In this article, which first appeared in the world's oldest women's magazine, the People's Friend, I talk to the backstage stars behind a circus that exists only to help sick and disadvantaged children through the magic of the big top.
A couple of years ago, Simone Unett joined a circus, her mission to make kids happy. She doesn’t swing on the trapeze in sparkly tights, walk a tightrope or wear a red nose, multi-coloured wig and enormous shoes - not at work, anyway.
Simone is a fundraiser - or perhaps that should be fun raiser - for Circus Starr, a unique show that gives away all its tickets to vulnerable, disadvantaged and disabled children and their families.
Her job is to phone businesses in the 75 towns a year that the circus visits and ask them to help children in their area by donating the price of tickets. The tickets are then distributed to local hospitals, hospices, foster homes, special needs schools and women’s refuges.
“A lot of families who have a child with a physical disability or autism can’t get out to events because they’re afraid people will stare or that their child will make a lot of noise,” Simone explains.
“They don’t feel they can be themselves and enjoy quality family time, so we’ve created an environment for them where they can be as loud as they want and have a really good time in a relaxed environment with people who are dealing with the same issues that they are. Sometimes it’s the only event they get to as a whole family in an entire year,” Simone adds. “That really means a lot to them.”
The flexible seating inside the blue and yellow big top means they’ve even accommodated children in hospital beds.
Circus Starr was the brainchild of Philip Gandey, a third-generation circus showman who also runs such shows as the Chinese State Circus and Spirit Of The Horse. His philanthropic big top was born 30 years ago when Gandey’s Circus was asked to stage a fundraising event for a school.
According to director Neville Wilson, “That first show was so successful that word got around to other charities that wanted to do the same thing, so we set up Circus Starr to help low profile local charities like hospices that didn’t have the resources to raise funds for themselves.”
As well as providing an afternoon or evening out for hundreds of children and their families, the show’s profits are given to a charity that it partners with in each town.
“We donate over £1 million worth of tickets each year,” says Neville. “Then there are a lot of hospices and baby care units that get a nice cheque at the end of the show, so everybody wins.”
Circus Starr is an independent not-for-profit Community Interest Company. But Philip Gandey continues to produce the circus to the high standards of his other shows and books top quality performers from all over the world. It’s a family show with as much for parents and carers as the children.
According to Neville, a former acrobat who has worked in the circus business all his life, “It’s a proper touring circus, moved on six articulated lorries that could compete as a commercial circus, no problem.”
The day-to-day running of the show falls to Robert Price. In the spotlight, he’s the dashing ringmaster in a scarlet coat. Backstage, he cracks the whip (metaphorically speaking!) as show manager.
“We do everything we can to ensure every child enjoys the show, whether they need ringside seats or a bit of time out,” says Robert. “We don’t want to scare them with big flashing lights. We make it nice and gentle for them.”
The circus is in Robert’s blood. His mother was a foot-juggler and he’s now started a circus family of his own.
As soon as he joined Circus Starr, Robert fell in love with his wife Oana, who worked in the box office. Today, the couple travel around the country with the show and their two children, the youngest born this summer.
Also responsible for the troupe, the sound, the lights, the transport and just about everything else, Robert says, “There’s never a dull moment, but life is good!”
For the performers, living in caravans alongside the big blue and yellow circus tent, life is very different to that of the fundraisers, who are based in an office in Congelton, Cheshire. But one of the perks of Simone’s job is visiting the circus, so she and her team can describe the show to potential donors - and also so they can see the result of all their hard work on the phones.
“She’s dressed as a fairy and snow falls all around her while she’s performing. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the gasps from the children are amazing.
“Cold calling companies is difficult, because a lot of people say ‘No.’” Simone admits, “So to see the smile on a child’s face and to know you did that is very motivating.”
Pinned to the walls of the fundraising office are countless thank you cards and letters from families that have been given tickets.
Simone proudly reads one out: “Tonight we came to the show with our two daughters. Due to our elder daughter’s special needs we generally stay away from outings that involve confined spaces and crowds, but tonight was a magical experience for us all - the chance to be a family and see an amazing show that captivated the children and us from start to finish.”
Simone is especially proud of an award-winning app the circus has developed to prime children for their visit to the big top.
“A lot of children with autism struggle with anything outside of their normal routine,” Simone explains. “So they can download the app to their iPad and it takes them through their day at the circus. It has pictures of the entrance, the seating and the acts, so the child can get used to it and feel confident enough to go on the day.
“The feedback we’ve had has been brilliant. Families have said they’ve been playing dress-up circus in the garden before the show. They’ve sent pictures of children with a blanket tied around them like the ringmaster’s cape. It’s lovely.”
On the day, everyone is assured of a warm welcome. Even those - and there are a few adults among them - who are afraid of clowns.
“We’ve had some of those!” Simone admits with a laugh. “But Chico Rico, our clown, has such a warm, welcoming smile that those barriers are soon broken down. The children love him and they have time at the end to get their face painted if they want to.
“There’s always the chance to get their picture taken with some of the acts. It’s a magical day for them and we want to make it as special as we can.”
For Simone, meanwhile, every day is a circus day.
“I’ve been doing phone work for a long time, but this job is really special. I’ve got two kids of my own, so to be able to talk about something that benefits children, and just the fact that the circus is such a fun subject to talk about, is really lovely.”
With a grin, she concludes, “You can tell I love my job, can’t you?”
If you’d like to make a donation to Circus Starr or nominate a family deserving of tickets, visit www.circus-starr.org.uk