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."

Friday, 24 July 2015

Bears escape from circus... or do they?

Have you seen
this bear?

Reports from the Iranian city of  Karaj say police and are hunting two bears that escaped from a circus during freak floods that hit northern Iran last weekend.

At least 16 people were confirmed killed in the floods, but rumours that a “giant bear” and its cub were hiding out in a warehouse by the river seem to have been less confirmed.

The circus manager has denied having any bears and claimed the rumour was started by animal rights activists. So they have them in Iran, too.

The story reminds me of the activists who furiously protested at Giffords Circus featuring the ‘bear’ pictured above, a few years back.

As if it wasn’t obviously a man in a suit, the said animal was photographed having a beer after the show. Perhaps his brother’s working in Iran this season.

Heaven knows what the protesters would say if they knew this lion had been forced to wear tights and walk around on its hind legs all day...

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Are circus animals happy?

This one looks like he is. Thanks to Thomas Chipperfield's lion Tsavo for posing so beautifully in the sun.

See him for yourself in An Evening With Lions and Tigers in Neath, Wales from 24 Sept to 4 October.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Lion takes swipe at trainer Thomas Chipperfield in Wales as elephants rampage in Denmark

Car charged for parking in the wrong place

It’s been a bad week for circus animals as a series of headline-making incidents around the world showed the dangers of working with such unpredictable performers.

In eastern Belarus, an elephant was descending backwards from a pyramid of pedestals at the Dziva Circus when it lost its footing and crashed onto its side just inches from front row spectators. A few more feet and they would have been crushed by the falling pachyderm, which typically weigh three or four tons.

Video taken from ringside shows two other elephants entering the ring and going to the aid of the fallen animal, which struggled to return to its feet after the three-metre tumble.

Elephant rampage

In Denmark, three elephants from Cirkus Arenas went on the rampage after being taken for a swim in the sea. Video footage of the incident at Karrebaeksminde was taken by a bystander and shows one of the elephants chasing a man and then taking out its anger on a parked car. First the elephant shows its strength by giving the vehicle a side swipe with its tusks and trunk, lifting the car onto two wheels. Next the elephant lifts the front of the car and shoves it backwards several metres as if it were as light as a toy.

The elephants’ trip to the sea is an annual event and the circus issued a statement blaming onlookers for getting too near the animals and parking where they shouldn’t have.

Lion attack

In Wales, Britain’s last travelling tiger trainer, Thomas Chipperfield, had a narrow escape when a male lion called Tsavo took a swipe at his handler’s head during a show in Wales called An Evening With Lions and Tigers.

Video taken by an audience member shows Chipperfield leaning forward to kiss the lion, which was towering above him on a pedestal. At first, Tsavo leaned forward as if to return the kiss, then suddenly swiped his left paw at the trainer’s head. Chipperfield, who has worked with big cats all his life, ducked away from the swipe and continued his performance without breaking a sweat. Talking to audience members after the show, the trainer fear forgot said the swipe was “nothing.”

Tsavo - was just "play fighting."
The show’s director Anthony Beckwith told local paper The Daily Post, “Things like this happen all the time. At the end of the day lions are animals and do attack, but no damage was caused and they’ve never hurt Thomas. It is more like play-fighting rather than aggression. The animals see Thomas as one of their own but because they are animals they don’t realise that they weigh 400lbs and when they do take a swipe it can knock you back. It’s like if you have a horse, it’s likely at some stage they’ll step on your toes or if you have a house cat they might scratch you.”

Chipperfield said much the same thing in February when he wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph titled Why Lions Attack Their Trainers. His current show is intended to educate the public about the conservation of big cats in the wild and the way they are trained for circus and film work in captivity.

An Evening With Lions and Tigers is in Wrexham until Sunday 26 July. Box office: 07821155513.

Douglas McPherson PLC

Douglas McPherson PLC

My thanks to Tracy Baines for the following letter in this month's Writers' Forum:

"Is Douglas McPherson one man? Does he have ten brothers named Douglas? Or is it the name of a warehouse somewhere containing a team of people tapping away on laptops - Douglas McPherson PLC?

"What an output. Do you think it would be possible to isolate a sample of his DNA and identify his discipline and work ethic? We could market it as the McPherson Productivity Pill."

Also in this month's Writers' Forum is my interview with Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey; my interview with My Weekly Pocket Novels editor Maggie Swinburne; my piece on how to begin writing your memoirs; and my behind-the-scenes account of penning the My Weekly story Teddy Girls, which I wrote under the pen name Julia Douglas.

So, yes, pretty productive I guess!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Thomas Chipperfield's educational show confuses audience

Thomas Chipperfield puts up his big top
in Wrexham, Wales.

Thomas Chipperfield’s new show is designed to educate the public about conservation and the way animals are trained. But I think he needs to open the show with a lesson on understanding plain English.

A news report in The Daily Post contains some priceless comments from an audience member who said she was unaware the show featured animals and thought she was going to a circus.

“We saw the big top and were hoping to see clowns,” she said. “Before the show started people were saying I think this could be a animal circus. It was not what we were expecting to see.”

Wasn’t aware the show featured animals? Think it could be an animal circus??

People, the show’s called An Evening With Lions and Tigers - what would you expect it to feature?

Perhaps Thomas should get his posters reprinted in Welsh.

All set up and ready for showtime!
An Evening With Lions and Tigers will be in Bridgend, Laleston, Wales, October 8 until - October 18. Box office: 07821155513

SPOILER ALERT: The show contains lions and tigers. But no clowns. Unless they've bought a ticket.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

The circus is a jealous wench

The circus is a jealous wench
Indeed that is an understatement
She is a ravaging hag
Who sucks out your vitality
Who kills the brightest stars in her crown
And who will allow no private life
To those who serve her
Wrecking their homes
Ruining their bodies
Destroying the happiness of their loved ones
By her insatiable demands
She is all these things
And yet I love her
As I love nothing else on earth.

Henry Ringling North - The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story.

The above could be about writing, too. Probably why I like writing about circus people. We share similar addictions.

Douglas McPherson - Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Peter Owen steps down

Peter Owen

Britain’s longest-serving publisher has stepped down as managing director of the company that has borne his name since 1951. Peter Owen, who was given an OBE for services to literature last year, announced in a letter to his writers, “In my eighty-ninth year, I have started to feel that the business of running a publishing house on a day-to-day basis is becoming a burden I can no longer shoulder with the energy and commitment of yore.”

Owen, started his business with a single typewriter and has published writers from Salvador Dali to Yoko Ono. His first editor was Murial Spark, who’s memories of working for Owen informed her novel A Far Cry From Kensington.

The Guardian called Peter Owen Publishers "A byword for literary adventure and experimentation."

Nick Kent takes over as managing director, with Peter’s daughter Antonia Owen as publishing director. Peter Owen will, however, retain overall charge of the company as chairman.

Douglas McPherson's Circus Mania, published by Peter Owen, is available from Amazon. The Mail on Sunday called it "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read the 5-star customer reviews.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Thomas Chipperfield's Victorian lion show!

Thomas and Anthony. Maybe.

Animal Defenders International have called Thomas Chipperfield's new show, An Evening With Lions and Tigers, "Victorian." But, hey, wouldn't that actually be a great idea - to dress the show with a Victorian theme? Top hats, twiddly moustaches, barrel organ, ladies in big dresses selling the tickets... "Roll up, roll up...!"

Thomas could be a steam-punk hipster! If that wouldn't get a grant from the Arts Council, nothing would!

Read the full details of An Evening With Lions and Tigers - with not a twiddly moustache in sight - here, on Blasting News. And catch the show in Neath until October 4.

(Note to Thomas. Above costumes just £22 on ebay. Just saying.)

Thomas Chipperfield's An Evening of Lions and Tigers in Bargoed, Wales!

The big top.


Thomas Chipperfield, the UK's only lion trainer is promising to put the emphasis on education and conservation in a new show, An Evening with Lions and Tigers. Read more at Blasting News.

The show is in Bargoed, Wales from October 29 to November 8. Tel: 07821155513.

Save £3 off the price of an adult ticket with this voucher:

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Circus250 - How do you define circus?

Does a horse and ringmaster a circus make?

My article in Blasting News (read it here) on whether contemporary circus companies need a new name to separate them from traditional circuses has sparked a fair bit of debate. I wrote the piece in response to some comments by contemporary circus people that sought to distance themselves from what Charlie Wood of the Edinburgh Fringe’s Circus Hub called the “nasty tents” and “hack clowns” of traditional circus.

If the c-word has such negative connotations for them, I argued, why don’t they come up with a new name for a new form of entertainment that while using circus skills generally results in something that looks and feels very different from what many people would call a circus?

But can we define what a circus actually is?

For me:

It doesn’t have to have animals - the Moscow State Circus is an example without them.

It doesn’t have to be in a tent - the Yarmouth Hippodrome is a purpose-built circus building. Other venues such as the Roundhouse and Royal Albert Hall are perfectly suited to circus, and the very first circuses were in amphitheatres.

It can have themes and story lines - Giffords Circus being an example that mixes theatre with the traditional elements of a big top, sawdust ring and horses.

But for all the differences between the above shows, they have one thing in common: a programme comprised of a variety of different acts.

Astley's - Where it all started.
All the acts in Philip Astley’s original circus - horse riding, acrobats, strong man, clown - existed for hundreds or even thousands of years before he brought them together in a single show - and they weren't called circus until he did. So if Astley is by general consent the Father of the Circus, it must surely be the bringing together of disparate acts into a whole that’s bigger than the sum of the parts that defines the art form.

Many acts have been introduced to the circus since Astley’s time: the flying trapeze; magic; wild west displays and other historical re-enactments. The strength of the format is that it can incorporate just about anything: kung fu, performing budgies, human cannonball, motorbikes, hypnotism.

It’s the continually changing line-up - the constant search for a unique must-see attraction  - that has kept the circus popular and relevant for 250 years. And it’s because of the constantly changing repertoire, as different acts come and go, that it’s hard to say any one act is essential. If a circus can have flying trapeze or not and still be a circus, it should be able to have animals or not and still be a circus. It’s the format that makes it a circus, not the content.

By the same token, individual acts are not in isolation circuses.

Clowns are a familiar sight in the circus.
But is a party clown a circus act?
Clowns, for example, are often seen as the ‘face’ of the circus. But clowns also work outside of circuses (party clowns, for instance) and when they do, their show is not circus; it’s clowning.

Jugglers are a circus staple. But a juggling troupe performing at a festival is not a circus - it’s a juggling show.

Tightrope is a circus skill, but Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon is not in itself a circus.

It recently pained me to read an article that described Bromance by the Barely Methodical Troupe as “circus at its purest.” By “pure,” I guess the writer meant unadorned. The show is performed on a bare stage largely without props or equipment. But the show is more an example of gymnastics than circus.

Zippos or Giffords would be better examples of circus purity, since they retain the elements of Astley’s first circus: horse riding skills, a circus ring and a variety of other acts.

The three-man Barely Methodical Troupe, to me, are comparable to an act like the Kenya Boys. The latter perform a mix of balancing acts within many circuses, but if they performed their routine on its own in a theatre it would have to be called something other than a circus, such as an acrobatics display.

The idea of defining circus as a format is not about it being traditional or contemporary, incidentally, and there’s no reason why circus can’t up date; in fact, it always has.

Cirque Berserk is basically Zippos minus the animals, dressed in a more contemporary way and relocated from a tent to a theatre. It’s a mixture of acts presented in an exciting modern way but just as much a circus as its parent.

Cirque du Soleil - the progenitor of new circus - may have linked its acts with a theme or storyline, just as Russian circuses did before them, but it too retained the format of a lot of different acts, and different types of act, being brought together into the same show - a circus.

Many of the companies calling themselves circus today, by contrast, are basically single act shows that draw on a narrow repertoire of skills (usually its a mix of acro-balance and aerial acts - you seldom see a big stunt like a wheel of death or a human cannonball). They are the ones that should be calling themselves by a different name. And why not, if the image of circus is such a burden to them that people like Charlie Wood have to battle popular perceptions of what circus is?

Instead of trying to redefine circus in their own image, why not leave the C-word to circuses and come up with a new one that defines them as they are?

Finally, to prove this is about defining different art forms, rather than saying one is better than another, I’ll leave you with Thomas Chipperfield’s An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Wow, you might think, big cats in a big top - ‘Tiger Douglas’ is going to like that! And, of course, I do. But since it contains no other acts (as far as I know) I wouldn’t call it a circus. And neither, it seems, would Chipperfield.

“What we are doing isn’t actually a circus,” he told BBC Radio Wales, “It’s animals in a show.”

Wouldn’t it be more accurate if certain other shows said, “What we are doing isn’t actually circus, it’s gymnastics and dance in a piece of conceptual theatre.”

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to buy the new, updated 2nd Edition!