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, 18 March 2016

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott - Book Review.

Bull-hook (noun) A pointy stick used by animal rights activists to bash circuses and prod the consciences of fans.

It was largely local bans of the bull-hook, ankus or elephant goad that led Ringling to retire its iconic elephant parade. Without the guiding tool, which has been used by Indian mahouts for thousands of years, it would be impossible for the circus to safely control its elephants in the street or circus ring, thus making it untenable for the show to visit major cities such as Los Angeles.

Or would it?

I recently watched some Golden Age footage of Britain’s Bobby Roberts working his elephants at the height of his fame. It was an exciting, fast moving act. The elephants ran around the ring, sat on tubs with their forelegs in the air, laid down in perfect choreography and performed headstands... all the things circus elephants are famous for doing.

Bobby and Anne
Look ma, no bull-hook.
Yet Roberts says he has never used or even owned a bull-hook in his life. His control of his herd, which he worked from their infancy - when he himself was just a lad - was entirely with his voice.

“I always said if you couldn’t hold it (the elephant) with your tongue, you couldn’t handle them,” said Bobby. “When I shouted, that was enough.”

The only tools he used were a whip (for cracking, not hitting the elephants) and a walking stick that the lead elephant would hold in its trunk when he led his parade, marching trunk to tail, from railway station to circus ground.

That’s one of the surprising details to emerge from Claire Ellicott’s new book, Saving Anne the Elephant - The True Story of The Last British Circus Elephant.

It was, of course, undercover film of Anne being hit by Romanian groom Nicolae Nitu that led to the closure of Bobby Roberts Super Circus after a media outcry in 2011. The case led to Lord Taylor announcing a ban on wild animals in UK circuses, although the legislation has yet to be introduced.

Click here to read about my part
in the BBC documentary The Last Circus Elephant
There’s no getting away from the fact that Ellicott’s book is part of the ongoing campaign for a ban - and many fans and circus industry insiders won't like it for that reason.

It is, however, an important record of a landmark case and in attempting to untangle the complex issues involved, Ellicott includes plenty that the animal rights groups that protested Roberts' circus won't like either.

Ellicott was one of the reporters that originally broke the story of Anne in the Daily Mail. The paper campaigned and fundraised to get the elderly Anne moved from the circus to Longleat Safari Park and, on the surface, Saving Anne plays to the expectations of readers who want a clear cut story of an abused animal given a happy ending.

Ellicott takes the view “it is now almost universally agreed on that elephants shouldn’t perform in circuses.” She heavily lays on the “terrible suffering” of Anne at the hands of Nitu at a time in the twilight of her career when, as the last survivor of Bobby’s herd, the arthritis-stricken elephant was too old to perform and the ageing Roberts was himself too ill to personally care for her.

A lot of space is given to the views of Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, the husband and wife founders of Animal Defenders International who spent 15 years trying to infiltrate Roberts’ circus before obtaining the undercover footage. Further anti-circus opinion is provided by Dr Ros Clubb of the RSPCA and Professor Stephen Harris, the latter a long term opponent of circuses who is currently heading a study of circus animals on behalf of the Welsh government (Read more about that here).

But Ellicott's concise, journalistic book also looks at the story from the point of view of the Roberts family, and Roberts is portrayed perhaps surprisingly sympathetically as a "victim of circumstances."

It was Ellicott who first showed ADI’s video to Bobby and his wife Moira. She saw their reaction first hand - they were as disgusted by Nitu’s actions as anyone else. She clearly warmed to the couple’s sincerity and devotes two chapters to an interview with the couple carried out especially for this book.

As the author writes, “It’s hard not to be fascinated by the Robertses lives.”

Anne at Longleat
The most compelling chapter relates the history of the circus family’s illustrious lineage and glory days; Anne’s meetings with the Queen, Princess Anne and other celebrities; and Bobby’s romance with Moira, the fairground girl who ran away with the circus. In their early days the couple had a western act and Bobby accidentally shot off the finger on which she wore her wedding ring. Moira hid the injury from both Bobby and the audience and finished the act.

Back in the present, Ellicott airs the Robertses' belief that they were set up: that Nitu was paid to attack Anne; that it was suspicious that he never normally wore a hat, only in the video to hide his face, as if he knew he was being filmed. That he conveniently disappeared the morning the news broke, despite speaking no English and having no money as he hadn’t been paid.

It’s also suggested he hit Anne with a plastic pitchfork and that the thwack of a metal bar was overdubbed - a theory consistent with the observation that the noise was “almost the only sound on the video” - as well as with Anne’s minimal reaction to the blows and subsequent lack of marks on her body.

The truth about Nitu may never be known as animal cruelty is deemed too minor an offence to extradite him from Romania, where he fled to.

Bobby took the fall for employing a keeper who betrayed his trust and Ellicott stresses that there's no evidence he was personally cruel or knew what Nitu was doing.

The book also makes clear that Anne wasn’t seized from the Robertses; they gave her away voluntarily, and had in fact been looking into her retirement for a few years, but sanctuaries are hard to find in the UK and Anne was too frail to fly to America.

YouTube footage of Anne leaving the circus HQ.
When Anne moved to Longleat, Bobby walked her into the transporter  (This can be viewed on YouTube. With not a bull-hook in sight he leads her by the trunk with his hands). He was perplexed when her new owners wouldn’t walk her out without chaining her legs together. He was also apprehensive of her new keepers’ bull-hooks - it was the first time Anne had seen such an instrument.

Anne looks in much better condition in the video than she is described by the animal rights lobby. One of the new keepers in fact angered the animal rights groups by saying on TV “Hats off to Bobby” for getting Europe’s oldest elephant to such an advanced aged (around 60-years-old) in such good shape. The safari park depended on Roberts showing them how to look after Anne in her first few days there.

The move to Longleat was, in fact, a “slap in the face” to the circus-hating ADI, as it had been founded by the Chipperfield circus family.

It’s a shame Ellicott ultimately supports a ban on the grounds of changing times, and that she didn’t speak to more supporters of animals in the circus. After pages of anti-circus rhetoric by Ros Clubb and Stephen Harris, a couple of short quotes from Martin Lacey Sr and Chris Barltrop are taken from old Daily Mail articles.

My Daily Telegraph interview
with Thomas Chipperfield.
Thomas Chipperfield is however described as “the most interesting defender of circus animals” and some of his “fascinating insights” into training are quoted from the interview I did with him in the Daily Telegraph.

Elephant osteopath Tony Nevin, meanwhile, treated Anne while she was travelling with the circus in 2007 and comments that she was mentally more content than most zoo elephants, which he attributes to her varied life: “She got to swim in the sea, go on beaches, go across moorland. All sorts of stuff she’s done over the years. Then you look at most zoo elephants and they’re plodding around the same paddock.”

Ultimately, Anne is portrayed as happy in her purpose-built £1.2 million new home where she listens to Classic FM, rolls in the sand and eats wine gums “just like any old lady.”

Bobby, meanwhile, is labelled  "a misunderstood relic of a past era who had the best intentions," - a man who loved his animals and couldn't understand why what was acceptable 30 years ago was no longer accepted today.

But was he actually ahead of his time, a genuine elephant whisperer who needed no bull-hook to command his herd, just his voice and a bond built up in a lifetime?

Perhaps there are more out there like him, or will be, who could one day take elephants back into Los Angeles regardless of a ban on the bull-hook.

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott is published by John Blake and available from Amazon.

Further reading: For more on the bull-hook, click here to read Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is it Time to Let Circuses off the Hook?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Clowns are the binding force of the Universe - An interview with Julie Varholdt aka Lovely Buttons

Julie Varholdt becomes Lovely Buttons

Clown Gathering UK, a week of talks, workshops and shows at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft in February attracted clowns from all over the world, including Julie Varholdt, aka Lovely Buttons, who flew all the way from Arizona. I asked her about her clowning life.

How would you describe your style of clowning?

I'm a bit of a Tom Boy type clown. I'm very physical and talk A LOT! I started off as a White Face clown for 3 years, then slowly changed to an Auguste Clown. In Arizona it's just too hot to be a white face clown. I usually wear funny shorts and cute t-shirts. I have almost as many costumes as I do real people clothes. Stilt walking is a big part of my clowning also, and face painting, and balloons, and walk a round.

How did the Lovely Buttons character come about and how would you describe her? 

First she never shuts up and loves everybody. The grumpier the person I'm entertaining the better! I just had a birthday and I'm now 1,523, 637,512 seconds old! So I'm still learning and growing. I have what they call ADLS- it means Attention Deficit Look Shiny!  It takes years and years to develop a character and be comfortable with it. Just because you put a clown nose on and a costume does not make you a clown. If I put a stethoscope on it does NOT make me a doctor. Or if I carry a brief case I'm NOT a lawyer.

Do you encounter many children who are scared of clowns and how do you deal with it?

No not really. I'm very approachable and lovely! There's nothing scary about my clown character at all. If I do run into a child that is timid and scared I have some funny lines I use that ALWAYS work and they're no longer scared.

What is it that most interests you in clowns and being a clown?

The shiny medals! There's nothing like seeing 100 clowns in costume and watching them interact with a crowd. It's surely brilliant and awe inspiring! Some clowns are more like family to me then some of my real family. Once we all become friends we keep each other in our hearts forever!

What percentage of clowns are women and do you see many women coming into the profession?

Would you believe that over here in America the majority of clowns are women. Men are in the minority. Out of 100 clowns about 90% are women. When you go to conventions here in the US, about 71% are women and 39% are men.

Why does the world need clowns?

Let's sing a song..... What the world needs now is clowns, more clowns.
We are the binding force of the universe..... Kind of like Jedis! Luke I am your clown father!

For more on Lovely Buttons, click here to visit her website.

For an interview with Simon Thompson's Clown Noir, click here. And for an interview with Bobbo Roberts - 30 Years a Clown - click here.

Bobbo catches up with his reading
at Clown Gathering UK
For more on clowns and clowning read Circus Mania - a book loved by clowns!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Clown Noir in Nose Business - Interview with Simon Thompson

A Clown Extravaganza, the gala show at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft as part of Clown Gathering UK in February offered a rare chance to see a wide range of clowns from both sides of the Atlantic performing a variety of clowning styles. Among them were Sean Rollo Rollason and son Tommy performing a classic pantomime-style baking routine; Canada’s Amanda O’Leary doing party magic; Arthur Pedlar as a classic musical whiteface clown; and a very physical mixture of tumbling, juggling, music and humour from the Foolhardy Circus Troupe.

Also present was Simon Thompson’s slightly scary character clown, Clown Noir, who clowns in a theatrical setting. Thompson is touring this year in his new show, Nose Business. I asked him about his life as a clown.

How long have you been clowning and how did you get into it?

I began to train as clown in 1984, my inspiration came from many directions. I lived near Belle Vue Circus so my first experience of trad clown was Jacko Fossett, then Charlie Carolli at Blackpool Tower, other inspiration came from Buster, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. It was in Paris with Le Coq that I first put on a red nose and started to play and I’ve never looked back.

How would you describe your style of clowning?

My style of clown is on the edge of Bouffon*, I like parody and making social commentary, yet play is central to everything I do. It allows for creativity so the obvious is avoided. I focus on audience engagement and shared experience.

How did the Clown Noir character come about?

Clown Noir is an extreme me, essentially childlike and full of mischief, yet he’s lived a full life and those experiences have coloured his persona. The make up is basically a mask to hide behind. It ease’s his feelings of vulnerability allowing him to comment where others may not. The laughter sugar coats the truth behind the dialogue or the game lulling the audience and pulling them in.

What were your workshops at this year’s CGUK about?

Find Play in Everything:
This workshop does what it says on the tin. Play for me is an essential ingredient for creativity and indeed Clown. Through play we can reveal childlike qualities, we can find solutions to problems and ultimately avoid the obvious.

Shared Experience:
In this workshop we will be focusing on our engagement with an audience and how we can tap into the emotional state of the clown and then share that with the audience. Thus creating moments of truthful and purposeful play. A clown is said to act as a mirror to society, I want to push that further by creating a silent direct communication with the audience. Allowing them to share your inner most thoughts, feelings, desires and be part of your journey, which then causes them to reflect on their own
circumstances. I want the audience to empathise, not pity. I want the audience to laugh with you not at you. I want the audience to share your pain and cry with you. I want the audience to scream, shout, swear, I want them to ride your emotional roller coaster and at the end, I want them to hug you, and love you.

What is it that most interests you in clowns and being a clown?

The humanity, the ability to be honest, fragile, insecure, vulnerable and present in front of an audience, a clown can connect at deeper level with the audience, because he shows the audience themselves but in exaggerated situations. He’s a problem solver and a truth teller.  

What’s the difference between a clown and a comedian or an actor; what sets the clown apart?

See above, hehehehe!

Why does the world need clowns?

Because they reflect humanity, a clown can stimulate laughter, tears, rage, love and empathy in fact all the human emotions, whilst making it easy to access for all ages and status’s.

What was the inspiration for Nose Business?

Nose Business is the last part of the Clown Noir Trilogy, which has echo’s of my life, career and failures along the way.

Catch Simon Thompson’s Clown Noir on tour in Nose Business at the following venues. More dates to be added. Check website for details.

13th, 14th May, Chapel on the Hill, Killorglin, Kerry
16th,17th May, Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
17th June, Fisher Theatre, Bungay. UK
18th June, Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft UK
23rd -26th June, Barnstaple Fringe Festival, UK
3rd – 6th August, Cork Arts Theatre, Cork
31st-4th Sept, Holbaek Clown Festival, Denmark
21st Sept, Carnegie Arts Centre, Kenmare, Kerry
22nd Sept, St John’s Arts Centre, Listowel, Kerry
23rd Sept, Friars Gate, Kilmallock, Limerick
24th Sept, Dance Limerick, Limerick City
28th Oct, Waterside Theatre, Derry, Northern Ireland
3rd Nov, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, Northern Ireland

*Bouffon. Not a spelling mistake but a term coined by Jacques Lecoq:  “The difference between the clown and the bouffon is that while the clown is alone, the bouffon is part of a gang; while we make fun of the clown, the bouffon makes fun of us. At the heart of the bouffon is mockery pushed to the point of parody. Bouffons amuse themselves by reproducing the life of man in their own way, through games and pranks. The parody isn’t directly offensive with regard to the public; there is no deliberate intention to mock—the relation is of a different order. Bouffons come from elsewhere.”
Theatre of Movement and Gesture, 2006

Click here for an interview with Bobbo Roberts - 30 Years a Clown.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi

When Kathleen Cremonesi set off on a back-packing tour of Europe in her twenties, she didn't dream she would end up joining a circus, riding elephants, swimming with sharks and falling for a handsome Italian elephant keeper. In the following interview, which originally appeared in My Weekly, she tells me about her big top love story.

"Riding an elephant in a circus was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There was no rehearsal. My only instructions were, “Hold on and do what the other girls do!”

As we bounced through the velvet curtains into the spotlights, with all the trumpets and applause, it was hard to pay attention to what everyone else was doing. With pink beads popping from my costume and Raya the elephant’s sandpaper hide and quill-like hairs shredding my fishnets, it was all I could do not to fall off!

Luckily Raya knew her routine well. As she danced and twirled, it was like being on a roller-coaster that wasn’t on a track. I had no idea which way she was going or what she was going to do.

When Marilyn Monroe
joined the circus!
When the 15-minute act was over, I couldn’t feel my fingers, I couldn’t feel my thighs, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face!

Running away with a circus wasn’t an ambition of mine when I set off on a back-packing tour of Europe in my early 20s. Purely by chance, I met up with some street performers in Amsterdam and we decided to busk our way down to Spain.

One day, the juggler saw a sign for a circus. He decided to join and asked me to go along to translate. As it turned out, he only stayed a couple of days. His circus dream ended when an elephant stomped on his clubs and crushed them.

I joined the show as a dancer. The reason was because I’d fallen in love with Stefano, the handsome young Italian who looked after the elephants.

I was attracted to him from the moment I first saw him in the ring. The spotlight was on the presenter and Stefano was in the background, walking beside the elephants as they performed, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

We were introduced after the show because he was the only one there who could speak English, and hit it off straight away.

It was the first time I’d been in love and I was taken with everything about him, from his looks to his great accent.

He seemed so daring with those enormous animals - in control and at the same time so compassionate and gentle with them. It was a very heady mix.

Stefano and I fell in love very quickly, although as we travelled through Spain and Italy our work in the circus left only stolen moments for us to be together.

When I wasn’t dancing or riding an elephant, my job was preparing dinner for the other animals, including a llama, buffalo, antelope and emus. My favourite was Baros the giraffe, who was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.

Jumbo - the most famous circus animal ever!
So famous they named a jet and hotdog
after him! (Really! Jumbo wasn't a
word before Jumbo!)
Among the colourful human characters were the tiger trainer who proudly showed his scars to everyone he met, and Moira Orfei, the famous and fearsome circus matriarch who would fine you if you hung your washing up in public - you had to hide it in the back of a lorry.

One day, the boss decided I should ride an ostrich around the ring while dressed as a leprechaun. Two men held the huge bird steady while I climbed on - and we were off! It was like riding a 300lb chicken, with me hanging on for dear life! Unfortunately they forgot to tell me how to dismount and as we charged out of the big top, I could only fall backwards into the dirt.

The scariest thing I did was swim twice daily in a tank with two sharks - one of them seven and a half feet long and the other nine. But at that time in my life I was chasing adventure and once I got over my initial fear it was exhilarating.

The most dangerous job in the circus was Stefano’s: working with the elephants. When you first meet them, they don’t know how you’re going to treat them, so they test you and make sure you know how powerful they are.

When Stefano first joined the circus, he was bending over a bale of hay and an elephant whacked her trunk across his back so hard he still has the injury.

Me and the Elephant!
Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of Britain's last circus elephants.
Another time, the head trainer looked away for ten seconds. An elephant grabbed Stefano and pulled him beneath her. He saw her foot above his head.

The trainer looked back, called the elephant’s name and she stopped. Another few seconds and she might have killed him. But it didn’t deter Stefano. He loved the elephants and worked hard until he won their respect and formed a very special relationship with them.

Elephants have a presence that’s humbling to be around. They look at you with such intelligence that it’s like they can see through any facade you put up.

I’ll always be grateful for my big top adventure. It was a coming of age experience in which I went from being very free-spirited and independent to learning how to be a part of something larger than myself. I also met the love of my life there.

Twenty years later, Stefano and I run a business repairing espresso machines. We live and work together 24 hours a day and I don’t think we’d have the great relationship we do if it hadn’t been for our circus days."

Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi is available from with a poportion of the proceeds going to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.