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."

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Britain's last lion trainer Thomas Chipperfield stars on cover of Daily Telegraph's Saturday Magazine

The final roar
Britain's last lion trainer on the cover of the
Daily Telegraph's Saturday Magazine

What a fantastic photo of Thomas Chipperfield, by my colleague Jane Hilton, graces the cover of the Saturday Magazine in today's Daily Telegraph!

And what a great ambassador the 24-year-old Chipperfield is for animals in the circus as the government prepares to bring to Parliament legislation that, if passed, will ban wild animals from the big top next year.

Would you ban him? Before you decide, buy the paper to read my exclusive interview with Chipperfield, or click here to read the story online.

For more tales of tiger trainers, sword-swallowers, showmen and clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus. 

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

Click here to buy from Amazon.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Thomas Chipperfield, Britain's last big cat trainer, talks exclusively to the Daily Telegraph online now and in the paper tomorrow

Thomas Chipperfield
at Peter Jolly's Circus

A gust of wind sends a Mexican wave through the side walls of Peter Jolly's big top. Flap, flap, flap... it sounds like a banshee; the ghost of circus past perhaps railing against the Government's Wild Animals in Circuses Bill which will be announced in the Queen's Speech to Parliament next Wednesday June 4, and which plans to ban a circus tradition that was invented in Britain nearly 250 years ago.

In the gloom beside the iron cage that is set up in the ring, ready for the evening show, 24-year-old Thomas Chipperfield, Britain's last big cat trainer, pulls up a ringside seat on the grass beneath our feet.

He tells me about his family, which has trained animals since the Frost Fair on the frozen Thames in 1684; his childhood on one of Ireland's biggest circuses; his training methods; his most frightening moment in the lions' cage; and the ban that threatens his future.

Click here to read my exclusive interview with him in the Daily Telegraph Online and buy the Daily Telegraph tomorrow, where he'll be the cover story in the Saturday Magazine.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The first Ronald McDonald

Did you know that before there was Ronald... there was Bozo?

Bozo the Clown used to make regular appearances at a McDonalds in Washington DC because the franchise owner sponsored the NBC series Bozo’s Circus.

When the network cancelled the show, franchise owner Oscar Goldstein needed a new clown. So he hired Bozo star Williard Scott to come up with a new character.

Ronald McDonald was born. But before he could be launched nationwide, McDonalds bosses decided Williard was too portly to represent a company that didn’t want to be associated with fattening food, and so he was replaced by a thinner Ronald.

Click here for more clown facts.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Circus war in Norfolk

Are the more than 50 circuses in the UK this year (click here for the full list) too many for our small island?

Earlier this month, Circus Wonderland was forced to cancel its engagement in King's Lynn when director Paul Carpenter discovered Uncle Sam's Great American Circus was appearing in the Norfolk market town the week before. It would have been "financial suicide" to have two circuses appearing in consecutive weeks, said Carpenter.

Uncle Sam's Circus was itself the third circus to visit King's Lynn this year, following Circus Mondao and Russell's International Circus.

Wind forward a couple of weeks, and just a few miles west to Norwich, and on the day Uncle Sam's American Circus trucks roll out of Taverham in the north of the city (click here to see my pictures of their spectacular American lorries), I saw a poster for Billy Smart's Circus, which is coming to the Norwich Showground in just a couple of weeks on June 10.

Is the whole country suffering from such an abundance of circuses? And is there a big enough audience to sustain them all, or will the public be, as Paul Carpenter described King's Lynn "circused out"?

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Ban on wild animals in the circus draws closer as Queen announces new Government bill

Under threat
One of just three tigers left in the British circus
See him at Peter Jolly's Circus

The proposed ban on wild animals in British circuses has moved another step closer with the Government announcing its Wild Animals in Circuses Bill will be included amongst other forthcoming legislation in the Queen's Speech to Parliament on Wednesday June 4.

The ban was proposed by Animal Welfare Minister Lord Taylor in 2012 and scheduled to come into force in December next year.

It will still have to be voted through Parliament and the House of Lords, of course, which means a degree of uncertainty remains. If you want to save a British tradition that has existed since the birth of the circus in 1768, you could ask your MP to vote against the ban.

Britain's last lion trainer
Thomas Chipperfield

- Big story on him coming soon
In the meantime, take perhaps your last chance to see Britain's last circus lions and tigers at Peter Jolly's Circus and the camels and zebras at Circus Mondao, while you can.

Click here for a review of Peter Jolly's Circus.

The Mail on Sunday described Circus Mania as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Read my backstage journey through the world of showmen, sword-swallowers, clowns and tiger trainers before another piece of the circus passes into history.
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Did you know the first calls to ban animals from British circuses were made exactly 100 years ago in 1914? To read the 100 year history of opposition to animals in entertainment, click here.

What's life like for those who run away with the circus?

Behind the big top
Circus Mania takes you there

Find out in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to buy from Amazon.

Friday, 23 May 2014

More pictures of Uncle Sam's American Circus trucks in Taverham, Norwich

The star-spangled American trucks of Uncle Sam's Great American Circus always make an impression when they roll into town. Here are some more pictures I snapped of them when the red, white and blue big top pitched up in Taverham on the outskirts of Norwich.

Uncle Sam's Great American Circus
Built up in Taverham, Norwich

Click here for more pictures of Uncle Sam's Great American Circus trucks.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Uncle Sam's Great American Circus trucks

Over size and over here...
Uncle Sam's American Circus trucks and star-spangled big top
roll up, roll up in Norwich.
Uncle's Sam's Great American Circus may be a British organisation based in Lincolnshire, but its star-spangled selection of American Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks sure look the part the part when they roll into town, as I found when the red white and blue big top pitched up in Norwich last year. Wherever you see them this year, be sure to give them a big "Hey, Y'all!"

Get your kicks
Far from Route 66, Uncle Sam's Yank tanks are are parked
in an eye-catching location at the side of the A1067 Fakenham Road
as you head out of Norwich.
The circus that Peterbilt
The big top won't blow away anchored to that truck 

Red white and blue Kenworth truck
and matching big top
Even Uncle Sam's smaller vehicles
let everyone know the circus is in town
Meanwhile, under star-spangled canvas
the ring and seats are readied for the evening's show

For more on circus transport, click here to read how Ingo Dock moves the Chinese State Circus and click here to see how Pinders Circus did it 100 years ago.

2nd Edition out now!
If you've ever wondered what life is like for those who run away with the circus, read Circus Mania, my behind-the-scenes journey through the world of the big top, talking to showmen, clowns, trapeze artists and tiger trainers about their unique lifestyle, culture, history, superstitions and secrets.
Click here to read the 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Peter Jolly's Circus review

Circus in the sun
the clouds clear as the crowd arrives

Peter Jolly's Circus is built up in a field beside a boarded-up pub - a sign of the limited disposable income in these parts? I’m the first to arrive, having driven half way across the country to see one of the last truly traditional circuses in the UK, and the last with lions and tigers (Please note: This review is of the 2014 season - Thomas Chipperfield's big cats are not currently appearing with Jolly's Circus). As I park my lonely car mid-afternoon, the sky is a stormy shade of slate. I can’t help but see it as a metaphor - the circus under a black cloud.

Come evening, though, and the clouds break up in time to welcome the audience with a bright blue sky. The sun shines like a spotlight on the red and yellow big top and gleams off the matching livery of the surrounding transport, rendering the scene toy-like.

The field fills with cars and a lengthy queue snakes around the box office to the tent, where ushers in red tailcoats and clowns selling flashing windmills gaily welcome the crowd.

Roll up, roll up...
The audience take their seats
Inside, the atmosphere is buzzing as the unique environment of a circus tent, so different from a theatre, hugs us in its intimate embrace. Grass under our feet. Cosy semi-darkness beneath the blue and yellow ceiling. A hot dog wagon and a brightly lit stall selling circus novelties. Loose chairs around the ring. Tiered benches tucked inside the flapping walls.

Most of the lighting falls on the iron cage inside the ring, which obscures the small bandstand and ring doors.

With Peter Jolly’s Circus hosting the only big cat act left in the UK, you might think they’d keep us waiting before playing such a trump card. If the concern was interrupting the show to build the cage, then perhaps they could have done that in the interval and put the cats on as first act in the second half.

But no. After a musical overture - and what else could it be in such a traditional setting but the dum-dum-dummy-dummy-dum-dum-da-da of Entrance of the Gladiators? - and a quick announcement from dashing ringmaster Peter Jolly Jr, Thomas Chipperfield and his cats are first into the ring.

Thomas Chipperfield
Behind the big top
Click here to see his big cats
At present it’s a small act - just two male lions and a tiger. But Chipperfield has two more tigers in training that he hopes will be ready for the ring in the coming weeks. And, in any case, so starved are we of cats in the British circus that we can hardly moan at not getting the type of 10 cat extravaganza that fellow Englishman Martin Lacey Jr - the Elvis of the circus ring; the King of the cage - presents at Circus Krone in Germany (click here to check out his spectacular act on YouTube; Vegas jump suit and all) and which his brother Alex Lacey is currently presenting for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey in America.

King of the cage
Thomas Chipperfield and his big cats in action
Chipperfield’s lions, with their handsome manes, certainly look big atop their seats in this intimate 500-seat tent, and when one of them lets out a roar and paws with intent at its trainer’s stick, the audience lets out an impressed “Oooh” and visibly sits back in its seats.

This ain’t TV, the movies or a computer game, that roar reminds us: this is the circus, and it bites.

The youthful Chipperfield cuts a charismatic figure in his white shirt and blue-sequined waistcoat, and as a lion leaps over his shoulder from one pedestal to another, he clearly has his animals under complete control. The routine ends with him kissing Tsavo the lion’s slavering maw, then hugging its neck to a warm-hearted “Ahhhh,” from the crowd.

On reflection, perhaps Peter Jolly was right after all to play his ‘wild’ card first, because the big cats definitely warm the audience up for everything else that follows, and the show has plenty more to offer.

Sophie Coles
Seen here in an earlier
engagement with the
Great British Circus
With the cage quickly dissembled, human skills follow with some fast spinning on the corde lisse by Sophie Coles - a cousin of Chipperfield - plus tightrope walking and foot-juggling from Jolly's daughters. Maybe these acts aren’t as slick, poised or packed with amazing tricks as you’d see in Cirque du Soleil and perhaps they wouldn’t wow the judges in Monte Carlo. But there are no fumbles, misses or falls either. Best of all, they’re concise. The show moves swiftly from act to act, with not a pause in between, leaving no time for attention to wander.

There’s a homely appearance to the show. But then, it’s often the simple things that are most effective, like a very tall stilt-walking clown with a diabolo, and a girl riding around the ring in a horse-drawn gypsy cart. Interestingly, an image of a similar vehicle won this year’s International Circus Federation photograph of the year. Click here to see it. The photo is dream-like black and white - art, in a word. The trap in Jolly’s ring is colourful and real and almost clumsy, but just as charming. The tawdry and the sometimes unselfconsciously magical, hand in hand; that’s the circus.

The clowns - Bobby Roberts Jr and recent circus runaway Kyle Samuel  - perform that pantomime favourite, the ghost routine. I’ve seen it done much more sharply in panto. But they get the kids shouting “It’s behind you!” at the top of their voices, and that’s the main thing. Their funniest moment comes from the simplest gag of all - two clowns throwing a bucket of water at each other, then throwing a pretend bucket of water at the audience. How old is that gag? It lasts about two seconds, but it still gets a laugh out of me.

It’s the animals, though, that clearly enthral the audience the most. There’s a veritable menagerie and, like their two-legged co-stars, they are sped through the spotlight in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em fashion. A camel, zebra, lama and ankole - an African bull with enormous horns - are led in through one set of curtains, paraded once around the grassy circle (the budget doesn’t run to sawdust) and out another set of curtains, and that’s the last we see of them. The snakes, carried on the shoulders of the human stars, make a similarly quick perambulation.

In many ways, it’s a bizarre form of entertainment. As a gaggle of ducks are herded around the ring to the accompaniment of Old MacDonald Had A Farm, I have one of those ‘what on Earth are we watching’ moments. But when a racoon is led around the ring on a lead, an excited cry of “Racoon! Racoon! Racoon!” goes around the tent like a Mexican wave and people actually rise from their seats to crane their necks and see it.

Kyle Samuel
He ran away with the circus
The circus patriarch, Peter Jolly, brings on an educated pony which counts with its hoof. It’s an act as old as the circus itself and gives us a time tunnel glimpse of what Philip Astley’s first circus might have looked like in 1768. But the routine still gets laughs. “How many days a week do you work?” Jolly asks the horse. It duly paws the ground seven times. “And how many days a week do I work?” he asks. The horse doesn’t move.

At another point in the show, Jolly walks on with a fox standing on his shoulders. The fox jumps onto a horse’s back for a gallop around the ring. Things get even more bizarre when Jolly tries to get an ordinary domestic cat to jump through a hoop. With typical feline indifference, the moggie refuses.

As I’ve said, it’s bizarre. But, as I’ve also said, it’s the animals that are the biggest hit with the audience, whether it’s goats dashing through an obstacle course or a dove climbing a ladder. In the interval the crowd queue for pony rides and to have their photo taken with one of the snakes. At the end of the show, the ringmaster invites us to pay another pound to visit the animals in their quarters behind the big top, and to see the big cats being fed - and at least half the audience line up to do so.

The second half of the show moves even quicker than the first. A fire eater, a fakir standing on broken glass. The images fly past our eyes, building up a pulse-quickening momentum to a busy and colourful wild west finale that includes knife-throwing, lassoing and some genuinely thrilling whip cracking in which a piece of paper is halved and halved to almost postage stamp proportions in the hands of a bravely grinning assistant - who escapes with her fingers unscathed.

All the young families who have filled the big top go home smiling and chatting excitedly about everything they’ve seen. Many have perhaps seen their first circus, most probably don’t realise that they may have seen the last British circus of its type - and almost certainly the last with lions and tigers - and only later will they know that they have not only had a great evening out but that they have also made a memory that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Peter Jolly
50 years under canvas
Where’s Peter Jolly’s Circus today? Click here to find out, and if you’re within a hundred miles make the trip. You will not be disappointed.

Update: This review is of the show in 2014. Thomas Chipperfield's big cats are not currently appearing with Peter Jolly's Circus. For more on the Chipperfield cats click here.

Click here for Peter Jolly's 50 Years Under Canvas.

Love the circus? Meet the showmen, tiger trainers, clowns, sword-swallowers and trapeze artists. Hear their stories and learn about their unique lives, customs, history and secrets in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy the book the Mail on Sunday called “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Circus Stamps

Step right up to get a new set of US postage stamps celebrating the art of the great American circus poster. A set of eight stamps each featuring the 19th century posters of Ringling Bros, Sells-Floto, Al C. Barnes and more was launched on May 5 at where else but the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. 

Of course, it's not the first time the circus has graced a stamp. Here are a couple of British first day covers celebrating Chipperfields Circus in 1983 and Gerry Cottle's Circus in 2002. Oh, and naturally enough, Monaco, home of the International Circus Festival, has produced a circus stamp or two over the years.

For more fabulous circus art and circus posters, click here.