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, 27 October 2014

Zippos fans want elephants and lions

As the travelling circus season comes to an end, what sort of acts would you like to see in next year’s shows? Zippos asked its patrons that question on its Facebook page and among calls for a human cannonball, tightrope and globe of death, it’s clear that animals remain a priority. Here are some of the replies (each from a different respondent):

Elephants and big cats and maybe some exotics.

“A dog act would be good.”

“Plenty of horses and some lions too please.”

“An elephant would be nice.”


A further 10 of the 32 replies expressed a desire to see again the horses and budgies that are a staple of the Zippos experience. In the chapter on Zippos in my book, Circus Mania, showman Martin Burton said he introduced animals to his circus because of popular demand after ten years of operating as an all-human show. He added he had a policy of featuring only domestic animals, never wild ones. But in a time of a looming ban on wild animals in the circus, it's interesting that the demand to see them is still there from some fans at least.

Zippos Christmas Circus will be at Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park from 21 November to 4 January.

Why Nik Wallenda is no push over

Nik Wallenda
What a man can do on Niagara.

How easy would it be to push a blindfolded man off a tightrope? Not easy at all, if the man's name is Nik Wallenda. To get in practise for the 120mph gusts of wind he faces when walking a wire several hundred feet in the air, the daredevil gets family members to try and make him lose his balance.

"They push me harder and harder and I'll stay on the wire. Never come off. Never," says Wallenda who will be performing his latest stunt this coming Sunday, November 2.

After walking across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, his next sky-walk will span three skyscrapers in Chicago.

The first stage will take him from the 578ft Marina City west tower, across the Chicago River to the 635ft Leo Burnett building - and it will be uphill all the way, with the tight wire rising at a 15-degree angle.

Then, he'll put on a blindfold and walk from the east Marina City tower to the west.

For a member of the world's most famous wire-walking family, he says risk is "just what we do."

What does it take to be a tightrope walker? I asked Alexa Leconte who skips, dances and lies on a wire - at albeit rather lower levels than Wallenda - in Spanish circus troupe Circ Panic. "A level head and a lot of muscle," she answers. Read her story, and those of trapeze artists, clowns, sword-swallowers, tiger trainers and showmen in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Jim Fitzpatrick circus animals ban blocked again in political pantomime - Updated November 28

Political pantomime
Andrew Rosindell MP meets directors of the
former Great British Circus

Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick made another attempt to get his circus bill read in Parliament this afternoon - the sixth time he has tried since September - only to have it blocked by Conservative MP Christopher Chope.

Originally, the attempt to ban wild animals from the circus was blocked by Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, who has professed a personal interest in defending the traditions of the big top. Rosindell was, however, apparently acting with the blessing of the Government. Despite pledging to ban wild animals from the circus from the end of 2015, the Government apparently didn't want to waste time on Fitzpatrick's bill as it would distract from pushing through the EU Referendum Bill. This time it was blocked by another Conservative MP, Christopher Chope.

With the EU Bill having been shelved, it remains to be see whether the Conservatives will be as interested in blocking Fitzpatrick's bill when he makes his sevneth attempt to get it read on December 5.

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...

Click here for more on this story.

And click here for the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Animal welfare or animal rights - the big difference

Can you tell the difference between
these two circus performers?

Read on to see how animal rights groups like to blur it.

After Andrew Rosindell blocked Jim Fitzpatrick’s attempt to get a second reading for his Circus Animals Bill last week, I looked up a YouTube clip of the former shadow minister for Animal Welfare addressing the Commons about the issue on a previous occasion.

From the constant barracking, jeering, laughter and attempted interruptions (par for the course in the Commons, of course) it was clear that no one wanted to hear what sounded like a perfectly reasonable argument by Rosindell in defence of the big top.

His view was that the Government should base its decisions on facts rather than emotions and opinion polls; that he had personally investigated circuses rather than being blindly guided by anti-circus campaigners, and found the animals to be well cared for. He added that we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty, and that it would be more cruel to take circus animals out of the environment where they had been bred than to leave them in a situation they were accustomed to.

That last point prompted another MP to ask whether Rosindell believed third generation African-American slaves were more comfortable with their slavery because they’d been born into it?

The questioner smugly thought he’d played a trump card and so, it seemed, did most of the House.

But in fact, the questioner had pinpointed an issue that he probably wasn’t even aware of, and which is this:

Slaves were people.

Circus animals are animals.

To regard them in the same way is to cross the line between ‘animal welfare’ and ‘animal rights.’

The difference is important, but generally overlooked in the circus animals debate.

Animal rights organisations such as Peta - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - believe animals should have similar or the same rights as humans, i.e. that they shouldn’t be eaten, owned or otherwise exploited. That’s fair enough. But is it a philosophy shared by the 94.5% of people that such groups generally claim oppose the use of animals in the circus?

I would say most people in the civilised world are opposed to cruelty to animals. But I reckon the vast majority consider humans and animals to have very different ‘rights.’ Most of us have no objection to eating meat, wearing clothes made from animal products or owning pets.

Most of us can see the difference between eating an animal and being cruel to it - or owning a pet and being cruel to it. We will happily support laws that prevent farmers being cruel to their livestock, but would we so ready support a law that gives cattle the right not to be eaten?

We’re constantly told by campaigners that the use of animals in the circus is wrong. But is it wrong from an animal welfare point of view - i.e. that the animals are cruelly treated or institutionally suffer in the circus environment? Or is it wrong from an animal rights point of view - i.e. that the animals have the right not to be kept in captivity, trained and exploited for entertainment?

If you believe animals should have the right not to be owned and exploited, go ahead and support a ban on circus animals on ethical grounds. Just be sure that you are committed to not eating meat, buying animal products, riding horses or owning pet cats and dogs - because banning all those things is the next logical step on the grounds that they would all infringe the rights of the animals concerned.

If, on the other hand, you’re happy to eat meat and own a pet, be 100% sure that there are grounds to ban circus animals for reasons of welfare. A scientific study headed by Mike Radford for DEFRA in 2007 concluded that circuses were no less able to meet the welfare needs of their animals than other captive environments such as zoos, while the 2012 prosecution of Bobby Roberts and 1999 conviction of Mary Chipperfield proved we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty within the circus industry, just as we have laws to deal with cruelty by livestock owners without needing to ban the meat trade.

If you are unsure about the welfare of circus animals, I suggest you do what Rosindell did - and what I did while researching my book, Circus Mania - visit a circus, inspect the living conditions and meet the trainers before you make up your mind.

The most important thing, though, is to be clear whether you support a ban on the grounds of animal welfare or animal rights.

Anti-circus campaigners generally blur the distinction because they know nearly everyone supports animal welfare while very few share their view of animal rights.

Understanding the difference means you can be an animal lover and still love the circus.

And what about the positives...
All of the above, of course, looks at the issue from a negative perspective - suggesting that the welfare of circus animals be judged by the absence of cruelty or suffering. But should we actually be talking about the positive aspects of training animals?

Could circus animals benefit from interacting with their trainers? Every dog and cat owner knows that pets enjoy playing with their human companions. Chasing some string or fetching a stick is stimulating and makes them happy. The owner is also enriched by the relationship - the love for a pet and the sense of bereavement when one dies can be as intense as any human relationship. So why should it be any different for a lion and its trainer?

Audiences, and particularly young children, surely also benefit from seeing well-trained circus animals up close. Apart from seeing the animals themselves, seeing the degree to which an animal can think and learn must surely encourage respect for other species.

In wishing to completely segregate animals and humans, and illegalise the relationship between them, it strikes me that animal rights activists have a very different agenda to the animal lovers they appeal to for donations. They seem to me to be more like animal haters.

I understand why people often harbour an instinctive belief that keeping animals in circuses is cruel or distasteful. I was brought up with that belief. When I began writing a book about the circus, it was the daredevilry of the human performers that I wanted to celebrate. I quickly realised, however, that I would have to visit some of the last remaining circuses with animals because that was where I could get a glimpse into the history of the art form. I went along as a sceptic. Indeed, I went looking for signs of cruelty. But I was determined, too, to speak to the trainers and find out the truth. You can read about my journey behind the scenes in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.
Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Eileen Atkins - Why not everyone wants to run away with the circus

Click here for a great story in the Guardian about not quite joining the circus.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Andrew Rosindell MP defends circus animals against "cruel" animal rights activists

Andrew Rosindell MP
speaks up for circus animals

Conservative member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell has explained to his local newspaper the Romford Recorder why he blocked Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick’s circus animals bill in the House of Commons last week.

He told the paper he was “asked” to object by the government, which wants to prioritise the “more important” EU referendum bill, explaining, “If the circus bill goes first, other parties will try and stop the EU bill, that’s why they asked me to put my objection down.”

He added, however, that he was personally against a proposed ban on wild animals in the circus, saying, “There is a very tiny number of animals left in the UK circus and no cruelty. Cruelty existed years ago, it is no longer there.”

Rosindell also hit out at the underlying agenda of animal rights organisations. “They’ll want to ban zoos and wildlife parks next. They will want to it to be illegal to own a dog. Extremist people seem to think any person who does anything with an animal must be cruel. These so called animal rights people, they are the cruel ones.”

Mr Rosindell added that his research shows circus animals have a “rhythm to their lives. There are generations who know nothing else. They get more exercise than they would in a zoo. They treat the trainers as their papa. The kindest thing is to leave them - to do anything else would traumatise them.”

Is the government really in favour of the ban it promised?

The news that Rosindell was instructed by the government to block Fitzpatrick's bills has made anti-circus campaigners realise what the rest of us have know for ages: that politicians have a habit of saying one thing and doing another. Fitzpatrick's private members bill was, after all, designed to hasten a ban the government promised would take effect from the end of 2015 but which it has taken no action to implement.

He said of last week's defeat: “The Prime Minister is on the record as supporting this Bill, which was published by the Government and which I have adopted. I was advised by the relevant Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the Government would support my Bill. However, the Deputy Chief Whip, I am advised, asked Mr. Rosindell to object to the Bill. So with the Government and the Prime Minister saying one thing officially, and the Deputy Chief Whip on behalf of the Government saying and doing something completely to the contrary, how can we clarify what the Government’s position is on a Bill that has all-party support?”

Update: Friday 24 October. 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, Philip Davies. Fitzpatrick will try again on November 7. 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 Mania
author Douglas McPherson
meets one of Britain's last
circus elephants
Read more about the issue of animals in the circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Andrew Rosindell MP fights Jim Fitzpatrick's circus animals ban

Andrew Rosindell MP, right, blocks circus animals ban

Britain's handful of remaining circus animal trainers have been given another brief respite from the threat of an impending ban.

Jim Fitzpatrick's private member's bill to implement a government ban was due for a second reading today but was blocked by Conservative MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell.

The House of Commons was almost deserted - which shows how little interest the circus animals issue is to politicians of any party. (Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently admitted it was low priority)

The Deputy Speaker asked for those in favour and one person spoke - Fitzpatrick himself. She then asked for those against and Rosindell stood up to object - which was all it took. Fitzpatrick apparently took the defeat badly and Madam Deputy Speaker had to shout to regain order.

Rosindell is a long term supporter of the circus. The above photo shows him with Martin Lacey and Helyne Edmonds, directors of the former Great British Circus. The shot appeared in the circus' 2009 programme, in the foreword of which he wrote:

"As the Shadow Minister for Animal Welfare I am proud to be associated with one of Britain's biggest and best animal circuses. The Great British Circus is a wonderful traditional day out."

Martin Lacey's retirement means the Great British Circus is no longer with us. But the threat of a ban has not gone away.

Click here to read Andrew Rosindell's explanation of his objection to the circus animals bill.

Update: 17 December
Jim Fitzpatrick's bill has now been blocked seven times. He will try again January 9. 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...

Read about my visit to the Great British Circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Click here to read the 100-year history of attempts to ban animals from the circus.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Danny Adams - Does a clown need a red nose?

It looks like Britain's funniest clown, Danny Adams, has dispensed with his red nose, white lip and the rest of his clown make-up. But who needs a red nose to be funny when you've got an enormous... leaf blower with a toilet roll on the end!

Welsh comedy fans are in for a treat when Danny and his dad, Clive Webb, make a one-off appearance at the New Theatre, Cardiff, on October 27. Click here for my review of their truly hilarious Cirque du Hilarious show.

For more on the great debate of whether clowns should wear make-up or whether it scares the kids, read Circus Mania - my behind-the-scenes journey through the big tops of the British circus scene. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon
Oh yes, and Circus Mania even has a full chapter on Danny and Clive, including the story behind their leaf-blower gag and other routines. 

Sawdust sights - Zippos in London

Great picture from Zippos. See them in Barham Park, Wembley, tonight and tomorrow, then on Hampstead Heath October 9 - 14.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Fire-eater sets himself alight in circus accident

When circus stunts go wrong

This is the moment when fire-eater Ilya Golubev burped during a performance in Russia. The spilled paraffin set his face on fire and then his hands as he tried to beat out the flames.

Amazingly, he finished his act before being rushed to hospital where he was treated for severe burns.

Click here for film of the accident.

For more proof of the danger faced every day by circus performers, read Circus Mania - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Eva Garcia
She lived and died
in the ring.
The book was inspired by my meeting with aerialist Eva Garcia, just days before she fell and died during a show at the historic Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

As my backstage journey through the circus world continued, I heard more tales of death in the ring, including that of Neville Campbell who fell from a Wheel of Death during a Christmas show at the Blackpool Tower Circus.

Campbell was the godson of Circus of Horrors founder Dr Haze, and a chapter on the Horrors includes an account of how to swallow a sword by fakir Hannibal Helmurto - and a graphic description of how easily the act can go wrong: "I perforated my oesophagus and ended up in hospital for three weeks without any form of food or drink."

There's also an account of a fire-eating stunt that went wrong during an audition.

Click here to read about the death of Eva Garcia in an extract from Circus Mania.

Think of Eva next time you go to the circus, remember that the danger you see is real... and that everything could go wrong at any moment.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Life of a clown

Further to my previous post on the Circus Federation's photo competition winner, here's a backstage shot at Mr Fip's Wonder Circus that I think really captures the atmosphere of life in the big top. Pictured are two generations of clown, 75-year-old Karl Brenner, aka Charlie the Clown, and his son Jan Erik Brenner - Mr Fips. Dig those clown shoes, Mr Fips!

The picture was taken by Mary Turner, who's photo story on Mr Fip's Wonder Circus appeared in the Daily Mail earlier this year. Click here to see it.

Click here for 10 Clown Facts.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Circus picture of the year?

Here’s the winning picture, by Dutch coach and choreographer Vincent Michels, in this year’s Federation Mondiale du Cirque’s photography contest for which the theme was World Circus Day.

The striking zebra-striped image was chosen from 115 entries from 19 countries. But could it have been better?

To my eyes, the matching costume and tablecloth effectively blends the imagery of traditional animal circuses with the look of more contemporary human-skills-based forms. Personally, though, I think the picture's impact could have been intensified by cropping it along the top of the table and down the right-hand table leg, or even along the innermost table legs to left and right. The bottom margin would also benefit from being cropped at the edge of the mat. The black rectangle above the table, the glimpse of background to the right and the strip of floor to the front add nothing, and provide a needless distraction. By focusing exclusively on the contortionist and the zebra-print tablecloth the stripy motif would be emphasised and the image would be more ambiguous - teasing us with the illusion that the contortionist was performing beneath or between some real zebras.

Having not seen the runners up, I'm not knocking the judges' decision. I'm just saying. But the photo will be used on the cover of the Federation's 2015 calendar, so there's still time for the picture to be cropped. Trust me, guys, you'll improve it if you do.

The contortionist is Li Ling, a student at the private acrobatics school Corpus 
Acrobatics and the shot was taken at the World Circus Day celebration hosted by De Leeuw Circus Events in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in April 2014.

My pick from last
year's runners up.
Click here for last year's winner.

Cirque du Soleil's Kooza Preview - Royal Albert Hall Jan 7 - Feb 8

My previous post on Mr Fips Wonder Circus highlighted the division between circus and cirque, the former term being associated with traditional, family-friendly big top shows and the latter with contemporary or progressive theatre-based productions.

It’s a fluid division, of course, and not a battle line. Showman Martin Burton presents Cirque Berserk alongside his traditional Zippos circus and argues that the important question isn’t whether circus is old or new but good or bad.

Katherine Kavanagh, who reviews a tremendous quantity and variety of circus shows on her blog The Circus Diaries rightly commented that shows with cirque in the title can be as accessible as those with circus, and vice versa.

Katherine also mentioned Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, which comes to London's Royal Albert Hall from January 7 to February 8. Soleil was largely responsible for the rise of the term cirque and its adoption by a proliferation of companies hoping to grab a little of Soleil’s thunder. So I’m pleased to report that Kooza not only asserts Soleil’s supremacy atop the tree of cirque but is a very accessible and circusy show.

It’s a pity Soleil won’t be pitching the big top - or Grand Chapiteau - of its American travels in Hyde Park, although the in-the-round setting of the Royal Albert Hall is perfect for circus, and circus buildings actually pre-date tents, recalling the atmosphere of Astley’s Amphitheatre in the early 19th century.

A pity, too, that (as far as I know) they won’t be bringing superstar juggler Anthony Gatto who seems to have done that most un-superstar-like thing and retired at the peak of his powers.

But Kooza has many thrills still to offer, including a three-person human pyramid on bicycles on a high-wire; a wheel of death and some charismatic solo trapeze from Darya Vintilova (in the States at least; I guess the cast may change).

On the ground, meanwhile, there’s a charming double act on a single unicycle that works both as ballet - the depiction of a romance between the characters - and gymnastics: the girl standing on the male unicyclist’s head.

Kooza - check your pockets before you leave.
The highlight is a clown pickpocket routine originated by Michael Halvarson. While Soleil is great at doing ‘big,’ it’s compelling to watch a ‘close-up’ act where we can see how the volunteer’s tie is removed with out him realising.

The routine is slickly scripted, with sly lines like “You’re a waste bin, my friend,” as some scrap paper is returned to the victim, and the punch-line: “Don’t forget your Viagra!”

The sketch ends with an exploding police wagon and disappearing trick that would fit perfectly into Mr Fips Wonder Circus.

So yes, cirque can be as accessible as circus.

The only trouble is, having watched all the best bits on YouTube, would I drive 100 miles each way to spend an evening in the Albert Hall?

(And you thought I'd seen it America, didn't you...?)

Big Apple on the Big Screen

Which brings me to New York’s Big Apple Circus. On November 8, the Apple streamed its show live to cinemas across America. US blogger Showbiz David found himself watching it in a near deserted cinema in California, as did his brother in Utah.

In a country as big as America the broadcast offered circus fans a fantastic opportunity to see a show that would normally cost them a tremendous amount in airfares and hotel accommodation - so it's hard to know why so few turned up. Maybe it just wasn't promoted enough and nobody knew about it.

It would be wonderful if the Big Apple extended the favour to the rest of the world. Perhaps the organisers of UK circus festivals should consider augmenting their programmes of visiting acts with live cinema shows of circuses from around the world, letting us watch the gold acts of Monte Carlo, the elephants of Ringling or, indeed, Soleil in Las Vegas.

But can watching a circus in a cinema, or at home on a DVD or YouTube, be as good as sitting ringside? Or could it even be better?

The atmosphere of a big top, with grass under foot and popcorn in the air, has to be experienced first hand. But multiple camera angles and close-ups can offer a better view than the best seat in the house.

The Kooza pickpocket, for example, was enthralling for me because on screen in close-up I could see everything so clearly. Would I have been able to follow the routine as closely from a side seat ten rows back?

Darya Vintilova’s trapeze act was enhanced by the sudden close-ups of her face that let us see the exhilaration in her eyes.

Click here forreview
Circus acts are by their nature often too fast for the eye to fully catch, so might there be a place for the slow-motion action replay? I’ve seen many flying trapeze acts, for example, but watching from the ground has never matched the drama of the trapeze scenes in the (fictional) movie Trapeze, where we’re given a real sense of vertigo.

Finally, while experiencing a show in person may be more atmospheric, not all atmosphere is good atmosphere. Take the ‘atmosphere’ of a tall person sat directly in front of you, a noisy eater to your side and a coughing kid behind you, and the distraction of people fiddling about with their brightly lit phones. How about the queue for the loos and scramble for over-priced refreshments? Or the traffic jam at the car park?

Douglas McPherson
Frankly, he'd rather be at home...
One advantage of traditional circus is that the big top comes to your local town or village. You may not see the biggest or best acts, but you can park easily or go on foot and prices tend to be on the low side, whereas most cirque shows necessitate a trip to a bigger town or city with its attendant cost and bother.

At home, though, you get the best acts in the world without the crowds or hassle and, dare I say it, a volume control and fast forward button - things I often sorely wish for when I’m reviewing shows in person.

Cirque or circus, live or on screen. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, more that they all have advantages and disadvantages, and they all have a role to play in making all our days circus days.

Read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.