Anyone old enough to remember Johnny Morris being dragged across the Blue Peter studio by a widdling baby elephant will know that animals and live television just don’t mix. So getting Tsavo the lion to kiss his trainer Thomas Chipperfield on This Morning was always going to be touch and go - and it was. As Britain’s last lion tamer puckered up, Tsavo let out a roar and leapt off his pedestal in the other direction.
The 25-year-old Chipperfield wasn’t fazed, however, and calmly told presenter Phillip Schofield that he liked working with big cats because “they’re not machines and can have off days just like the rest of us.”
Appearing in a live link from Swansea, where he’s appearing in An Evening With Lions and Tigers for the rest of this week, Chipperfield then went on to conduct his interview from inside the lion cage, without so much as a glance at the disgruntled lion, who first sat on a nearby pedestal then lay down broodingly on the grass in the background. All of which made Chipperfield look like the bravest man on British television.
So it was no wonder he didn’t take any nonsense from This Morning’s co-host Amanda Holden when she said his animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity. When Holden suggested he’d feel “claustrophobic” and “like a prisoner” if kept in a cage, the lion tamer coolly countered that animals perceive the world in a completely different way to what we do.
|Amanda Holden as ringmistress in|
BBC sitcom Big Top.
A clearly ruffled Holden harrumphed that the animals she’d worked with were “rescue animals - rescued from people like you.”
But before Schofield could break up the spat between presenter and guest, Chipperfield pointed out that he knew the trainer who had trained them. (see update below)
This was thrilling television, and a reminder of why the crowds have been queuing to see Chipperfield’s show - because an entertainment that involves snarling wild beasts is completely unpredictable; anything can happen.
But full marks to Chipperfield for exposing the double standards of so many celebrities who are quick to partner with organisations like Born Free, PETA and Animal Defenders International in bashing the use of circus animals while many are happy to appear with trained animals on film and in TV shows. (see update below)
Sherlock Holmes star Martin Freeman, for example, recently called on the Prime Minister to ban animals from British circuses, despite appearing with horses in The Hobbit and trained dogs in Sherlock episode The Hounds of the Baskervilles.
Holden, meanwhile, also appears on Britain’s Got Talent, which frequently features performing animals. Earlier this year, she told contestant Marc Metral that he had “made television history” with his ‘talking dog’ Miss Wendy - a trick apparently achieved by fitting a false mouth over the animal’s snout, much to the ire of the RSPCA.
Holden’s BGT co-host Simon Cowell has previously dismissed claims that having animals on BGT is cruel, saying, “God no, I think the opposite! We show animals’ personalities. I think they all have a great time on our show, you can see the dogs are wagging their tails.”
Anyone who’s taken the time to visit An Evening With Lions and Tigers will know that that all Chipperfield does is showcase the natural ability and personalities of his big cats, and that they enjoy the organised play of the training routines as much as any animal on BGT.
Anyone who looks a little deeper, will also realise that circus animals and circus trainers are the first port of call whenever an animal is required for film and TV work.
Actors and television celebrities should know that better than anyone, so isn’t it about time they all stopped bashing the circus and embraced Britain’s last lion tamer as one of their own?
January 2016 update: The animals in Wild At Heart were trained by Alex Larenty, who grew up on Chipperfields Circus. For more on the double standards of actors including Brian Blessed, Alec Baldwin and Roger Moore, who have publicly condemned the circus while working with circus animals on stage and screen, click here to read my article in The Stage.
January 2017: And in latest news, tiger tamer Thomas tackles former James Bond Roger Moore, the spy who once worked with circus tigers but now wants them banned. Read the full story here.