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."

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Bobbo Roberts: 30 Years a Clown (Part 1)

Bobbo by the river (Photo: Mike Brittain)

Bobbo Roberts has been a clown since he was 13-years-old. He comes from one of the world’s oldest circus families but combines a sense of tradition with an eye to the future. As well as circus rings, he’s worked in burlesque clubs and in 2015 made a guest appearance in Simon Thompson’s ‘clown noir’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love, Labour, Lost at the Britannia Panoptican, Glasgow. 

In the first part of a two-part interview, he tells us about his 30 years as a clown.

Did you always want to be a clown?

When I started in the business I had mentors in all of the circus arts willing to teach me. That’s one of the advantages of being born into the profession. I tried presenting horses at first, but doing the same structured act every time wasn't for me and I started mucking about and milking laughs from the audience. I did a dog act with a little comedy in it, thinking that'd be enough but the act still required structure as you can't really go off script too far with dogs. They're very intelligent animals but aren't the best at improv comedy. I even tried a goose act at one point. One day my dad took me to one side and said "It's obvious you lack the discipline in the ring for these acts, if you really want to clown about and get laughs why don't you go talk to your uncle Jack (Fossett) and see if he can make a clown of you."

Passing on the tradition
Bobbo's father Bobby Roberts with Jacko Fossett
and Jon Fossett in 1958
Who taught you the most about clowning?

From an early age I had a love of music hall as well as circus clowning and it's hard to pick one clown who Influenced me. The Rastelli Clowns were the first to put me in makeup, Jacko Fossett took me under his wing and around the world, David Konyot helped me grow as a performer and develop a more subtle make-up. I worked with Karl Brenner for 2 seasons learning how to get maximum laughs out of a bucket of slosh. Alongside working with all these pros I kept researching all types of clowning, watching clowns from European circus, big American shows but also the clowns of the stage: George Carl, Ed Wynne, Harry Langdon; and the silent movie clowns, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Harold Lloyd. The thing about clowning is you have to be yourself, you can't be someone else. I've always believed if you do what makes you laugh and bring the audience along with you it's more true. So I seek out all comedy clowning and otherwise, and whilst I'm not a clone of anyone, everyone who has made me laugh has influenced me in some way.

Bobbo with the (fairly) big cats
on Peter Jolly's Circus last year
How would you describe your look and style of clowning?

The look has changed a lot over the years. Most clowns start out with a full face of slap and as they grow as performers it become less of a mask and more of a window. My style has changed as my confidence grew along with my makeup. Experience teaches you a lot. Yes, you can get a laugh from pouring a bucket of slosh down your trousers but you can get massive laughs from a well timed look once you can read your audience. My current look is referred to by some as European style auguste, personally I refer to him as Bobbo. My style is constantly growing as I grow. I'd say Bobbo is currently a clown out of his time, an innocent born of the 1930s era, equal parts music hall and circus. He's everybodys best mate and wants everyone to enjoy themselves as much as he does.

Where do you buy things like your clown boots and make-up?

Prada and Louis Vitton, but mostly Oxfam. No, seriously, it used to be a struggle to get decent costumes and boots, you'd have to pester people who can sew on the show. Nowadays you only have to go to Google and type clown boots and you'll have pages of results come up. I still like to look around charity shops, though, as I like to look different. Some things are ready to wear some may need adjusting but everything will be unique.

What do you most enjoy about clowning?

Making someone smile. It's corny but true. Clowning is a form of theatre where the fourth wall doesn't get broken; it's never built in the first place. You interact with your audience. You don't perform to them, you conspire with them. Not a lot of performers get that level of intimacy with their audiences. Most artists with a skill based act can repeat a fluffed move to rapturous applause, a clown gets one chance to get to the punch-line or he's blown the gag. The audience will really take you into their hearts and that's a lovely feeling.

In Part 2 of his interview, Bobbo offers his thoughts on what it takes to be a clown and how he sees the future of clowning in Britain, in circuses and elsewhere. Click here to read it.

You'll also find Bobbo in the new updated edition of CIRCUS MANIA! Click here to buy from Amazon.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Hopelessly Hollywood Book Review

“Call me a sucker for Hollywood mythology,” writes David H. Lewis. And if you feel the same way, you’ll be charmed by Hopelessly Hollywood, his colourful memoir about a young man’s efforts to make it big in Tinsel Town.

Just a flip through the photo selection drew me in. Who wouldn’t be captivated by the sight of the Pan Pacific Auditorium - shaped like an ocean liner complete with funnels - where Lewis competed in a roller-skating tournament as a boy.

Growing up in the I Love Lucy era, Lewis says, “Hollywood cast a spell over me when I could barely walk.” He lived fifty miles from San Francisco in Santa Rosa, an unspoilt piece of small town America that was often used for location filming, and the opportunity as a young man to be an extra in the Bette Davis film Storm Centre cemented the showbiz dream in his heart.

Before long, he was living in LA, where he paints a vivid picture of an aspiring acting community sweltering in the heat by day and chilling by evening in the cool breeze on the pier.

In the faded grandeur of the Halifax Apartments on Yucca Street, “once home to top line entertainers from silent film stars to opera queens” were now “hordes of aging holdouts and young blurry-eyed believers in great American dreams.”

Despite Hollywood’s association with the silver screen, Lewis’ dreams weren’t of movie stardom but of penning a Broadway musical. Los Angeles was also a theatre town. “There were dozens of small theatres, a good many in walking distance of where I lived.” There was also a bottomless pool of acting, composing and producing talent with everyone desperate to be part of any show that might get a review and lead to bigger things - even if that meant working for free or paying for the privilege.

Lewis is also the author of Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History. But he’s best known today as America’s foremost commentator on the world of circus. He blogs on the subject as Showbiz David and has written several books on the big top including, most recently, Inside The Changing Circus (penned as David Lewis Hammarstrom).

So it’s no surprise that he pinned his Broadway dreams to a show about the origins of the Ringling Brothers Circus called Those Ringlings.

Lewis takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the staging of his first show at the 58-seat Actor’s Playhouse: the artistic differences, the thrill of a rave review in Variety - “Tears came streaming down my face” - and the subsequent come down of playing to empty seats.

“Have a good LA reality check laugh on me,” he invites us, ruefully.

But in Hollywood, dreams never die; not completely. “You allow yourself another chance, it just keeps going.”

Lewis is a prose stylist with a voice that sizzles on the page. His rich style is perfectly suited to the self-hyping world he describes and makes it easy to imagine how the dialogue in Those Ringlings must have danced. His song titles make me wish I’d been there on opening night.

I hope the show will one day find a new commercial life. (See how easy it is to be caught up in the great Hollywood “maybe...”?)

Lewis is a Hollywood survivor. But woven through his book, and providing its real emotional punch, is a genuine Tinsel Town tragedy in the story of his early collaborator and lifelong friend Mike Kohl.

It’s clear that Mike’s problems were within himself. Hollywood was the backdrop to his downward spiral, not necessarily its cause. Mike’s story nevertheless symbolises the fate of many Hollywood dreams.

Most showbiz memoirs focus on success stories, obscuring the fact that stardom is actually attained by very few. Lewis’ book shows us the reality for the majority who reach for stars that appear closer than they are. Yet such is the passion of the author and the other characters in the tale that even the broken dreams and broken dreamers have a sheen of glamour.

Ultimately, Lewis’ strength is his ability to see through the fantasy without losing sight of it. He’s both clear-eyed cynic and starry-eyed believer, often in the same sentence. If you’ve ever dared to dream, you’ll be with him all the way.

Hopelessly Hollywood by David H. Lewis is available from Amazon.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Has New Circus Run It's Course? Circa at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival

Out in sunny California, circus blogger Showbiz David calls the arty end of circus 'big top brocolli.' I had a plateful at the weekend, but did it do me good?

Read my review of What Will Have Been by Australian ensemble Circa at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival this week, in The Stage, or read it online here. (You may have to register, but it's free.)

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Sustainable Circus to travel Scotland by horse

In an interesting twist on the debate over animals in circuses, a new company, The Travellers of Elsewhere will be using horses to pull their wagons on a 200 mile tour of Scotland in July.

The company will also use solar power for electricity in a show that will mix circus tricks, storytelling and music to put across a message of sustainable living, a green lifestyle and tree-planting.

They could end up travelling by shanks' pony, however. At the moment they have raised enough money through crowd funding to buy one horse and cart and are hoping to raise enough for another two horses... but will go through with the tour even if they fail to raise the capital.

If you'd like to contribute go to

According to organiser Kenn Musso: “In an age of digital entertainment, we must remember what actually makes up a quality experience. Creative expression, positive community, shared laughter, music, and celebration – are all possible, and often more genuine, without depending on sophisticated digital or mechanical technologies.”

For more on horse-drawn circuses, read Circus Mania which includes an interview with retired ringmaster George Pinder about the days when his family's circus travelled that way as a matter of course 100 years ago.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Circus Book Reviews

If you're looking for a circus book, click here to read reviews by Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Edinburgh Fringe Gets Circus Hub But I’d Rather See Some Lions

Zippos star Norman Barrett OBE and his budgies

Circus is in fashion. A certain type of circus, anyway. Two years ago, Britain’s leading circus school attained ‘national’ status when it became the National Centre for Circus Arts. This year, the Edinburgh Fringe will get a £600,000 dedicated Circus Hub that will bring twelve contemporary circus shows to the Scottish city from as far afield as Canada, Australia and the Czech Republic.

According to Ed Bartlam of promoters Underbelly, “We want to create a real focal hub for the very broad genre that is circus and in that present a really high-quality programme of different styles.”

So it was sad to see Bartlam’s co-director Charlie Wood sweepingly dismissing the biggest part of circus’ ‘broad genre,’ and a part that represents nearly 250 years of circus history, in an interview with The Guardian.

“Circus is not necessarily cliched, hack, silly stuff in a big tent,” said Wood. “We’ve tried to get away from the old understanding of what circus is – nasty big tops and animals and hack clowns and so on. Circus can mean something, it can have a narrative, it can be theatrical and it can have fantastic skills in it.”

During the research for my book Circus Mania, I experienced what is indeed the ‘broad genre’ of circus, from the big budget spectacle of Cirque du Soleil to the blood-splattered Circus of Horrors and small scale companies such as Australia's Circa which is more typical of the type of circus found of the festival circuit (you can see Circa at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival later this month).

There’s no doubt that modern circus can be good. Of the acts appearing at the Circus Hub, Canada’s Cirque Alfonse wowed London in 2013 with the hugely accessible and enjoyable lumberjack circus, Timber! (Click here to read about it)

But, sad to say, much ‘narrative’ and ‘theatrical’ contemporary circus has left me yawning. In trying to “mean something,’ it has frequently lost circus’ most vital element, it’s sense of fun.

The magic of the big top
It was my visits to the sort of traditional big top-in-a-field circuses that Wood decries that made my heart beat faster, brought my senses most fully alive and imprinted me with memories that I’ll never forget. Sitting ringside at the now defunct Great British Circus, with grass underfoot and the smell of hotdogs and horses in the air, I marvelled at the immensity of elephants, swishing their trunks about to sniff the scent of the popcorn machine, so close that I leaned back in my seat. The skill and artistry of the tiger trainer was as compelling as that of the acrobats on the static trapeze.

At the still very much extant Circus Mondao, which is run by a family that has been in the circus 200 years, I was transported to a magical plane by the sight of plumed spotted horses cantering through the atmospherically lit sawdust; and reduced to helpless laughter by a soaking wet clown sliding the full diameter of the ring on his belly in a tsunami of spilt water.

Animals and genuinely funny traditional clowns are things contemporary circus would rather forget, but in turning its back on them, in the way Wood does so crassly, it loses its soul and, I would dare to say, a lot of its pulling power. For it’s the traditional circuses that have always existed on box office takings alone while most new circus relies on sponsorship and public funding.

Tsavo, a Chipperfield lion
Last year, only one circus, the deeply traditional Peter Jolly’s, fielded an act I was prepared to drive half way across the country to see: Thomas Chipperfield presenting the last lions and tigers we may ever see in a British big top. No contemporary circus show would have tempted me to travel a fraction of that distance.

The big cats were a roaring success, but predictably attracted roars of disapproval from animal rights protesters. With a long-promised ban on wild animals in the circus looming over our big tops, it seems even traditional circuses would rather go quietly into the night than rage against the dying of the circus lights.

This year, no UK circus has big cats or elephants and the biggest part of circus’ appeal, for me, seems to have left the big top with them.

Zippos, arguably Britain's most popular circus, continues to use its ring for the purpose for which it was designed - the display of horses - and long may they continue to do so. They also have ringmaster Norman Barrett OBE's performing budgies. It was a shame to see the Guardian's article on the Circus Hub take a swipe at them, too: "Circus in 2015 is far removed from memories of doleful clowns squirting water from a flower, sequinned trapeze acts, and Norman Barrett and his performing budgerigars. It’s more physical, edgy and sexy,"  writes Mark Brown.

I'd rather see some lions. But given the choice between Barrett's budgies and one of the 'circus' shows on the Hub's programme, which is thrillingly billed as "A poetic search for inner peace and the liberation of prejudice," I'll take the the budgies.

Read my backstage and ringside journey through the rich and diverse world of circus, talking to showmen, clowns, trapeze artists, sword-swallowers and tiger trainers in 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.