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."

Monday, 31 October 2016

Yasmin Smart remembers her grandfather Billy Smart

In an interview that first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the circus equestrian and ring-mistress Yasmin Smart recalls her grandfather, the circus showman Billy Smart, and the day they received a royal visit in this photograph.

"This is me at the age of six or seven presenting flowers to Princess Margaret at the charity performance my grandfather Billy Smart, pictured centre, presented on Clapham Common each year to raise money for the Variety Club.

Granddad had started out with a coconut shy and by the 1930s had the largest touring funfair in England. He always had a soft spot for circuses, and in 1946 he bought a second-hand big top. For a while he toured a circus alongside the funfair. Then the circus became so large that he carried on without the fair. By the time of this photo in 1960, our big top was a huge 6000-seater.

One reason we needed such a big tent was because Granddad loved big productions. We had a track around the outside of the circus ring and the finale was a huge western scene with everyone riding horses and shooting.

In the picture he’s wearing his trademark western tie. He always had a Stetson and a big cigar. He was a great fan of America and got a lot of his ideas from there, which is why he called his show Billy Smart’s New World Circus - he was very modern and brought something new to the circus world.

He was a very flamboyant man. When he came into the room, you couldn’t help noticing him. He was a very hard father but a fantastic grandfather. He had about 30 grandchildren and I think he was much warmer and more affectionate to us than he’d been to his children - even though he had a very dry sense of humour which could be quite hard for a child to understand.

One year I was begging my father for a horse. I looked out the window on my birthday and there it was, wearing a big bow. I hugged my daddy and he said, “No, it wasn’t me, it was Granddad.” I ran to Granddad to thank him and he just gave me a smile: “What horse...?”

That was his sense of humour; he didn’t want any fuss. But we loved him very much and he loved us. We’d go to his caravan on Sunday to get our pocket money and he liked me to scratch his head. His hair lotion had a distinctive scent and after he died there’d be times in the winter quarters that I could still smell it.

On the day he died, in 1966, we’d had a big parade through Ipswich. There was a band in front of the big top and he was dancing in front of the crowd to I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. I was looking after the pony rides and watching from a distance, giggling at the sight. He went into his caravan, and the next thing I saw was people rushing around and an ambulance coming. He’d just dropped dead.

For him, that was the best way to go. Shortly before he died he’d bought a big piece of land that would become Windsor Safari Park. He didn’t live to see it open, but to the end he was planning his next venture."

Interview by Douglas McPherson

Friday, 28 October 2016

Growing up in the circus - a picture that says it all

Here's a picture that surely sums up how wonderful it must have been to grow up in one of the great circuses of yesteryear. Two kids taking an elephant for a walk down a suburban street... on skateboards!
That's Bobbo Roberts in the foreground (read about his new clown show here) and his sister bringing up the rear. As for the elephant... surely this picture sums up the harmony in which circus folk and their animals once lived.* The jumbo was obviously part of the family, a big pet, considered safe enough to play in the street with two young children who she clearly trusted completely, and them her.
Notice there's not a bull-hook in sight. Bobbo's father Bobby Roberts, the circus owner and elephant trainer never used nor even owned one. He thought an ankus was something you found on a boat.
What a shame we're unlikely to ever see scenes like this on a British street again - a picture from the days when human and animal relationships were considered both normal and natural, to be celebrated, not outlawed, as they are today.
*And yes, I know there are still circus trainers keeping alive the tradition, but they are becoming ever more rare and the threat of a ban on their vocation grows ever closer in Wales (see article here) and now Scotland, where a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses will be debated in the Scottish Parliament next year.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if those with the power to ban could gaze upon a photo like this, from the days before protesters, political correctness and killjoys, and realise that those simpler times were better times. Let's bring them back!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

New clown and circus show coming soon - and you can help!

Smartii Pants and Bobbo

There are some shows you know will be good as soon as you hear a one-line outline. Such a show is the new venture by the newly-formed double-act of Bobbo Roberts and Ian 'Smartii Pants' Williams, which features "proper clowning in a panto-like theatre show." Oh yes, and it's is set behind the scenes of a traditional circus. What could be better?

It sounds like audience participation will feature strongly, and if you're a fan of clowns and clowning, you can get involved from the very beginning by supporting the production through its Go Fund Me Page. Alternatively, if you're a clown or circus person yourself, the boys would be pleased to hear from you if you could lend them any drapes or props to add to the circus atmosphere.

Bobbo took time out from preparing the show to tell us a little bit about it:

What is the title of your new show, and what's the storyline?
The new show is called "Trouble at the (Big) top" It features a failing circus as a backdrop where all the acts have walked out leaving only the ringmaster and a clown to put on all of the acts between them. It allows for the use of a lot of clown parody acts and gives a lot of room within the framework for a lot of proper clowning and play to involve the audience.
Who's idea was it and what was the inspiration? 
Ian and I had been bemoaning the lack of proper clowning and wanted to show audiences what we loved about real clowning. I suppose the inspiration came from various sources, The Crazy Gang, Norman Wisdom and The Pickle Family Circus over in the USA certainly helped but our main focus was on breathing life into some old concepts by performing them with the audience not at them. Oh and of course mention needs to be made of the amazing work Tweedy does with his one-man show.
Smartii Pants reacts to Bobbo's suggestion
that they put on a show
Will it be just the two of you or is anyone else in the cast? 
At the moment the intention is to run as a two-man show/crew. We'll  be tweaking the show so we can run the sound and lighting cues ourselves whilst mid act and trying to incorporate sound effects in to polish the production. Only with today's technology is this possible and we want to make a show that may be set in a simpler time but is really of it's time.
What can we expect to see in the show in terms of clown routines etc? 
There will be various acts represented such as Juggling, Strongman, Magic and a parody on animal acts. Of course for the changeovers there will be various other clown bits thrown in to allow for costume changes. The framework will remain the same but every performance will be different as each audience will help shape it as they join in and come along with us. Overall it will be  Burlesque in the truest sense of the word, parodying whilst at the same time reverie the acts we put on.
How did you meet Ian and what made you decide to team up for this show? 
We move in similar circles and realised when we chatted we had a similar passion for real clowning and the humanity in it. We ended up talking over coffee quite regularly when one day we suddenly decided talking was getting us nowhere and we started writing instead. Our good friend Simon Thompson (Clown Noir) has been touring a one-clown show for a while and really encouraged us to look deeper than the same old gags and to go into a room and play with the props till we found some truth. We went into a room and played around for a week in character and came out thinking this could actually be something good.
What are the challenges of starting a show from scratch? 
Time is the major consideration, writing and rehearsing the show takes time as does building props and editing music not to mention sewing costumes and designing posters. It really is a two-man effort to get everything done. We've set ourselves a target of performing an early draft of the show as a fundraiser for a local Boys Brigade before the end of the year to give ourselves a deadline to work to.
Clowns on their way!
How much are you hoping to raise through your funding page and what do you need to buy? 
The target is £3000 but we're not only looking to raise money. We are lucky in that we have friends in the business who may have drapes and set pieces lying around Ian used to teach sound engineering years ago but neither of us has a PA system as our backgrounds are not as party entertainers.
When are you planning to tour and what sort of venues? 
We're previewing the show this November to get a feel for what works and then by next year we'll rewrite parts and start touring in the first quarter of 2017. We're looking to play intimate venues so we can maintain eye contact with the full audience. Eventually as the show grows we'll be looking to include local drama and dance schools and speciality acts in the show to give them a chance to perform.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the show or other forthcoming appearances? 
We both have jobs coming up for the Christmas season with our solo acts. Ian is working some street jobs and I have some appearances at the Britannia Panoptican music hall. We'll be appearing together again at CGUK 2017 in March and we're taking the show to Limerick fringe in April, then we'll be working at Holbaek clown festival in Denmark in August. It's a busy old year but if you have a passion for what you're doing it's worth the effort.

Bobbo would also like to thank his comedy partner Ian for being his best man when he gets married this Friday (October 21), and his wife-to-be Gill, who has been supporting 'Trouble at the (Big) top' by keeping him and Ian topped up with coffee and bacon and eggs while they work on the show.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Zippos circus kicks out clowns shocker!

Years of attacks by animal rights activists couldn't stop Zippos circus touring with cats and budgies, but the evil clown craze has caused showman Martin Burton to call time on that other circus staple, clowns.

According to a report in The Sun, Burton fears the evil clown craze has stoked the fear of clowns to such proportions that he fears families would be put off buying tickets if they thought they'd see any red noses in the ring:

“The recent hijacking of clowns from comedy into horror, started by Stephen King and now adopted at Halloween horror mazes and in film around the world is simply not funny.

"I would like to make it clear to our visitors that Zippos Circus shows feature no clowns, in fact the 'red nose' has been redundant with us for a while - we prefer comic slapstick characters of the Charlie Chaplin style, but nonetheless we are concerned that families might be put off attending our circus, and robustly condemn these clown stalkers."

The press reports about Zippos' no-clown policy, however, are not strictly true. Zippos still features clowning in the form of Mr Lorenz, who may not wear a red nose or a scary mask, but still wears recognisable modern clown make-up including a white lip, and performs clown routines (as opposed to, say, stand up comedy or some form of non-clown funny business).

What we have, then, is a great example of a circus turning the bad clown publicity to it's advantage in the form of national advertising.

It still seems odd though that Burton, who is also the President of Clowns International and a former clown himself, appears to be distancing himself from the clowning profession he's supposed to represent. Is this an example of how badly the prankster clowns have unsettled the professionals?

Friday, 7 October 2016

Creepy Clowns - Scaring people since 1892

The creepy clowns are back, with reports coming in from all over America of dubious pranksters dressed as big-footed funny men lurking in woods and terrorising neighbourhoods. Now the sightings are starting again in Britain - where the creepy clown craze was started by the Northampton Clown back in 2013.

These aren't 'real' clowns, of course - as in professional entertainers - just pranksters donning Halloween garb to scare people for a laugh. But the scare tactics are working, because there is a long history of people being scared by clowns that dates back to Victorian times, when fiction's first killer clown appeared in an opera.

Joker's wild
ClownhouseMr JinglesIn Fear Of Clowns and Killer Clowns From Outer Space are just some of the horror films to feed or exploit the fear of white-faced funny-men. The Joker in Batman and the toy clown that comes to life in Poltergeist are further examples, while Bart Simpson voiced childhood fears with the mantra, “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”

In 2008, a University of Sheffield study of 250 children between the ages of four and 16 was commissioned to determine the best choice of hospital decor. The results found clowns to be “universally disliked” and regarded as “frightening and unknowable.”

Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - is estimated to afflict 2% of the adult population, but anecdotal evidence including the existence of websites such as I Hate suggests the figure is much higher (you can even sign up for your own email address).

Bart Simpson
"Can't Sleep, clown will eat me!"
Clowns, in one form or another, have always been with us. The court jester of medieval times is just one historical example of an anarchic fool licensed to poke fun at society’s mores.

The father of modern clowning was Victorian pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi, after whom clowns are still nicknamed Joeys. Grimaldi popularised white face paint with red markings on his cheeks as a way of making his expressions more visible in smoky, candlelit theatres.

Grimaldi was a massive celebrity but a memoir posthumously edited by Charles Dickens revealed him to be a tragic, depressed figure in private who punned, “I’m grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.”

The first Joey
Joseph Grimaldi
- an illustration from
Circus Mania
Andrew McConnell Stott, author of The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi (Canongate), traces the enduring cliche of the sad man behind the clown face directly to Grimaldi. And it’s perhaps the fact that a clown’s make-up disguises the wearer’s true emotions that makes us suspicious of them.

According to author Ramsey Campbell, who employed sinister clown themes in The Grin Of The Dark, “It’s the fear of the mask, the fact it doesn’t change and is relentlessly comical.”
Grimaldi’s French contemporary Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who created the pantomime character Pierrot, became the first real life killer clown when he struck a boy and killed him after being taunted in the street.

Fictional killer clowns quickly followed with the 1892 Italian opera Pagliacci (Clowns) depicting a Grimaldi-type character who murders his wife.

The mid-20th century was a golden age for loveable clowns as television spread the fame of Bozo the Clown in America and Charlie Cairoli in Britain. The popularity of clowns was reflected by the decision of McDonalds to adopt Ronald McDonald as its mascot in 1963 - although opponents of the fast food chain may regard the Happy Hamburger Clown as a prime example of a smiling clown with a sinister agenda.

Ronald McDonald
making another fan for life
Cairoli’s generation had become established as children’s entertainers whereas earlier clowns like Grimaldi provided satire for adults. But it was the association with childhood innocence that allowed horror writers to make clowns scary - for what could be more frightening than a homicidal maniac loose among kids?

Real life added to the image of clown as predator when John Wayne Gacy - a registered clown called Pogo - was convicted of killing 35 men in Chicago between 1972 and 1978.

“Clowns can get away with murder,” quipped the man newspapers dubbed the Killer Clown.

Today’s clowns are well aware that many people find them more scary than funny. Circuses in America run clown therapy workshops in which children watch clowns applying their make-up to demystify the transformation.

Danny Adams
Just clowning
Many British clowns, such as Danny Adams of Cirque du Hilarious, have reduced their make-up to a minimum.

“Too much make-up scares the kids,” says Adams. “I’ve never worn a lot and over the years it’s got less and less.”

Jasper King of musical clown troupe the Chipolatas wears no clown make-up at all, saying, “When I started out I had a white face and I soon realised that wasn’t the way to go. It alienates people - you’re someone different. I want the kids to think, ‘He’s the same as me.’”

But if you take away a clown’s make-up, is he still a clown?

Slapstick movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were direct descendants of the American circus’ hobo clown or character clown, and were clowns in every respect except face-paint, which on the big screen they didn’t need. The most successful clown of recent times is Mr Bean, although few fans of Rowan Atkinson’s mostly silent creation ever recognise him as a clown.

The world will probably always need clowns to hold up a distorted mirror to the absurdities of life.

But perhaps because they no longer appear in smoky Victorian theatres they no longer need exaggerated faces to be seen.

Then again, maybe the current fad for public pranksters dressed as clowns is proof that a scary sense of otherness has always been part of the appeal of clowns.

As the Northampton Clown put it, “I just want to amuse people. Most people enjoy being a bit freaked out and then they can laugh about it afterwards. It’s like watching a horror movie. When people get scared, they start laughing.”

For the full story of clowning and interviews with some of today's funniest clowns, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus by Douglas McPherson

"Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.