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."

Thursday, 24 April 2014

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.  

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