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."

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Alex Lacey in circus photo of the month

What a great picture of Alex Lacey, the British star of America's Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus enjoying a cuddle with Mogli the leopard.

Read the story of Alex's tiger-trainer father Martin Lacey and go backstage at his Great British Circus to learn how big cats are trained in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

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

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Brian Conley is PT Barnum

Catch Brian Conley on tour in the musical Barnum. Check your local theatre for dates.

I'll always remember a great piece of improvisation from Conley when I saw him in Elton John's Sunglasses many years ago. As he came on stage, the door fell off. He calmly straightened the failed piece of scenery without comment. Then, as he left the stage at the end of his scene ad-libbed, "And get that door fixed!"

The audience rolled up.

For the true story of PT Barnum and other circus legends from Grimaldi to Leotard and their counterparts today, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Posters of Bertram Mills

My feature on The Posters
of Bertram Mills
The Stage
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 produced the finest artwork. Steven B Richley has gathered more than 350 examples of their designs in a new book, The Posters of Bertram Mills. Read my article on the book, the posters, the artists and the acts exclusively in this week's edition of The Stage.

For more circus art, click here.

Friday, 16 January 2015

These stilts were made for walking

Just came across this illustration of stilt-walking, not as a circus trick, but for navigating swampy terrain. That third stilt looks like an uncomfortable way to take a rest! Or was it a literal manifestation of that old reposte to a demanding taskmaster: "Would you like me to stick a broom up my **** and clean the floor while I'm at it?"

Not my circus, not my monkeys

Did you know that's a Polish expression for "Not my problem!"

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Circus Street

Is it so surprising that the late Chris Christian ran away to join the circus, became a famed ringmaster for Billy Smarts Circus, appeared as the ringmaster in 1960s film Circus of Horrors, and created his own circus family, with Circus Tyanna named after his granddaughter (see post below) when he was born in the prophetically named Circus Street, Greenwich?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Circus Tyanna - The Perfect Circus for a Village Green!

Roll up, roll up... to Circus Tyanna!

I couldn't resist sharing this fantastically atmospheric picture of the Circus Tyanna big top, from their Facebook page. Could there be a more tempting sight to grace a village green on a pleasant evening?

The 2015 Circus Tyanna poster
Look out for it in a town near you
when their new season starts
Circus Tyanna is named after the granddaughter of former Billy Smarts ringmaster, the late Chris Christian, who was immortalised as ringmaster in the 1960 Donald Pleasance film, Circus of Horrors.

Chris' son Todd and his wife Claire founded Circus Tyanna in 2009 to mark their daughter Tyanna's first birthday.

It's a small family show but one dedicated to keeping animals in the circus, hence the notice below, which I also found on their Facebook page. Perhaps it's one all circus owners, bloggers and fans should display and tweet?

Agree? Blog, Facebook or tweet it.

Princess Stephanie of Monaco launches 39th International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo

Princess Stephanie of Monaco (immediate left of the elephant)
launches the 39th International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo.

As the 39th International Circus Festival opens in Monte Carlo, it's good to see the Daily Mail running a big picture spread on circus patron Princess Stephanie's appearance at the launch. Click here to see the pictures of her and the elephant, plus a video interview with the Princess.

Will we ever see the festival, the circus equivalent of the Olympics, televised in the UK, as it is in around 30 other countries? Maybe not while the event champions traditional circus with animals. But perhaps the Mail's picture spread of Princess Stephanie feeding and petting the elephant will help change opinions.

January 17 update: Click here for more pics of Princess Stephanie and her daughter attending opening night in celebrity glossy Hello magazine.

To celebrate the 39th International Circus Festival, click here for 10 Circus Facts!

Cirque Bijou January 2015

Opening the new Cirque Bijou calendar, we find this fabulous picture of a wire-walker high amid the masts and rigging of the SS Great Britain - just one of many projects organised by the Bristol-based company with the small name and penchant for big outdoor events.

For more on Britain's leading circus show-maker, click here.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Raising a glass to 20 years of the Circus of Horrors

Gerry Cottle: "It's not a rock'n'roll show..."

It was good to catch up with Dr Haze, yesterday, for a forthcoming article on 20 years of the Circus of Horrors. I first spoke to Haze when I wrote a chapter on the Horrors in Circus Mania. The show's Hannibal Helmurto also provided a graphic step-by-step guide to swallowing swords.

Haze also came to the book launch of Circus Mania at Circus Space as it then was (now the National Centre for Circus Arts) and posed for the above photo with me (centre) and Horrors co-founder Gerry Cottle (left).

Also in Circus Mania are behind-the-scenes visits and interviews with the stars of the Great British Circus, Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, Circus Mondao, BBC sitcom Big Top, Zippos, the Chinese State Circus and other shows on Britain's diverse circus scene.

The Mail on Sunday called it "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read the 5-star customer reviews on Amazon.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ringling Brothers and Barum and Bailey Advance Clown

Advance Clown Rob Ringling

Reading Jamie MacVicar's enthralling memoir, The Advance Man, it was particularly interesting to read about the adventures of the advance clown, who visits towns ahead of the circus to drum up publicity.

The Advance Man covers a period in the early 70s, but the advance clown is still out there in the form of Rob Lok, alias Rob Ringling.

Rob trained at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the age of 17 and 20 years later is still out on the road, promoting the Greatest Show on Earth.

Click here to read my review of The Advance Man.

For more on clowns, including an interview with Britain's funniest clowns, Clive Webb and Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cirque du Soleil Kooza preview - Royal Albert Hall, January 7 to February 8

There often seem to be battle lines drawn between contemporary and traditional circus, but as Zippo's Martin Burton put it, the choice shouldn't be between old circus and new circus, just good circus and bad circus.

Cirque du 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 - and thus was at the forefront of the division between contemporary theatre-based cirque and traditional big top-set circus styles - and audiences, which are often as different as the shows. So I’m pleased to report that Cirque du Soleil's show Kooza, which comes to London's Royal Albert Hall from January 7 to February 8 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 any big top show.

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 at the movie houses. 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.

To read about my visits to some of the wide variety of circus and cirque shows in Britain today - and to hear the stories of the performers and showmen I met backstage, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.