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."

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.” 


  1. Wild animals, ESPECIALLY LIONS & TIGERS, should NOT be circuses...they are abused, beaten, starved...

    1. Why would you think that? Are you sure they are starved and beaten? Have you see that happening??

    2. animals are not ours for entertainment let them go back to the wild, go to circuses that use humans not animals.