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."

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Urban Circus by Cirque Bijou

How's this for a Christmas party? Click here to see a corporate bash created for a party in an empty warehouse over the holidays by the UK's leading creator of circus for the events market, Cirque Bijou.

And click here for more on the company with a small name a reputation for big stunts.

Monday, 25 January 2016

10 Facts the Welsh Assembly needs to know about Circus Animals

Rebecca Evans of the Welsh Assembly wants
to ban performers such as Britain's last lion tamer
Thomas Chipperfield, who toured Wales last year.
She is not believed to have met him, seen his show
or inspected his animals.

In December, the Welsh Assembly’s deputy minister for farming and food, Rebecca Evans announced, “The Welsh Government believes there is no place for the use of wild animals in circuses.” In the next step to introducing a ban in Wales, she has commissioned Professor Stephen Harris - a man with a long history of opposition to animals in the big top (which you can read about here) - to carry out a review of their welfare

I was brought up to believe it was wrong for animals to perform in circuses, so I understand why many people harbour that belief. But having investigated the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania , I changed my mind and would like to present 10 reasons why the show - with animals - should go on.

1 The Radford Report (Read it here) found no grounds for a ban. In 2006, the last Labour government commissioned a six-month study of circus animals, with full participation by circuses and anti-circus campaigners, and concluded that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.

2 An earlier study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. The 18-month study, sponsored by the RSPCA and published as Animals in Circuses and Zoos: Chiron’s World? (Read it here) also pointed out ways in which the relationship between animals and trainers could contribute to our scientific understanding of how animals think, learn and perceive the world.

3 Circuses with wild animals are strictly regulated by a licensing scheme, introduced in 2012, that sees them inspected by vets six times a year (twice unannounced) with the results available online. Every aspect of the animal’s life, diet and accommodation is governed by strict guidelines. Plus, every circus, including animal accommodation, is on continual show to the public.

4 Circuses aid conservation through breeding programmes and by raising awareness. It was largely the tricks performed by dolphins in aquariums that convinced the public they were intelligent and worth saving. Animals in the wild are endangered by human predators and shrinking habitats, and live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care. They live twice as long as their cousins in the wild.

5 Circus animals lead rewarding lives. Every cat and dog owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a horse or a lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. Zoos stopped animal performances to distance themselves from circuses, but have reintroduced them because animals benefit from the stimulation. These days they call it ‘enrichment.’

Click here to seeBritish circus big cats
6 Children are enthralled by circus animals. It’s the only form of entertainment where the under-fives are guaranteed to enjoy themselves as much as their grandparents, making it a cheap day out for all the family. Seeing the skill and intelligence of animals at close quarters can only foster admiration and respect for other species. Even adults will seldom get as close to wild animals as they do in a big top. expectancy

7 It’s what the public want to see. Unlike most contemporary all-human circus shows, traditional circuses with animals receive no public funding and survive entirely on ticket sales. I’m not sure who was surveyed in the oft-mentioned ‘public consultation’ that found 98% of respondents supported a ban, but it wasn’t circus fans. The consultation was held during the year I was writing Circus Mania and regularly attending circuses, but I never heard about it. Perhaps it was only publicised by animal rights organisations to their existing supporters?

8 No other profession is judged by the actions of individuals. There have been 7 prosecutions of circus trainers in 130 years; a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time. Banning circus animals because of the case of Anne the elephant would be as ridiculous as banning children’s television presenters because of Jimmy Savile. We have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty.

9 A ban on circus animals would be the thin end of the wedge because animal rights campaigners have a wider philosophical agenda than animal welfare. The next targets would be zoos and aquariums, horseracing, meat consumption, wool, silk and leather-wearing, medical research and pet ownership. The slogan of the world’s largest animal rights organisation PETA is “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.”

10 The circus is a 250-year-old art form that Britain gave to the world. It was started in London by horse-rider Philip Astley and although the global success of Cirque du Soleil proves circus can flourish without animals, surely there should be room in the land of its creation for a few well-run and regulated shows that keep alive the entertainment in its most pure form, with a mixture of human and animal acts.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers) 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Saddest Show on Earth - A Circus Memory From Long Ago

My journey into the circus world began at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome where I interviewed aerial silk artiste Eva Garcia, just a week before she fell to her death during her act.

In Circus Mania, I describe that trip to the circus as my first since childhood. But in fact I made one previous visit to the big top as an adult, maybe a decade before that fateful trip to the Hippodrome.

I can’t remember the name of the show, or even if I knew the name at the time, only that it was in the Hampton Court area on the border of south London and Surrey, where my girlfriend and I frequented a pizza restaurant, beside the Thames.

That may have been why we went - the circus just happened to be local and it was something different to do. It may have been my girlfriend’s idea. To this day, she harbours a fond memory of a single previous trip to the circus before she met me. On that occasion she’d seen a poster of a bear riding in a car and been unable to resist the spectacle. The image of the bear circling the ring was all she remembered of that visit. In fact, she remembered wanting to see the bear more strongly than she remembered actually seeing the bear. The spectacle had left her bemused, but the image on the poster had made her buy a ticket.

I guess the best circus posters can be like that; they sell a dream, and how often does reality live up to our dreams?

Anyway, there were no bears that night in Hampton Court, but there is something dream-like about my memory of our night at the circus.

For one thing, it was in a location I don’t remember visiting before or since. All I recall is that it was pitch dark, remote and a long walk from where we parked. The air was damp from our proximity to the river. There was nobody about.

In the bright interior of the snugly small tent, we sat at ringside. We could have sat anywhere, there were so few people there. I can’t say we were the only people there, but there was certainly nobody on the seats immediately to either side of us. Perhaps a couple of families were dotted around the sawdust circle.

The recorded music began, that old circus classic, Entrance of the Gladiators, and I noticed that the sound of a cheering crowd was mixed into the recording. How sad, I thought, that they have to play a recording of cheers and applause to whip up an atmosphere, because there was none coming from the handful of people who had bought tickets.

I remember just two acts. The first was a chubby girl climbing a rope to strike some poses above our heads. Only two things struck me about her routine. The first was that she was the girl who had sold us our tickets. The second was that she had an enormous ladder in the thigh of her tights, which seemed to symbolise the threadbareness of the show we were watching.

The climax to the first half was a pony trotting around the ring with a chicken standing on its back.

I looked at my companion and we burst out laughing with embarrassment.

We didn’t stay for the second half.

As we made our way back through the darkness, a couple of young hippies tried to give us some leaflets, which we declined. They were trying to educate the public about the cruelty of keeping animals in the circus, they said. They were pleasant people and we passed the time of day for a few minutes before going on our way, bemused by the concept of people picketing a show no one was going to anyway.

Looking back, I wonder what I would have made of that show with the appreciation for circus that I have now. Would I have been charmed rather than embarrassed? Would I have overlooked the show’s shortcomings and been impressed by the pluckiness of performers carrying on a tradition that had been in their blood for centuries, despite the indifference of a public that had turned its back on them?

Or would I have been as underwhelmed as I was then? There are still bad shows out there. I’ve sat in empty, badly lit, freezing cold tents watching out of shape performers and unfunny clowns go through the motions of uninspired routines. I’ve reported on them truthfully - and been banned by the showmen from ever darkening their doors again. (Read here why circuses contribute to their own invisibility by refusing to be reviewed.)

I’ve also seen great shows full of heart-stopping, spellbinding and spirit-lifting spectacle that could compete with the best of any other form of entertainment.

But how many people have seen only one show like the one I saw in Hampton Court and never attended another circus, believing on the evidence before their eyes, that a dying form of entertainment had nothing else to offer them?

It was for those people, the people like me who never went to the circus, that I wrote Circus Mania, to show them a world rich in history, tradition, colourful characters, gripping stories and wonderful contemporary entertainment that is easy to overlook.

The Mail on Sunday called my book “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” But it’s not really vanishing, just waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Princess Stephanie of Monaco talks Circus

"Circus is the magic you should show your children. 

"Circus is what real life should be like. It's sincerity, feeling, emotions. All real. There are no lies in circus. There are artists working together to give a smile. It's a world where people help one another. It's the only show where a family, everyone from children to their grandmothers, can sit together and all be entertained by the same thing. 

"Animals are the traditional circus. It's what people remember from their childhood. 

"You ask people, 'What is the circus?' They'll say, 'Animals, clowns and acrobats!' That's what people want. If you say you don't have animals, they walk away." 

- Princess Stephanie, Monaco, 2016

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Is Welsh Assembly trying to 'fix' a circus animals ban?

That’s the opinion of a circus industry angered at the appointment of Professor Stephen Harris, a long term opponent of circuses with animals, to head an “independent review” of whether they should be banned in Wales.

As one insider told me, “A travesty of law-making is about to take place.”

Harris was commissioned to carry out a review of animal welfare in circuses by the Welsh Assembly’s deputy minister for farms and food, Rebecca Evans who announced in December, “The Welsh Government believes there is no place for the use of wild animals in circuses.”

His report is expected to be completed by the end of February, but many in the circus believe his bias will make his findings a foregone conclusion.

In December, Harris was discredited as an expert witness in a fox hunting trial because of his links to the animal rights group, League Against Cruel Sport. His opposition to wild animals in the big top, however, has never been hidden.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday in 2008, Harris said, ‘Every intelligent person knows that circuses are cruel. They should not be allowed to use wild animals.’

In 2011, he told the Daily Mail, ‘You can’t control big wild animals without the use of force, and that means regularly beating the living daylights out of them. It’s as simple as that. For this reason, and for many others, wild animals should not be allowed in circuses.’

Harris previously published a study on the Welfare of Wild Animals in Circuses. His findings were entirely negative, but his methodology was fundamentally flawed. Rather than carrying out any original research of his own, he relied on existing studies of animals in captivity from around the world, most of which had no relevance to animals in the very specific circumstances of life in the circus, and particularly circuses in Britain.

At one point, for example, he notes that there were no scientific studies on stress levels of circus animals during transportation. Instead of taking the opportunity to conduct a study of his own, he relies on a study of cortisol (the stress hormone) levels of zoo tigers during transport - ignoring that fact that zoo tigers would never become acclimatised to transport in the way that circus tigers are.

There has, however, since been a cortisol test  on the lions of Martin Lacey Jr, during a 800 km trip across Europe that showed the animals suffered no stress whatsoever. What’s more, the lions were so comfortable with their trainer that he was able to take saliva swabs from the animals’ mouths with his fingers - something that would be impossible with zoo tigers, which would generally have to be anaesthetised before being handled so intimately. The test can be viewed on YouTube here.

It appears Harris will take the same approach with his current report as he did with his last, drawing on previous studies from around the world rather than visiting actual UK circuses and inspecting the animals and their living conditions for himself, as he has so far made no approaches to the UK’s wild animal trainers .

There have previously been only two comprehensive studies of circus animals in the UK.

The first by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington was sponsored by the RSPCA in the late 80s and concluded that circuses did not by nature cause distress to their animals. You can read it here.

The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government, similarly found no welfare reasons to ban circus animals. Read it here.

It would be nice to think Harris’ report might highlight the findings of those two studies.

Unfortunately, this is what Harris told the Daily Mail about the Radford Report at the time: “The whole review process was dishonest and a waste of time. It’s cruel to train animals to do tricks, keep them in tiny cages, truck them around the country and prevent them from expressing their natural behaviour. It’s farcical to claim otherwise.”

It seems Harris was angered at having his own contribution to the Radford enquiry ignored. Who could blame the circus industry for fearing that his current review will be an opportunity for him to finally bring forward the ban he has always wanted?

Update 10 February: Meanwhile in Westminster... Chirstopher Chope brings hope that government is changing its mind about a ban. Click here for latest.

Update January 2017: Although the Harris report supports a ban, the Welsh government appears to be moving towards a licensing scheme similar to that in England, although this will be subject to a public consultation in the coming year. Read more on this story here.

Does the news from Wales reflect changing attitudes in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world? Click here for more on the political circus.

Did you know this debate has been going on for a century?
Click here to read the 100-year history of attempts to ban animals from entertainment.

And click here for 10 Facts the Welsh Assembly Needs to Know About Circus Animals.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Circus Cruelty Videos - The Camera Doesn't Lie, or Does It?

Michael Hackenberger
Telling it like it is?

Animal rights groups will tell you that circus animals are beaten into submission and forced to perform through fear. It’s easy to believe if you never go to a circus with animals, which is why campaigns to “stop circus suffering” generate such a big income from armchair animal lovers (the combined income of UK organisations including Peta, ADI, CAPS and Born Free is over £350 million per annum).

Circus trainers will tell you they love their animals like their children and train them with a system of rewards and kindness that enriches the animals’ lives. That makes sense, because lots of other animals are trained, from guide dogs and riding horses to household pets - and nobody assumes they are cruelly treated.

But then there are those covertly shot videos of behind-the-scenes abuse that periodically show up in the news and live forever on YouTube to nag at the conscience of even the most ardent circus fan.

The latest star of such a video is Michael Hackenberger who trains big cats in a circus ring at Bowmanville Zoological Park in Ontario. Just before Christmas, Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a video of Hakenberger appearing to whip a tiger twenty times during a training session.

Hackenberger, who owned the tiger used in the film Life of Pi, thought he was in the presence of a woman interested in animal training, but didn’t know she was secretly filming him. The video shows him telling her that it’s more effective to hit a tiger’s foot while it’s on its pedestal, because being trapped “like a vice” between the whip and the hard surface “it stings more.”

Clearly an abuser caught bang to rights, you might think.

Except that Hackenberger is the first trainer filmed in such circumstances to reply with a video of his own explaining how his actions have been taken out of context. View it here.

First, he shows us that far from whipping the tiger twenty times, he was actually whipping the air near the animal to make a lot of noise without touching it. His purpose wasn’t to hurt it, but to show his displeasure at it jumping onto the ring kerb which, during a performance, would be dangerous.

He demonstrates with the same tiger, which shows no fear of the whip, and points out that if he’d actually been beating it, its natural reaction would be to try and kill him.

Next, he explains that in another segment from the Peta video he hit the tiger’s paw, but only to stop it taking a swipe at his assistant.

Discipline is part of any training regime and, given an animal’s short attention span, has to be administered at the moment of bad behaviour - just as rewards are given at the moment of good behaviour.

It’s the animal equivalent of smacking a child to stop it running into the road. Witnessed in isolation the wallop may make you wince, and if a celebrity were filmed hitting their offspring it might cause a media storm. But, in the real world, it doesn’t mean the parent is generally abusive or that the child won’t be all smiles again five minutes later.

Some people will question why Hackenberger needs to assert his authority over a wild animal. His answer is that in a world of shrinking habitats, captivity is a necessary option. Boredom and obesity are the biggest problems for zoo animals, whereas training gives them exercise and stimulation.

As justification, Hackenberger invites us to look at Uno, the tiger from the Peta video, who is with him throughout his own film: as relaxed around humans as a housecat, and the constant recipient of treats, strokes and affection.

Hackenberger’s anger at the Peta video isn’t with the two minutes of his training session that it shows, but the 90 minutes that it doesn’t show.

“If there was anything bad in that time, they’d show you,” he reasons. So could it be the complete film would put two instances of responsible discipline in the context of a caring training regime, or actually show the tiger enjoying the interaction the way a well-trained dog enjoys playing with its owner?

Take a look at another of Hackenberger’s videos filmed in an outdoor exercise pen and make up your own mind.

When the last Labour government commissioned the Radford Report on the welfare of circus animals, undercover film submitted by animal rights groups was excluded as evidence, precisely because it had no context. In the words of then Minister of State Lord Rooker: “A film showing a lion pacing up and down may indicate evidence of stereotypical behaviour, but equally the film may have been shot when the lion had seen its keeper approaching with food.”

Without such film, the report concluded there was no evidence that animals were more likely to suffer in the circus than any other captive environment.

I understand why many people harbour an instinctive objection to the idea of performing animals. I was brought up with that belief. But when I became interested in circus, I knew I had to visit one of Britain's last big top shows with elephants, tigers and horses to get a glimpse into the disappearing history of where the art form began. My interviews with trainers and my changing opinion on their work forms a major thread of Circus Mania, the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read a sample on Amazon.

Author's Note: I'd be interested to hear the views of any animal trainers on Michael Hackenberger's video and training methods. My impression is that he's maybe at the harsh end of the scale and perhaps a little old school, but I reckon he's sincere. Whether his honesty will cut any ice with his detractors is another matter. We live in an age where the Daily Mail has just run an hysterical piece about a training display during an open day at Amazing Animals - the UK's leading supplier of trained animals to TV and film. There's no 'evidence' of mistreatment underpinning the piece, just the opinion of TV presenter Chris Packham that the very idea of using animals to entertain the public is wrong. In such a climate, it's no wonder that few trainers speak as openly about their methods as Hackenberger. But an open debate on what happens 'behind closed doors' is necessary if the animal training industry is to gain the wider public's trust. Hackenberger's bravery in opening that debate is to be commended.

Update: Unfortunately we live in a world where an open debate on what does or doesn't constitute the abuse of animals is increasingly difficult to have. I wanted to give this post a wider airing on the Huffington Post - a supposedly open-door blogging platform for the expression of all viewpoints - but because Hackenberger admits to striking his tiger twice (in a responsible way) the Huff wasn't "comfortable" with publishing the piece. So TV presenters such as Packham can have their views of animal training aired in the media, but animal trainers, who are the only people who know anything about animal training, aren't allowed to tell us how they work. How can the public make up its mind if it only hears one side of the argument?


Monday, 18 January 2016

Film Review: The Golden Age of Circus: The Show of Shows

If you believe the circus to be a place of weirdness, cruelty, suffering and exploitation; grotesque, shocking, seedy and bizarre... then this collection of old black and white film set to music and edited like a walk through a house of mirrors by Benedikt Erlingsson will meet all your expectations and more - even if you find yourself watching through your fingers with one eye closed in a wince.

As a caption announces at the beginning of this BBC4 Storyville show (view it here), "Contains upsetting scenes."

Well maybe, if you're scared of clowns, believe all circus animals are tortured prisoners, and the human freaks that accompany them are exploited just as fully.

Personally, I loved it.

Mostly. At an hour and a quarter, it's far too long, and some of the sequences are stretched too far. But the commentary-free style, with similar scenes from different circuses on different continents grouped together and intercut like a pop video to the club beats of a band called Sigur Ros is both poetic and hypnotic.

And the grainy, faded images that bombard us are relentlessly striking. To take a few:

A woman dancing wildly with a chair in her mouth.

A toddler standing nervously in front of a knife thrower's board while a woman, perhaps her mother, throws knives around her.

A man wreathed in flames diving from a towering ladder into a pool that's also alight.

Not everything is strictly circus. There are sideshow strippers, vaudeville dancers and rodeo cowboys. But there are connections. Shots of steer wranglers and bucking broncos are cut with a man in a circus ring being thrown from an 'unrideable' mule.

There are animals galore: Half a dozen polar bears on a merry-go-round; elephants dancing in plaid shirts; chimps riding horses; a lion riding a horse.

Those who believe circus animals are cruelly treated will have their beliefs affirmed by these scenes. But that's the way they've been edited and juxtaposed with the music: to shock.

As the music accelerates, more violent barbarism assaults our contemporary sensibilities: toddlers in boxing gloves slugging it out; chimps boxing; women boxing; blindfolded men swinging madly at each other; a boy boxing a kangaroo.

Even the clips of escapologists being bound and hoisted aloft by the ankles - or locked in boxes and set on fire - look more like torture than entertainment.

Did people really applaud and laugh at such cruel spectacles, we're invited to wonder?

But, as I say, that's the way it's been edited: to look like a nightmare. Even the clowns have been set to music and had bits of their act taken out of context in ways that makes them look bizarre and ugly, rather than funny.

A lot of circus people and fans have said they hated it, for that reason. But then, it's wrong to view Erlingsson's film as a documentary. It's a visual poem, a piece of art in its own right that takes real film and filters it through the director's imagination into his own vision of what the circus is or should be. Taken as such, it works, often thrillingly well.

But it's not the circus as people would necessarily have seen it at the time. There are some stunning scenes here of human cannonballs, trapeze artists and high wire walkers. But to see them presented in context and in a truer representation of the circus as a place of dreams and wonder, rather than nightmares and fear, take a look at a DVD called The British Circus 1898 - 1972. Read my review here.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Guv'nor, Billy Smart

This fine portrait of arguably Britain's most famous circus owner, Billy Smart, was painted by Terence Cuneo and appears in Steven B Richley's fabulous new book, The Posters of Billy Smart's Circus. The book can be purchased from Double Crown Books for £34.99 including postage. Click here for details.

More on this soon.

One of the posters (also used on the cover) in
The Poster of Billy Smarts Circus
by Steven B Richley

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Clown Gathering and Clown Extravaganza

If you go down to the sea this month, you're in for a big surprise... in fact you better go in disguise... because this is the month that every clown that ever there was be meeting at a seaside hotel for a week of lectures, socialising, prattfalls and maybe even a custard pie fight. No, it's not a political party conference, but Clown Gathering UK.

As well as funny men and women from all over the UK, international clowns in attendance will include India's funniest clown, Flubber; Canada's Amanda O'Leary; and America's Lovely Buttons.

Flying the flag for Britain, meanwhile, will be Simon Thompson's Clown Noir (Second from left, above), Mattie the Clown and, from one of Britain's oldest circus families, Bobbo Roberts (Second from right, above).

The whole thing is organised by Andy The Clown (in the pale blue suit, third from right, above) and runs from February 22 - 26.

Now in its second year, the Clown Gathering is for clowns only - a chance for clowns to be clowns without the public's gaze; and who knows what they might get up to when it's all clowns together for their annual trip to the seaside?

Anyone with a fear of clowns should certainly avoid the Hatfield Hotel and its Shoreline Restaurant, on Lowestoft Esplanade, which is where the clowns will be staying.

But, of course, you can't be a clown without wanting to entertain and there will also be two evening shows for the public at the Seagull Theatre in Pakefield, Lowestoft, on Feb 24 and 25 titled A Clown Extravaganza that will be just that, with Fool Hardy Circus presenting an array of clowns from the gathering plus Tyrodial Field, billed as Britain's top diabolist. Tickets are just £5 from the box office: 01502 589726.

(Rumours that you might get a free pie in the interval are unconfirmed... but strongly suggested by the video in this ITV report on last year's gathering.)

According to the theatre, you'll never see such a gathering of clown talent in Britain or anywhere else in the world. You'd need to be a fool to join them, and a bigger fool to miss it!

Click here for my interview with Bobbo - Life of a Clown.

And here for the History of Scary Clowns.

For more on the history of clowns, the nature of clowning and interviews with some of Britain's funniest clowns, including Bippo and Cirque du Hilarious, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Ringling Elephants Retire 18 Months Early in May 2016

If you want to see the last appearance of the elephant parade in the Greatest Show on Earth, you'll have to hurry. The pachyderms will be making their final bow this May.

Last year, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced it would be phasing out its iconic rubber mules by 2018, with the 11 animals currently in the show, joining the 29 that the company keeps at its Centre for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

Having progressed quicker than anticipated on the building of new accommodation, however, the elies will now leave the show at the end of its current season in May, and a new elephant-free version of the Ringling show will take to the road in July without the trunks that have been its iconic symbol for more than 100 years.

Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling, cited changing public tastes and new legislation such as a ban on use of the ankus, bullhook or elephant guide in Los Angeles, which would make it impossible for the circus to appear there.

The elephants new role will include assisting in cancer research. The low incidence of cancer in elephants has led some scientists to believe that their blood and DNA could be key to finding a cure for cancer.

The retirement of the Ringling elephants is seen as a victory for animal rights groups that have long picketed the show and called for an end to all animals in circus. But are claims of cruelty justified?

Click here to read my piece on Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is it time to let circuses off the hook?

Me and the elephant
Read about my meeting with Britain's last circus elephants in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Circus Mania news feed and search facility now open!

Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls... step right up to gasp at two wonderous advances in technology brought to the Circus Mania blog at great, I mean no expense whatsoever.

Up there on your right... the new search bar! Just type in the name of a circus, artiste, act, trick or any other search term of your choice, and if it's mentioned anywhere on this blog, the relevant pages will appear right here, before your very eyes! Go on, try it!

Scroll down on the right hand side, meanwhile, and you will find the Circus News Feed, bringing you the latest circus news, stories, issues and reviews from news sources everywhere as soon as the news breaks!

If it happens in the circus in 2016, you'll find it right here on the Circus Mania blog!

And to make sure you don't miss anything, follow me on Twitter @CircusDouglas where I'll be tweeting new blog posts as they are posted. I'll also be tweeting some of the gems from the Circus Mania archives including book and DVD reviews, interviews and feature.

Unfortunate slogan of the year - from the RSPCA

Thanks to Save UK Circus for this!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Death of a Lion Tamer's Wife: Mai Stephens 1924 - 2015

Mai Stephens, who has died aged 91, brought glamour to the act of Ireland’s most famous lion tamer, her husband, the self-styled ‘Captain’ Bill Stephens. Her most dangerous stunt was bending over a rack of sharp knives while a lion leapt over her.

Because of her dark hair and exotic beauty, Stephens liked to claim his wife came from “the East” - although she came from no further east than East Wall Road, a few streets from where he grew up in the Dublin suburb of Fairview.

She was born Margaret Carton on November 5 1924 and brought up by her grandmother. She met Bill Stephens while they were both in their teens and they married in October 1942.

At the time, Bill was working as a welder by day and playing drums in Billy Carter’s swing band at night. When a big top pitched up beside the Arcadia ballroom where he was playing, he and Mai decided to run away with the circus.

Initially, Bill played in the circus band, but soon acquired a lion cub called Sultan from a performer who was leaving the show. With no previous experience, he trained the animal as if it were a dog and went on to develop a unique act that mixed lions with Alsatians. Mai, meanwhile, walked around the ring draped with snakes.

Stephens modelled himself on Clyde Beatty, the whip-cracking big cat tamer of America’s Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, who was familiar to Irish audiences through movie serials such as The Lost Jungle. Clad in safari-style costumes, the Stephenses travelled Ireland with John Duffy’s Circus in an act called Jungle Capers.

Their stunts included Stephens feeding a lion from his own mouth and a lion leaping through a hoop above Mai’s head. The highlight was a ‘bouncing lions’ routine, performed in a small wagon pushed into the big top by a tractor.

Circus historian Michael Ingoldsby saw the act when he was 10-years-old and describes it as “The most thrilling act I’ve ever seen in the circus. The lions did a wall of death. They ran around the sides of the wagon, and it was rocking from side to side. People were breathless, because you didn’t know if the wagon was going to turn over. You couldn’t tell if Stephens was chasing the lions or the lions were chasing him, and the remarkable thing was, on cue at the end, they just stopped dead.”

When the circus was off the road for the winter, the Stephenses returned to Fairview and kept the lions in a rented shed behind a high street garage on Merville Avenue. On November 11 1951, a lioness called Sleika escaped onto the streets of Dublin, pounced on an apprentice mechanic called Andy Massey and seriously wounded Stephens as he tried to recapture her.

The incident made headlines around the world and led to the couple playing a Christmas season with Chipperfield’s Circus in Dublin. But they also came under financial pressure when Massey sued.
Stephens dreamed of making the big time in America and to increase the appearance of danger in his act went against all advice to buy a particularly ferocious male lion from Dublin Zoo.

On January 27 1953, he and Mai were visited at the winter quarters of Fossett’s Circus by a talent scout from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the famed Greatest Show on Earth. Stephens was so keen to impress that he wore a new suit in the lion cage. His male lion failed to recognise his scent in the unfamiliar clothes and mauled him to death in front of his wife.

After her husband’s death, Mai returned to Fairview and took a job as an usherette at the Bohemian cinema. The following year, she met her second husband, Joe Tracy, who worked for the seed and grain merchants Dardis & Dunne. They married in 1959 and lived in a corporation house at 1 East Wall Road, the street where she grew up.

Throughout her second marriage, Mai seldom mentioned her previous life in the circus. Her two children only knew that she was sentimentally attached to a small toy circus set. When a circus came to town, she would park outside and listen to the music but never ventured into the big top.

After a stroke in 2011, Mai was left partially paralysed and unable to speak. She moved into the Marymount Care Centre in Westmanstown, County Dublin. It was there that she was tracked down by filmmaker Joe Lee for a brief but moving final scene in his documentary, Fortune’s Wheel - The Life and Legacy of the Fairview Lion Tamer. Released this year, the doc was named Best Irish Film at the Dublin Film Festival.

Mai Tracy was born November 5 1924 and died November 27, 2015. She is survived by her husband Joe, son Martin and daughter Caroline.

For more tales from the big top, read Circus Mania, the book described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read the reviews.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Circus Girl Falls but The Show Goes On

This was the shocking scene at the Shaherezada circus in KirovRussia as an acrobat fell from high in the big top and lay unmoving in the sawdust circle.

The show had just begun, the camels and horses of the animal parade had just left the ring. Angelina was hanging above them, waiting to begin her act when she lost her grip and fell.

Fortunately, she made a full recovery and wrote on social media:

"The circus is living art. It is not like a movie with many stunts.
"You polish your skills throughout the years. It seems that I made a terrible mistake somewhere along the way.
"Thank you very much to the amazing angel that protects me.
"I disappointed the whole crew and of course our guests.
"But this did not affect the show. Soon I will back and prove to myself that I am a true artist."

But the incident could have been far worse in a branch of show business where there is no computer generated trickery, just real performers taking real risks and sometimes taking fatal falls.

Click here to read my Daily Telegraph article on When Circus Stunts Go Fatally Wrong.

And click here to read an extract from Circus Mania in which I talk to aerial silk artist Eva Garcia just days before she fell and died during a performance at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

The term bravery is often bandied in the arts. Usually it means no more than an unusual choice of song. For those with circus blood, it's a daily way of life and sometimes death.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Happy 2016

And thanks to Bristol-based circus makers Cirque Bijou for the calendar from which the above image is taken. Bijou specialise in big outdoor stunts and the high wire act was part of the launch of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital. Photo: Andre Pattenden.