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

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