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."

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment