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."

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Giffords Circus HQ for sale

The lounge of circus boss Nell Gifford

Would you like to buy the home of a circus proprietor?

Folly Farm, the HQ of Giffords Circus is on the market for £1.5 million.

In my recent review of Gifford’s Circus - The First Ten Years (read it here) I described how Nell Gifford and husband Toti built their Gloucestershire home on the site of a derelict garden centre.

Today, their two bedroom house comes with an attached practise barn where they created their shows, and 11 acres of paddocks that are home to their circus horses.

“After 14 years we have finally outgrown our home at Folly Farm and are moving our entire HQ to just outside Stroud,” says Nell.

Giffords Circus practise barn
The property is on the market with Butler Sherborn estate agents.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years Book Review

In October 1999, Nell Gifford 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 problem was, Gifford didn’t have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.

Building a circus from scratch in time for Hay-on-Wye took its toll on Nell and her landscape gardener husband, Toti. They ran up a £100,000 debt, had to move out of their rented cottage and slept on the floor of a pub where the landlord gave them free food.

Two engagements on the way to Hay did not improve their financial situation. They couldn’t give tickets away. Their vehicles fell apart on the roadside.

But they dragged their convoy, broke and broken, to the festival to find their three-day stand was sold out. The audience and critics loved them, and a new darling of the circus world was born.

The circus is full of wonderful stories - of magical moments plucked from disaster - and Gifford’s is one of them.

Her previous book, Josser, describes how she ran away with a circus to escape her pain after her mother was brain-damaged in a fall from a horse. Her apprenticeship mucking out horses and elephants on Santus Circus in the 90s was far from glamorous. It was, in her words, “a hard and negative world and a bad time for circus.” But she had seen the flipside of how circus could be presented and appreciated in America’s Circus Flora and Germany’s Roncalli, and she wanted to rebuild the dream world of the big top in her homeland.

Nell Gifford riding high
Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years, relates how she and Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own. Their work ethic is exhausting to read about. The side story of how they transformed a derelict garden centre into their home and winter base - a linked house and practise barn that symbolises how closely their lives and art are entwined - is a tale of hard work and determination in its own right. It’s even more amazing that they did it between trips to Moscow and Hungary in search of performers, and rehearsals in which nobody shared a language.

This beautifully illustrated book delves deeply into both the artistic and practical sides of running a circus.

Inspired by a chanced-upon drawing of a ballerina standing on horseback, Gifford sought out a ballerina and horse to create an act she describes as “A step forward to defining who we were.”
When a rare excursion from Gloucestershire to inner-city Hoxton Square was nearly thwarted in its final yards by a gate too narrow for their vintage wagons into the square, Toti pulled the gatepost from the concrete with his bare hands.

In a circus world fragmented into fifty shades of ‘new’ and ‘traditional,’ Giffords Circus, with its vintage look, tiny tent, horses, dogs and gentrified audience, occupies a niche of one. Gifford traces her artistic vision to memories of a bohemian middle class childhood, before her mother’s accident, where special occasions were always celebrated on a grand scale but everything had to be homemade. Endless food and endless guests. Dressing up. Handmade decorations. Singing. Games.

A visitor described their first show as “Edwardian children playing at circus,” and Gifford took it as a compliment.

Giffords’ style has been dubbed ‘heritage circus.’ But it’s not just circus they’re preserving - it’s a slice of middle England. A rural middle class mindset of country pubs, village greens, fetes, gymkhanas and do-it-yourself fun. “An English world where the pony is childhood.”

It’s no wonder Giffords Circus wowed the patrons of the Hay-on-Wye Festival - bohemian thinkers who would be out of place in the gritty working class environs of Peter Jolly’s Circus (Britain’s last with lions and tigers, and a picket line of animal rights protestors to match) and who probably wouldn’t be totally comfortable with the slick metropolitan aesthetic of Cirque du Soleil either.

It’s funny. When I was writing my own book, Circus Mania, I often found myself comparing audiences as much as shows: different circuses for different classes. On one hand, the appeal of the circus transcends class. But, in England at least, it doesn’t unite the classes. Perhaps in England, it never could. We like to pretend we’re a classless society, but the tribes of class are as rigidly separatist as ever, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a journey through our circus tents. Giffords Circus thrives in the shires where it’s audience shares the same childhood memory of what a circus should be.

Giffords Circus - The First Ten years by Nell Gifford (The History Press)

Giffords Circus barn - one careful owner
For Sale
If you'd like to buy the perfect house to run a circus from, Giffords Circus HQ, Folly Farm has gone on the market for £1.5m. Click here for more.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Peter Jolly's Circus extends stay in Wirral

Roaring success!
Peter Jolly's proves people
love lions

Animal rights protesters have been out in force, stirring up negative headlines in the local paper and picketing the gates every day since Peter Jolly's Circus pitched its tent at Saugham Massie Road in the Wirral. But it's the 'sold out' signs not the protesters that have been turning visitors away.

The sideshow outside
According to PR man Anthony Beckwith, the circus has seen such an "explosion" of interest that it has extended its stay by more than a week until August 10.

Looks like the public wants to see animal acts after all. Either that or, with a mooted ban always hanging over the big top, they know it could be their last chance to see tigers and lions in a British sawdust circle.

The queue that makes
Peter Jolly
Click here to read my review of Peter Jolly's Circus and the last of the British big cats.

It's International Clown Week
Scroll down for clowns!

International Clown Week August 1 - 7, 2018

It's International Clown Week!

For 10 Clown Facts, click here!

For Scary Clowns, click here!

For Britain's funniest clowns, click here!

For the history of clowning, the dynamics of the whiteface and the auguste, and interviews with top clowns Danny Adams and Bippo, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus!

Click here to read the customer reviews on Amazon