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, 28 July 2014

International Clown Week begins today - are you scared yet?

The Burnley Clown
Bringing terror to the streets
- or just clowning around?

Clowns are supposed to make us laugh, but some people find them creepy or plain scary. The sinister clowns of horror films have stoked fears - or have they merely exploited a fear that was already there? In the following article, I trace the history of scary clowns.

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own email address).

ClownhouseMr JinglesIn Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson embodied childhood fears when Homer built him a bed in the shape of a scary clown.

Bart Simpson
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
Clowns, in one form or another, have always been with us. The court jester of medieval times is just one historical example of an anarchic fool licensed to poke fun at society’s mores.

The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.

Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”

The Fear of the Mask
- Dr Who goes to the circus

Whenever a director needs a
scary villain, you can always
count on a clown
Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate), traces the enduring cliche of the sad man behind the clown face directly to Grimaldi. And it’s perhaps the fact that a clown’s make-up disguises the wearer’s true emotions that makes us suspicious of them.

According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”

Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.

Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.

The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.

Ronald McDonald
making another fan for life
Cairoli’s generation of big-footed funnymen had become established as children’s entertainers whereas earlier clowns like Grimaldi provided satire for adults. But it was the association with childhood innocence that allowed horror writers to make clowns scary - for what could be more frightening than a homicidal maniac loose among kids?

Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.

“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.

Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Some circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.

Danny Adams
What makes him such a funny clown?
Could it be his anarchic streak
makes him just a little bit scary?
Many British clowns, such as Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, have reduced their make-up to a minimum.

“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”

Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”

But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?

Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.

The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.

But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.

Circus Mania - loved by clowns!
For the full story of clowning and interviews with some of today's funniest clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

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

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Cirque Bijou - the small company with a big reputation for circus events

Cirque Bijou
have a light-bulb moment
at a Muse concert

Which circus played to 1.3 million people in 19 countries last year? Was it Cirque du Soleil? Ringling? The answer is Cirque Bijou, a British company with a permanent staff of just six, which specialises in staging big stunts for rock concerts, corporate events and festivals. In this article, which first appeared in The Stage, co-founder Billy Alwen tells me how they do it.

According to mayor George Ferguson, “Bristol is the UK city of circus - and I want it to be the European capital for circus.” Central to the city’s claim to cirque supremacy is circus school Circomedia, many its alumni having stayed in the area to start their own companies. The town has its own circus festival in October, and circus has long played a major role in the annual Bristol Harbour Festival, which took place last weekend, July 18 - 20.

Local company Cirque Bijou has produced the festival’s circus stage for the past 11 years and this year took over the whole of College Green with a space-themed programme for ‘kids and big kids.’

“Circus is really big here,” says Bijou’s marketing and development manager Geraldine Giddings. “There are good places to train and audiences who are up for it.”

Source coming to a London theatre near you.
For details and tour dates click here.
Bijou is far from confined to its home region, however. The company recently toured a street show called Source - about London’s underground rivers - around six of the capital’s theatres. And despite having a name that means small and elegant, Bijou is known for big stunts involving cranes and firework displays.

Ladies and gentlemen, your ringmistress is...
Taylor Swift
For a world stadium tour with rock band Muse, the company marched a giant robot across the stage and dangled a trapeze artist over the audience, suspended from an enormous flying light-bulb. Their biggest single audience came when they backed country queen Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards in 2012. 23 million people tuned in.

“We’ve always done a mixture of commercial and publicly funded work,” says joint artistic director Billy Alwen. “The commercial side has allowed us to learn about the high production values that you get on the commercial side of any business, and we’ve brought that into our community work.”

Alwen came from a background in street theatre and got into circus when he stood in for an injured aerialist in a show at the Glastonbury festival. After performing on flying, swinging and static trapeze for a number of years, he formed Cirque Bijou with Julian Bracey in 1999.

“There was a big demand for commercial circus work around the Millennium,” he explains. “Then we started to get funding to do our own style of work.”

Alwen and Bracey together and separately devise all of Bijou’s shows, supported by a permanent staff of four. But by partnering with other companies and recruiting production crews and casts for individual projects - in the past year they employed 280 people - the pair produce a staggering volume and diversity of work in locations from Jamaica to Azerbaijan.

Cirque Bijou
Playing with fire
Already this summer, Bijou has staged a corporate show at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and teamed up with Gerry Cottle’s Wookey Circus School to entertain 6000 Brownies at the 100th anniversary of their organisation.

“Julian and I each have our own projects that we develop ourselves,” says Alwen. Bracey’s current baby is Project 3Sixty, an urban circus mixing extreme sports with video mapping, while Alwen’s pet project is Kitchen Circus. “It’s the antithesis of doing shows for Muse with 50,000 people. I wanted to do something small but really important to communities, so we’re performing for 10 or 12 people in their living rooms.”

With such a diverse portfolio, Bijou struggles to define its signature style.

“Lots of our shows have live music, fire, pyrotechnics, dance, special effects, props and a storyline,” says Giddings. “Sometimes circus is just one of ten different elements. In the end, we came down to the slogan, ‘We make shows.’”

Cirque Bijou
Small name, big stunts
“We’re predominantly an outdoor theatre company,” says Alwen. But even that is changing. “We’re working on taking a couple of shows into theatres next year. A lot of our work is commissioned, but we’d like to develop more original work and tour internationally.”

The secret to running a successful circus company is networking, says Giddings. “The world of circus and theatre isn’t as big as people who are starting out might believe it to be. My advice to a new company would be to find out as much as possible about the venues and festivals where you want to perform and who programmes those events. We always appreciate people getting in touch about the Bristol Harbour Festival, talking us through their show and how it will work for our festival.”

Alwen, meanwhile, stresses the importance of being hands on.

“When people ask how we do this, I say you have to learn from experience. Occasionally I have the luxury of a big crew around me, but sometimes I end up sweeping the stage and gaffering as much as I do directing. I can rig, I can stage manage. I can operate a sound and lighting board. In circus, even contemporary circus, everyone has to muck in.”

Extraordinary Bodies
On occasions he even gets back on the trapeze. “Through our new integrated company Extraordinary Bodies I’ve done a lot of workshops making shows with disabled kids, and when you’re working with kids you have to prove you can still do it. So I’ve had to get up on the trapeze and prove I’m not a complete old fogy.”

As Cirque Bijou celebrates more than 15 years as a self-supporting company with one foot in the commercial world and the other in the public sector, Alwen says the future looks bright in both areas.

“The commercial market for circus has definitely increased, and the quality of circus shows has gone up, so there’s more demand from local authorities. When people think of celebrating a live event, they think of circus first.”

For more on the changing world of circus, from the traditional to the contemporary, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Click here to read the latest 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years book review

In October 1999, Nell Gifford - the author of Josser - was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"

The director booked the show. The only problem was, Gifford didn't have a show. Her new book, Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years tells how the former circus runaway created her circus in time for the Festival and built it up over the next decade into one of the UK's most popular.

It's a beautiful looking book, full of great photos, and I'm looking forward to reading it.


In the meantime, click here for Giffords Circus latest tour dates.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Circus Mania "a much needed book"

"Circus Mania is a much needed dispassionately written book on the British circus scene. In order for this institution to survive, thrive and regain mainstream respectability in the media it needs journalistic appraisal, insight and critique. 

"The world of circus needs books like Circus Mania. I would say it is the most important insight into British circus since Nell Stroud’s Josser...  (Douglas McPherson) is the much needed objective, academic reviewer that can bring the world of circus outside of “Cirque” and “New Circus” to a wider audience again." 

Not my words but the opinion of Jamie Clubb, a circus historian and true son of the circus who grew up in a travelling wagon and who's family was performing circus acts a century before the invention of the circus ring.

Click here to read the full in-depth review on his blog.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Peter Jolly's Circus on film

PR man Anthony Beckwith of
Peter Jolly's Circus in the Chester Chronicle

The story of Britain's circuses fighting each other for space in our small island continues. Last week it was Zippos, Continental Circus Berlin and Circus Vegas all pitching up in the Aberdeen area. Click here for more.

In an overcrowded market, having a unique selling point such as, say, wild animals, should give a circus an edge over any rivals in the vicinity.

But this week finds Britain's only two circuses with exotic animals - Peter Jolly's Circus and Circus Mondao - competing for custom around Chester. Don't these companies, which are both part of the Classical Circus Association, ever talk to each other about their route?

Still, the Chester Chronicle went along to Jolly's and made a nice film of the animals relaxing in the sunshine, and a good interview with big cat trainer Thomas Chipperfield. Click here to watch it.

For more film of Chipperfield in the ring, in rehearsal and in conversation, click here to read my interview with him in the Daily Telegraph and watch a short film by my colleague Jane Hilton.

Click here to read my review of Peter Jolly's Circus.

And for the story of Circus Mondao, which is run by Britain's oldest circus family, read Circus Mania - the Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Jim Fitzpatrick circus animals ban update

Endangered Lion Act
Britain's last big cat act, presented by
Thomas Chipperfield at Peter Jolly's Circus

The question of animals in the circus just won’t go away. With the Government failing to deliver its long-promised - or threatened - Wild Animals in the Circus Bill in the current parliamentary session, Labour backbencher Jim Fitzpatrick hopes to hasten a ban with a private members bill introduced under the ten minute rule on September 3.

The bill was due for a second reading in parliament on Friday but the second reading was postponed until October 17 -  and thanks to an objection by circus-supporting Andrew Rosindell MP, has now been pushed back to November 21 - so if you want your local MP to oppose a ban, get writing to him and her now and let them know you want to support a Great British tradition.

(Click here for 7 November update on the second reading.)

The 10 minute rule allows any MP to propose a piece of legislation for future debate. Most never progress to law, but a rare few do. Since 1945, sixty acts of parliament have become law after originally being introduced under the 10 minute rule. The most recent was the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002.

In most cases, however, MPs know private members bills stand little chance and introduce them purely as a way of gaining publicity for their chosen cause.

In this instance, leading animal rights campaigners Animal Defenders International (ADI) have leapt on Fitzpatrick’s announcement by issuing a press release that says the Government are still fully behind a ban.

Click here to read the 100 year historyof attempts to ban animals from British circuses
According to the release, ADI president Jan Creamer this week received a letter from the Prime Minister which stated, “While the recent Queen’s Speech did not contain the Government’s proposed Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, let me reassure you that it remains our position that the use of wild animal acts in travelling circuses is an outdated practice and that we will introduce a ban as soon as Parliamentary time allows.”

The communication from David Cameron was in response to a letter signed by ADI and 75 celebrity and political campaigners including Eddie Izzard, Julian Clary, Moby, Michaela Strachan, Brian Blessed, conservationist and former MEP Stanley Johnson and social change campaigner Peter Tatchell, urging the Government to bring forward legislation to ban wild animals in circuses. On the day it was presented, in April, the press release claims, the Prime Minister confirmed to the ADI deputation, “We’re going to do it.”

But would ADI be wise to believe anything a politician says when their promises are so often different from their actions?

Update: November 7: Circus Bill blocked again.
Jim Fitzpatrick made another attempt to get his circus bill read again this afternoon. This time it was blocked by another Conservative MP, Christopher Chope. Fitzpatrick will try again on November 21. But is there a limit to the number of times he can keep bringing his bill to Parliament, or will the issue be brought to the Commons and blocked every few weeks from now until the next election? Sounds to me like it's becoming more of a pantomime than a circus...

"Circus Madness"

And can we take anything seriously about an ADI press release? ADI were responsible for the undercover films that led to the conviction of chimp trainer Mary Chipperfield 15 years ago and more recently, Bobby Roberts, who’s groom was filmed abusing Britain’s last circus elephant, Anne.

Tsavo the lion relaxes backstage
at Peter Jolly's Circus - and perhaps wonders
what the animal rights protesters are
on about.
But ADI’s most recent claim, that the big cats on Peter Jolly’s Circus were displaying ‘stereotypic behaviour’ or ‘circus madness’ suggested the only ‘circus madness’ being displayed was in the hysteria of the protesters.

Film shot backstage at Jolly’s showed lions pacing in their cages, but no more than you might expect if they were about to be fed - and it is when the cats are fed, after the evening’s show, that members of the public would be most likely to be wandering backstage with a camera. It also showed one of the lions freely stepping from its “tiny cell” into a generous exercise enclosure.

The ‘expose’ was such a non-story that only one paper, the Daily Express, ran it.

The rest of the ADI press release tried to stir outrage by reporting:

Protest or publicity?
took this picture of animals in the ring
at Peter Jolly's Circus
- Would this image put you off going,
or make you more likely to buy a ticket?
“Animal acts in the ring included a fox being made to ‘ride’ on the back of a donkey, and a ‘parade’ featuring the ankole, camel and zebra. For the big cat act, two tigers and a lion were made to sit on their hind legs and jump between podiums. A tiger was also made to sit upright on a glitter ball, and a lion ‘kiss’ Thomas Chipperfield.

“During the interval, children were invited to ride on the camel and photo opportunities were provided with the snakes. Camels are known to be difficult to handle and transport, and as a result of their size, strength, mobility and aggressiveness, they can be dangerous, with the ability to inflict fatal injuries. Meanwhile, snakes are known carriers of salmonella, which is of particular risk to pregnant women, the elderly and young children – the latter were documented posing with the animals.”

Hang on a minute. A fox riding on a donkey? A parade featuring an ankole, zebra and camel? A lion kissing its trainer? Camel rides for kids and photo opportunities with snakes?

Sounds more like an advert for the circus than a protest against it.

I’d go and see a show that included those things. In fact, I did. Click here to read my review of Peter Jolly’s Circus.

I was brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals was wrong. But when I became fascinated by the bravery of human circus daredevils, and decided to write my book, Circus Mania, I realised I had to go to some of Britain’s last traditional circuses with animals because that’s where the history of the entertainment lay. Read about my experiences in Circus Mania, the book the Mail on Sunday described as “a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Zippos find mermaid in Peterhead

Proving it's still the master of the outdoors publicity stunt, Zippos got themselves in Aberdeen's Evening Express with this great picture of the gang finding a mermaid in a bottle down on the docks ahead of their appearance in Peterhead from today until Sunday.

Mind you, they need all the publicity they can get with two other circuses, Circus Vegas and Continental Circus Berlin also appearing locally.

Click here for Zippos tour dates.

And click here for more on the log jam of circuses currently battling for business in an overcrowded market.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Gerry Cottle says opera is the new circus

The Independent has a new opera critic... in the unlikely form of Gerry Cottle. The irrepressible circus showman had an epiphany after attending the English National Opera's new production of Cosi Fan Tutte, which has a fairground theme. But it was the sheer spectacle of the show that reminded him of being taken to Bertram Mills circus as a child, where he discovered a love of circus that has endured in him to this day.

Circus meets opera in Cosi Fan Tutte
In a glowing review, Cottle writes:

"Cosi Fan Tutte was spectacle, pure and simple: the kind of spectacle that made me join the circus and the kind of spectacle I have been chasing ever since...

"This was a three-ring circus taking place right in front of me and it stirred up so many emotions, with the sets, the scale and the stage-craft making me realise what I have been missing."

Will the ENO inspire Cottle to create his own mixture of opera and circus? With Gerry you just never know!

To read the full review click here.

Gerry Cottle, left, with Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson, centre, and
Dr Haze from the Circus of Horrors
at the launch of Circus Mania
For the story of how Gerry Cottle ran away with the circus and went on to become Britain's best known circus showman, along with the stories of many more showmen, clowns, trapeze artists and tiger trainers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to order Circus Mania from Amazon.

Zippos tour dates in Scotland, Sheffield, London and South East

Man of Steel
Zippos strong man Hercules

Zippos circus have announced their tour dates for the next couple of months. Why can't other travelling circuses do that?

AUCTION MART SITE, ELGIN – 15 July – 20 July
WEST LINKS, BANFF – 21 July – 23 July 
MARKET MUIR, HUNTLY – 25 July – 27 July
FIFE ICE ARENA, KIRKCALDY – 1 August  – 3 August
LOW GREEN, AYR – 8 August – 10 August
ENCLIFFE PARK, SHEFFILED – 13 August – 18 August
HOVE LAWNS, BRIGHTON – 21 August – 2 September 
BARHAM PARK, WEMBLEY – 4 September – 9 September
PECKHAM RYE, PECKHAM – 11 September – 16 September
TWICKENHAM GREEN, TWICKENHAM – 18 September – 23 September
HAMPSTEAD HEATH, HAMPSTEAD – 9 October – 14 October 
Dial-a-Seat tel: 0871 210 2100 (calls cost 10p per minute plus network extras).

Click here to read an interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton.

And for the full story of Zippos and many other circuses from the Chinese State Circus to the Circus of Horrors read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Friday, 4 July 2014

How to run a circus with three decisions in a minute - Zippos circus

Training for Scotland's Commonwealth Youth Circus
But there's more to running a circus than
jumping through hoops.

If you want to run a circus you have to be able to think quickly.

According to Martin Burton of Zippos, his staff can make three decisions in under a minute.

"I have spoken to businessmen who look amazed and say, 'Well, in my company that would take six months to make those three decisions'. Yes, well, learn how to do it. If there's a problem, solve it," says Burton.

"We used to plan ahead. We had planning meetings and planning meetings and planning meetings and then at the last minute, everything would change.

"Then one day I had one of those eureka moments, and I said we are never going to have another planning meeting because we always change at the last minute. So what we are going to do is every senior staff member is going to be taught crisis management."

Burton was speaking to BBC News Scotland for an item about the business side of running a circus that looked Zippos and also the Commonwealth Youth Circus.

Would you like to know more? Click here to read the article online.

And for a really deep look into the running of traditional and contemporary circuses, read Circus Mania, which includes my in depth interviews with showmen such as Martin Burton, Dr Haze (of the Circus of Horrors), Jasper King of the Chippolatas, Brian Austin (Chinese and Moscow State Circuses) and Gerry Cottle; as well as clowns, sword-swallowers, trapeze artists and tiger trainers.

Click here to read the customer reviews on Amazon.