence from British big tops. Phoning around for comments, I spoke to members of the Circus Friends Association and well remember hearing comments along the lines of "A circus is not a circus without animals." I think Martin Lacey, director of the Great British Circus, said the same thing himself.

At the time I thought, cynically, 'Really?' But then, I'd been brought up with the idea that training animals to perform in a circus was fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, although I was fast becoming a circus fan, it was the daredevilry of human performers that had drawn me to ringside. In fact, all the circuses I'd seen up until that point were all-human shows performed in theatres. Even the historic Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, where I got my first adult taste of circus magic, was a building and presented a thoroughly contemporary all-human show.

So did circuses really need animals? Cirque du Soleil had become the biggest circus company in history without them.

Inside the big top
- a full house at Zippos
My attitude changed when I went to see the tigers and elephants of the Great British Circus for myself, and the camels, zebra and horses of Circus Mondao a week or so later. I fell under the spell of seeing tigers and elephants at such close quarters. There is something magical about the sight of plumed spotted horses trotting into an atmospherically lit circus ring. There's also a connection with the action in a circus tent that television and film - or even the stage of a traditional theatre - can never reproduce. A big top wraps itself around you and makes you part of its world.

Horses and Sawdust
at Zippos
- the type of act the
circus ring was made for
It was, in fact, my visit to the Great British Circus that prompted me to move from writing articles about the circus to writing a book, Circus Mania, because I felt there was such a powerful story to be told.

During my research I spoke to many current and retired animal trainers and formed a more complex picture of the way animals are trained and treated. Yes, there has been cruelty but no, I don't believe it's inherent or widespread. What came across most from the trainers I spoke to was their deep love of the animals they work with.

But I also came away with the question Mark asks in his review of my book - why a tent in a field if there are no animals? And if animals are eventually banned from the circus (and they've almost disappeared from British circuses already) can the big top survive without them?

The sawdust ring was invented by the father of the modern circus, Philip Astley, for the presentation of galloping horses and it's for such acts that it remains best suited. You couldn't parade elephants and polar bears around in a theatre, so the rougher and more raw setting of a big tent once provided the only viable place to see them.

But without the need for an animal-friendly setting, why swap a cosy theatre seat for the often cold and muddy environment of a tent in a field?

Girls on a bike
- some stunts only fit in a big top
(a picture of the Chinese Stage Circus
from Circus Mania)
My two visits to the Chinese State Circus, first in a theatre and then in a big top, showed me that the tent in a field can still serve a purpose, even if the only 'animals' I saw there were the glittering puppets of the Chinese lion dance. That purpose is the presentation of tricks too big to be staged in a theatre.

In the Chinese big top, as I chronicled in Circus Mania, that was girls performing Astley-style horse-riding tricks but on furiously pedaled bikes, and guys flying off swinging poles the length of telephone poles. The theatre version of the circus had to do without such acts and, although still good, was a paler copy by comparison.

You can't perform the flying trapeze in a theatre, or a wheel of death, or put a human pyramid on a high-wire, because you don't have the height. There's only so much water and goo a clown can throw around in a theatre, too.

In a big top you can do anything. But if the circus is to tempt the public out of theatres and into tents, it won't be a case of 'can do,' but 'must do.'

The big tops that pull crowds without animals will be the ones that give us the big tricks - the Russian swing; the human cannonball; the globe of death. The shows that can put the 'big' in the big top will thrive.

Big acts are expensive, however, and the prospects are grimmer for the small traditional circuses where a few family members gamely turn their hand to several smaller scale tricks. Take away their animals - their one unique selling point - and such circuses may have little left to offer us.

Thomas Chipperfield
presents Britain's last big cats
in a British circus
Click here to read my review of Peter Jolly's Circus - the last in Britain with lions and tigers, and a menagerie of other animals from horses and camel to doves and zebra.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers). 
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Britain's newest clown runs away with Peter Jolly's Circus

Say Hi to Britain's newest clown, Kyle Samuel - or Clown Jerry as he's now known since running away with Peter Jolly's Circus. The 18-year-old Hereford funny man fell in love with the circus on a visit to America when he was just two years old and says he's been longing to join the world of the big top ever since.

He couldn't have picked a more traditional show to join. Jolly's is the last show in Britain with a big cat act, presented by Thomas Chipperfield.

But what's life like for a young clown in today's circus? I got the full story from Gareth Ellis, better known as Bippo, who's whole family ran away with the circus when he was 9-years-old.

Bippo the clown
- Read the story of the
boy who ran away to join
the circus in
Circus Mania
Read Bippo's incredible behind-the-scenes story, and first-hand tales of jugglers, sword-swallowers, trapeze artists and showmen in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Click here for more on the Chipperfield tigers.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Zippos open day

If you've ever wanted to go behind the scenes at the circus, pop along to Zippos on Blackheath Common on Friday April 18. As part of this month's World Circus Day celebrations, the circus will be holding an open day from 11.00 to 12.00 when visitors can meet the animals, performers and staff and find out how a circus works.

"A very enjoyable book"
- the latest 5-star customer
review on Amazon.
Visit the site to read
another six.
Another way to go behind the scenes of the big top is to buy my book Circus Mania - a backstage journey through the British circus scene from traditional tent shows with tigers and elephants to such freakishly contemporary shows as the Circus of Horrors. Along the way you'll find clowns, trapeze artists, animal trainers and showmen talking about their unique lives, culture, traditions, secrets and superstitions. There's even a full chapter in which Zippos founder Martin Burton tells the story of his circus and the part it played in BBC sitcom Big Top.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

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