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."

Sunday, 30 November 2014

10 Circus Books for Circus250!

Mabel Stark tussles with a tiger
- a picture of the real life Mabel Stark
from Robert Hough's novel

The circus was invented 250 years ago this year! Join the Circus250 celebrations by reading one of these books!


From cooch dancer to tiger-wrestling star of the Greatest Show on Earth, with half a dozen husbands along the way, the real life of Ringling legend Mabel Stark provides plenty of material for Robert Hough’s novel. But, written like a memoir, this work of imagination probably brings the golden age of the American circus more thrillingly to life than any factual account. The descriptions of life in the big cat cage, Stark’s many maulings and her relationship with her favourite kitty, Rajah, are especially vivid and convincing - informed, as they are, by some letters about her work that Stark wrote to circus writer Earl Chapin May in preparation for a ghost-written autobiography that never materialised.

From the era to the circus trains and the animal training - and even the structure, which flashes back and forth between Stark's older and younger self - there are parallels with Water For Elephants. But this is a far, far better book, not least due to Hough’s glorious evocation of Stark’s spunky, spiky voice which snaps and snarls from every line.


The poster has always been the primary means of publicising a circus. Billed as the Quality Show and the show that put the 'O' in Olympia,  Bertram Mills was Britain's biggest and most famous circus in the first half of the 20th century and they produced the finest artwork. Often every act on the bill would have its own poster, painted by some of the best regarded artists of the day, meaning a town could be blanketed with arresting images. In 1960 alone, Bertram Mills printed more than 60,000 posters. And what became of them? Most were simply ripped down and thrown away when the circus left town, meaning surviving examples now command big sums. You'd have to be a millionaire to collect all the designs in this handsome coffee table book which makes it both a visual delight and a complete snip at under £40 including postage. Order from

GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years
by Nell Gifford

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.
In Gifford's previous book Josser (by Nell Stroud, as she then was) she described her apprenticeship as a circus runaway. This beautifully illustrated follow-up tells how she and husband Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own - and one of the most successful of the past decade.
Click here to read my full review.

My Life With Lions by Martin Lacey

It was a visit to Martin Lacey's Great British Circus in 2009 that prompted my book Circus Mania. I’d already become fascinated with the daredevil lives of human circus performers and had written several articles on the subject. But when  Lacey reintroduced elephants to a British circus for the first time in a decade, they called to me with the promise of a glimpse into the history of the art form. The highlight of my visit was watching Lacey in the cage with his Bengal tigers and it was as I sat ringside that I realised I had to document a traditional form or entertainment that was - and still is - in danger of being killed off in the land of its creation. Sadly, Lacey is retired now, but this slim hardback book provides a concise and colourful account of his more than 40 years of working with animals of all kinds. Best of all is a 140-page collection of photos of Lacey and his family with not just lions, but polar bears, zebra, camels, elephants and even a rhino.
Click here to read my full review.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOWMAN - My Life in the Circus by Gerry Cottle

From running away with the circus at 15-years-old to running several of Britain’s biggest big top shows, few have lived the circus life as fully as Gerry Cottle and I have met no one with a greater passion for the sawdust and canvas theatre. This candid memoir provides a fascinating look at the inside workings of the circus industry while entertaining with all the pace, daring-do and belly laughs of any show ever presented by Britain’s Barnum.

THE ADVANCE MAN by Jamie MacVicar

It doesn't matter how good a show is if there's no audience to see it. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - plays in arenas that hold 12,000 to 20,000 people and the job of filling those seats falls to promoters such as Jamie MacVicar - advance men who arrive in a city two or three months before the circus train arrives and strive to ensure it's greeted by a snowstorm of publicity.
MacVicar's account of his time promoting the circus in the early 70s reads more like a novel - at times a thriller - than a memoir as he takes us into offices where deals are cut, backstage as tickets are counted, and out on publicity stunts with the advance clown and Michu, the Smallest Man in the World. Click here for a full review.

THE SHOWMAN'S GIRL by Julia Douglas

When Emily runs away with the circus in the 1930s, she enters a magical world of perilous adventures, intense friendships and deep passions. Growing up in the big top, she admires from afar the charismatic showman Adam Strand. But Adam is torn between his wife, Jayne, a daredevil tight-wire walker and Molly the elephant trainer who's always carried a torch for him. Emily becomes a star, but will she ever be able to tell Adam how she really feels?
Click here to read this atmospheric big top romance on your Kindle - or pick up the large print version in your local library.


If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the 8-14-year-old girl in your life, look no further than the Olivia books by Guardian theatre critic-turned-author Lyn Gardner. Beginning with Olivia’s First Term, the six books follow the adventures of two circus girls - Olivia and her younger sister Eel - who are billeted at their grandmother’s London stage school while their dad Jack, the Great Marvello, busies himself with such stunts as walking a high-wire between the towers of Tower Bridge.
With a huge cast of characters, the books convey all the excitement of a school where students are daily called to auditions, appear in West End shows and pursue careers as pop singers.
On top of all this there are plenty of thrills as Olivia uses her tightrope skills to foil villains and rescue her pals from peril. Click here for more.

INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS by David Lewis Hammarstrom
(Bear Manor Media)

Like a modern day Earl Chapin May, David Lewis Hammarstrom guides us through the American circus as it exists now. Things have changed from the glory days when Mabel Stark ruled the centre ring, with the Ringling Brothers having become the “Ringless Brothers” since moving out of big tops “that you could almost feel breathing in and out,” and into indoor arenas “as exciting to behold as an abandoned airstrip in the Nevada desert.” Alternately bubbling with enthusiasm and seething with frustration, Hammarstrom is rare among circus writers in pointing out the rubbish, rip-offs and peanut pitches alongside the wonderful in his quest to make you “a more discriminating circus fan.”

CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
(Peter Owen)

Modesty forbids me saying too much about my own book, so let’s leave it to Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday“Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Click on the above tabs to read an extract or click on the book cover above right, go to the Amazon page and reader some of the 5-star reader reviews.

The new, 2nd Edition, updated for Circus250, is out now!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Circus rhino takes a walk in Germany

Pick your caption:
"Look left, look right... and if you see a rhino..."
Pedestrian: "I thought this was a zebra crossing."

Poor old circus staff, they just can't win. Normally they're accused of keeping animals confined. But if they take their rhino out for a breath of fresh air...

According to news reports, the staff of Circus Voyage were given a stiff telling off by police after taking a 32-year-old, 2.5 tonne rhino named Hulk for a walk to a local park without a lead or restraint when the big top pitched up in the German town of Luckenwald.

According to keepers, the rhino is completely tame and unlikely to harm anyone.

But how much do they charge for admission, that's what I'd like to know.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Advance Man by Jamie MacVicar - Book review - an inside account of promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus

Most circus memoirs are written by performers or showmen. But it doesn’t matter how good a show is if there’s no audience to see it.

Jamie MacVicar’s book lifts the lid on the life of the promotions men who travel to cities two or three months ahead of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to make sure arenas that hold 12,000 or 20,000 people are packed night after night for the arrival of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The suit-clad advance men may not be as glamorous as the grease-painted performers, but their work is every bit as high stakes and just as skilled. Their job is not just to buy TV, radio, print and billboard advertising, but to multiply the effect of their cash spend by trading tickets for additional ads and arranging promotions that result in a snowstorm of publicity.

MacVicar shows us this world of modern day hucksterism through the eyes of an ambitious trainee and as his narrative unfolds day-by-day, scene-by-scene and conversation-by-conversation, The Advance Man reads more like a novel than a memoir.

Weaving an atmosphere of immediacy rather than reflection, he gives us the sense of being in the office with these guys as deals are hammered out; in windowless backstage rooms as tickets are counted; and in his “beyond seedy” room at the Piccadilly Inn where the relentless pressure builds.

The book appeals on many levels. Circus fans will enjoy visiting backstage where MacVicar carries Michu, the smallest man in the world, to interviews and gets charmed into giving free tickets to the actor Cary Grant.

Anyone interested in sales and marketing - and anyone charged with promoting a circus today - will get a master class in the nuts and bolts of the game.

There’s also a gripping human story here as the young MacVicar’s endless drive eventually propels him to risk his sanity for his “numbers,” the way the high-wire walkers and lion tamers wager their physical being for applause. And, just like the performers in the ring, for the advance man there’s no safety net.

In any book, it’s not so much the story as the way it’s written that creates a satisfying read and it’s in this area that MacVicar delivers with the zeal that drove him during his time with Ringling.

He goes beyond his personal memories to provide us with well-researched digressions into the history of the show’s founders, the Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum; and some of its stars from Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, to Gargantua, the fabled gorilla.

We get a lengthy reflection on the lives of a previous generation of advance men at the dawn of the 20th century - “Would we have been able to adapt to each other’s world? I’d never know. Would we have liked one another? Undeniably.”

There are also insightful passages on small town life, suburbia and the inner city - all viewed by a traveller not sure if he wants to belong or is glad he doesn’t. Such moments give this book depth and, in places, a kind of poetry. They make it more than a book about the circus but a book about America, with a coming-of-age story thrown in. I was reminded of Steinbeck.

Click here to order The Advance Man from Amazon.

And click here to read an interview with Jamie McVicar about how he wrote The Advance Man.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Dick Whittington screened live from Bristol Hippodrome to your local cinema

Ashleigh and Pudsey
Panto stars coming to cinema screens
December 7

Earlier this month, America's Big Apple Circus made history - or rather, missed its chance to make history - by broadcasting its show live from New York to cinemas across America.

Sadly, as reported on the Showbiz David blog, hardly anyone showed up in the movie houses to see the show. In the cinemas attended by Showbiz, his family and friends, ticket-buyers were outnumbered by the usherettes. And there were plenty of empty seats up on the big screen. The BAC couldn't even fill its tent before putting it on display for the world.

Presumably, it will be a while before another circus repeats the experiment, although it's not entirely without precedent.

As chronicled in my book Circus Mania, Gerry Cottle's fame in the 1980s rests in no small part on the fact that the BBC televised a Saturday night variety show from his big top every week, mixing circus acts with the singing stars of the era. Other more established circuses had apparently been offered the gig but turned it down. They didn't want to surrender their tent on the most profitable night of the week in exchange for the fee the Beeb offered.

What the old circus families couldn't see, but the young and hungry Cottle could, is that the fee was immaterial compared with the publicity. The TV exposure helped Cottle become the most famous and successful showman of his era - and what was to stop him taking a second tent out on the road on Saturdays?

Jump back to the present and, although not a circus, it's interesting to learn that the Bristol Hippodrome is following in the Big Apple's clown shoes by broadcasting it's pantomime, Dick Whittington, to cinemas across Britain on December 7. The cast includes Ashleigh and Pudsey, the dancing dog act that came to fame on Britain's Got Talent and Mr Bloom from children's TV programme CBeebies.

Clive and Danny
Clowns and panto
One thing's for sure: I doubt there will be any empty seats on screen. While I've often been in a circus tent more empty than full I've never attended press night at a pantomime and found it anything but sold out. And they don't fill the theatres with comped seats, either. In many regional theatres panto is so popular the annual show pays for the venue to stay open the rest of the year.

Could the circus learn something there, such as casting bankable names famous from TV? Maybe, maybe not. At the Theatre Royal in Newcastle they stopped casting minor celebs when they realised that for the past ten years the big draw was father and son clowns Clive Webb and Danny Adams - perhaps the only true stars on the British circus scene.

If you've never seen them, take a look at this YouTube clip to see just how funny they are.

But, given that panto relies even more than circus on audience participation and the experience of "being there" in an excitable crowd, will Dick Whittington be able to break through a cinema screen and work up a multiplex crowd into shouting "He's behind you!"

Did you know clowns are nicknamed Joeys after Victorian funny-man Joseph Grimaldi? And that although joeys are synonymous with the circus, Grimaldi never performed in a circus - he was a pantomime star.
For a full chapter on Britain's funniest clowns, Clive Webb and Danny Adams, plus much on the history and dynamics of clowning, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Has the new worn off new circus? Michael Billington of the Guardian gives La Soiree a lukewarm review

La Soiree

Do you prefer old circus or new? Reviewing the circus-cabaret-burlesque hybrid La Soiree - now in its tenth season in a Speigeltent on  London's Southbank - the Guardian's Michael Billington found himself missing the older style of circus:

"I loved the show’s more daring physical acts. But, although people deride the old-style circus for its exploitation of animals and variety theatre for its tat, they both had a poetry and grace somewhat lacking in this frenetically kaleidoscopic spectacle."

Could it be that 24 years after Cirque du Soleil first visited London, the new is wearing off new circus and the pendulum of taste is swinging back to the traditional sawdust ring?

Read the Guardian's review here.

And for a journey through all the many styles of circus in the UK today - including traditional big top shows with tigers and elephants; circus and ice-skating spectaculars; the cringe-inducing Circus of Horrors; the Butlins-based Cirque du Hilarious; the Speigeltent-set contemporary circus of Circa; and the ancient eastern wonders of the Chinese State Circus - read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to read the reviews.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thomas Chipperfield in The Times: "If they ban circus lions, pet cats will be next."

Why is most press coverage of traditional circuses dominated by the views of animal rights organisations, with usually just an apologetic comment by the circus tagged on for the sake of 'balance'?

The simple reason is that animal rights groups bombard the papers with press releases setting out their side of the story, so their protest becomes the story.

Sadly, the circus industry seems to have lost the ability to take the initiative and generate positive stories.

The good news is that one man, Thomas Chipperfield, seems determined to reverse the trend, as evidenced by an outspoken opinion piece in today's issue of The Times.

Prominently situated in a spot normally occupied by foreign prime ministers, economists, church leaders and other political heavyweights, Britain's last lion trainer highlights the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. He spotlights the real issues in the debate over wild animals in the circus and defends calls for a ban on both welfare and ethical grounds.

The headline is If they ban circus lions, pet cats will be next.

Read all about it in today's Times and online here.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Jim Fitzpatick's wild animals in circus ban blocked until January 9

Britain's last circus lions
wintering in Scotland while threat of a
ban rumbles on.

****December update****

Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick made another attempt to get his circus bill read in Parliament this afternoon - the seventh 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 eighth attempt to get it read on 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...

Click here for more on this story.

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

Thomas Chipperfield big cats in Scotland

The Lions in Winter
Thomas Chipperfield and big cats
in Scotland

On the day Jim Fitzpatrick brought his Wild Animals in Circuses bill back to the Commons for a third attempt to hasten a ban, it's a shame to see the Daily Mirror latching on to a non-story of claims by animal rights campaigners Born Free that Britain's last circus big cats are suffering in their winter home.

"Prodded with sticks and caged in Misery" screams the online headline. The accompanying picture (above), meanwhile, shows Britain's last big cat trainer Thomas Chipperfield not "prodding" a lion but feeding a healthy and contented-looking animal with a titbit on the end of a stick - which, as anyone who has ever seen a circus will know, is how you reward them during training and performance.

The story centres on the fact that Chipperfield and his animals are wintering on a "desolate" farm in Scotland.

Anna Wade of Born Free apparently went along "undercover." This wouldn't have been hard. The simple fact is that news Chipperfield was staying at the farm - known at the Circus High School - spread like wildfire around the local area. Hundreds of people began turning up to take a look at the big cats and Chipperfield has a policy of simply letting in anyone anyone who comes along.

Crowds view the big cats at their
winter quarters
When I spoke to him on the phone recently, he said this was because he had nothing to hide and if people are curious about his animals he's happy to spend time showing them around and answering their questions.

The Mirror reported that the animals' living conditions had been approved by the local authority. But it's a shame they didn't go along to see for themselves and perhaps write a more positive piece about a young man trying to keep alive a vanishing tradition while opening the doors on his profession to show that nothing is amiss behind the scenes.

Anna Ward was obviously shocked by what she found, but then I doubt if she would enjoy seeing animals in a circus or zoo. She and Born Free are, of course, entitled to their opinion but the danger with this kind of reporting is that opinion can very easily be perceived by readers as fact, when it is just one view. Other views are available, but in this instance don't seem to have been sought or given.

For more on the agenda of animal rights organisations, click here.

Everyone else who went along seems to have enjoyed a chance to see - free of charge, (although donations are welcome, and why not, since big cats are expensive to keep) - some well-cared for lions and tigers.

Although the story was obviously broken in an attempt to support Jim Fitzpatrick's proposed ban, it failed to stop a second reading of his bill being blocked once again. Fitzpatrick will bring the issue before the Commons again on November 21. For more on the story, click here.

Click here to read my interview with Thomas Chipperfield in The Daily Telegraph.