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."

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Scotland and Ireland ban wild animals from the big top as the traditional circus slowly disappears

Thomas Chipperfield presents the last big cats
to grace Peter Jolly's Circus, in 2014

“I remember the elephants - just.” Those are the words with which I began Circus Mania. From the first line there was a whiff of nostalgia about my survey of the circus world, even though the focus was not on the history of the big top but a journey through the circus scene as it exists today. The Mail on Sunday called the book “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Naturally I was pleased to use the quote in publicity, although some circus aficianados objected to the word “vanishing”. Surely, they argued, the contemporary circus scene is flourishing? A ‘circus hub’ at the Edinburgh Festival and ‘national’ status for the former training school, Circus Space, which became the National Centre for Circus Arts in 2014, reflects a new appreciation for an age-old form of entertainment in today’s arts scene.

But as we enter 2018 - Circus250! - the 250th anniversary of Philip Astley’s first circus, a large part of the circus tradition is vanishing - the tradition of animals as a major part of the traditional circus bill.

The circus was born on horseback - Philip Astley was a trick rider who built his show around equestrian skills. Lions, elephants, sea lions and chimps’ tea parties became, by the mid-20th century part of everyone’s idea of what a circus is.

Today, though, the animals are disappearing fast.

As PT Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman hits cinema screens, the show that bore his name, the 146-year-old Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is no more. Legislation meant it could no longer tour with its elephants and without them it couldn’t sell tickets.

In Britain, meanwhile, just two weeks before the start of Circus250, the Scottish parliament unanimously signed off a ban on wild animals (by which it means all non-native species) in travelling circuses.

Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said the legislation meant "we will finally and at last truly be able to say Nelly the Elephant has packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus".

It is the first such ban of its kind in the UK, but will it be the last - and will it end with wild animals or prove to be the thin end of a wedge that eventually squeezes even horses - the animal upon which the circus was founded - from a sawdust circle literally designed for four-legged entertainment?

Martin 'Zippo' Burton
(on the right)
Zippos Circus owner Martin Burton, representing the Association of Circus Proprietors, told the Scottish Parliament that a law based on the proposed ethical grounds "will eventually close your zoos".

He said: "The economic impact on animal displays in shopping centres, on displays at outdoors shows of hawks and wild birds, on reindeer and Santa, and eventually zoos will be massive.

"Once you start banning things, particularly on ethical grounds, it is clear that this will spread, because if it's ethically not right to have a wild animal in a circus, then it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear at a gala or a county show, and it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear in a shopping centre, and it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear in a zoo.

"It is clear and logical that that is the only way an ethical ban can go. You can't choose your ethics, you're either going to say it is ethical or it is not ethical."

Burton’s words are being bourn out in Wales, where the Welsh government is currently planning to introduce a new license for Mobile Animal Exhibitions (MAEs). The legislation is aimed at circuses, but because of the difficulty of defining a circus in a way that separates it from other animal exhibitions, the Countryside Alliance and Kennel Club have raised concerns about the effect on other ‘MAEs’ from cattle shows and dog shows to falconry displays.

Across the Irish Sea, the Irish government decreed in November that wild animals would be banned from travelling circuses in Ireland from January 1, 2018.

In England, a ban on wild animals in the big top proposed by David Cameron’s government has so far been staved off with a successful licensing scheme, although the Scottish ban will give fresh ammunition to the animal rights groups pressing for a ban south of the border.

But even without a national ban, local council legislation has reduced the number of ‘wild’ animals in Britain’s big tops to a handful of camels and zebras spread across Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao, while only two or three more circuses, such as Zippos, still have even horses or dogs.

The news reminds me of how lucky I was, as a late convert to the appeal of the big top, to visit the Great British Circus during the writing of Circus Mania and be able to report upon the elephants and tigers that I saw there. At the time, it felt like a rare glimpse into a disappearing past. Re-reading that chapter today, with the Great British Circus now five years closed, I wonder if it was the last glimpse of such a circus that any of us will ever see in the UK again.

Is the disappearance of the animals a good thing for the circus? It's an issue I grappled with during the writing of Circus Mania. I was brought up to believe it was a cruel tradition, but as I interviewed animal trainers and show owners and saw more shows, my understanding grew. By the time I wrote a new chapter for the updated 2018 edition of the book and described my visit to Peter Jolly's Circus my opinion on this always contentious subject had changed a lot from the one I had before I saw my first circus with animals. Perhaps yours will, too.

Click here to buy the updated, new edition of Circus Mania and read about my journey through a world that is disappearing fast.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The UK's Six Cities of Circus announced for Circus250

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the UK’s Six Cities of Circus – the places with the most significant circus heritage and best of today’s circus performances - have been revealed for 2018, the 250th anniversary of the very first circus.

They are - and let’s have a drum roll please...

Bristol - Home to more circus companies than any other British city. The Royal West of England Academy Circus250 exhibition Sawdust and Sequins opens in Bristol in March accompanied by performance from Bristol circus school Circomedia.

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
Read all about it in
Circus Mania!
Norwich and Great Yarmouth - Norwich is the 19th century birthplace of Britain’s first black circus proprietor Pablo Fanque. Events in Norwich will include The Lord Mayor’s Celebrations featuring a circus parade with life-sized elephant puppets winding through the streets in July, and Famished, the new show by Norwich-based Lost in Translation, opens. The seaside town of Great Yarmouth, meanwhile, is home to the Hippodrome, Britain’s only surviving complete circus building:

Philip Astley
An illustration from
Circus Mania!
Newcastle-under-Lyme - Birthplace of Philip Astley, the Father of the Circus as we know it. NoFit State Circus premieres their new in-the-ring show Lexicon under their big top in March and Astley’s Astounding Adventures – specially commissioned for Circus250 year - opens at New Vic Theatre in July.

London - Birthplace of Astley‘s first circus - the first circus in the world, in fact! - and home of the National Centre for Circus Arts. CircusFest – the Roundhouse’s month-long celebration of contemporary circus – kicks off in April. The V&A is one of many major London museums joining in the celebrations with a Friday Late Circus – Past, Present and Future.

Blackpool - Home of the Tower Circus staging shows since 1894. The town comes alive with circus celebrations, from the traditional Tower Circus to the cutting edge Grundy Gallery.

Belfast - Throughout the Troubles in Northern Ireland, circus schools were places where the two communities met to create great work. Contemporary Tumble Circus’s Christmas show closes the Circus250 celebratory year in Belfast’s Writers Square.

For more on the culture of the circus, click here to buy the new updated second edition of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Order Circus Mania for Christmas!

Roll up! Roll up! See the wondrous new face of Circus Mania, 250 years in the making! Full of the remarkable tales of circus life that made it a classic on its first outing. Learn about the origins of the circus from Roman times, to the colourful characters that make the circus the international phenomenon it is today. Circus Mania 2.0 is bigger, better and couldn't be timelier.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Circuses to see this Christmas!

If you'd like to visit the circus this Christmas, there's probably one not far away! Here's a list of an incredible 23 shows around the country, according to the Circus Friends Association. (There's probably a few more out there, too!)

Big Top Christmas Circus - Floralands Garden Centre, Catfoot Lane, Lambley, Nottingham, NG4 4QL.
16th to 31st Dec.

Blackpool Tower Circus - Mooky Doolittle circus pantomime.
The Promenade, Blackpool, Lancashire, FY1 4BJ.
25th Nov to 21st Jan.

Charles Chipperfield Circus - Christmas Spectacular.
Sandwell Valley Farm Park, Salters Lane, West Bromwich, West Midlands,
B71 4BG.
2nd to 24th Dec.

Circus Funtasia - Winter Wonderland Manchester, Event City, Phoenix Way, Manchester, M41 7TB.
9th Dec to 1st Jan.

Circus Ginnett Christmas Circus - Plowmans Garden Centre, 392 Christchurch Road, West Parley, Ferndown, Dorset, BH22 8SW
16th to 31st Dec.

Circus Normandie - Stansted Park Garden Centre, Rowlands Castle, Hampshire, PO9 6DX
16th Dec to 3rd Jan.

Cirque Du Soleil presents OVO - Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AP.
7th Jan to 4th March.

Yarmouth Hippodrome
Hippodrome Christmas Circus Spectacular - St Georges Road, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, NR30 2EU.
10th Dec to 8th Jan.

John Lawson’s Circus - Squires Garden Centre - Badshot Lea. Badshot Lea Road, Farnham, Surrey, GU9 9JX.
25th Nov to 31st Dec.

John Lawson’s Circus - - Squires Garden Centre - Washington. London Road, Washington, Pulborough, West Sussex, RH20 3BP.
25th Nov to 31st Dec.

John Lawson’s Circus - Squires Garden Centre - Shepperton. Halliford Road, Shepperton, Middlesex, TW17 8SG.
25th Nov to 31st Dec.

John Lawson’s Circus - Squires Garden Centre - Stanmore. Common Road, Stanmore, Middlesex, HA7 3JF.
25th Nov to 31st Dec.

Matt Ryan Day presents Circus Spectacular Christmas Show - Flitwick Village Hall, Dunstable Road, Flitwick, Bedford, MK45 1HP.
9th and 10th Dec.

Cirque Berserk - Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH.
17th Nov to 1st Jan.

Moscow State Circus - Ealing Common, Uxbridge Road, Ealing, London,
W5 3TJ.
20th Dec to 7th Jan.

Paulo’s Christmas Circus - Sanders Garden World, Bristol Road, Brent Knoll, Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, TA9 4HJ.
2nd Dec to 1st Jan.

Planet Circus - Christmas Spectacular - Bypass Car Boot site, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, NG6 8AB.
17th Dec to 7th Jan.

Santus Circus presents Le Cirque de Noel - Polhill Garden Centre, London Road, Badgers Mount, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN14 7AD.
14th Dec 5th Jan.

Slava’s Snowshow - The Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX.
18th Dec to 4th Jan.

Wookey Hole Christmas Circus - Wookey Hole Caves, near Wells, Somerset, BA5 1BB.
18th Nov to 7th Jan.

Zippos Circus - Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH.
17th Nov to 2nd Jan.
Circus in Ireland.

Fossett’s Christmas Circus - Tallaght Staduim, Whitestown Way, Tallaght, Dublin 24.
14th Dec to 7th Jan.

Tumble Circus presents Winter Circus 2017 - Writer’s Square, Belfast, Northern Ireland, BT12 2HB.
8th to 27th Dec.

To Keep up with circus news, join the Circus Friends Association.

Friday, 24 November 2017

A Midsummer Night's Circus - short story

A Midsummer Night's Circus
As it first appeared in My Weekly

To bring some sunshine into the dark nights of winter, here's a heart-warming short story about a gang of young dreamers who decide to start a circus in the 1980s...

“A circus, eh?” With face and hands as red as raw meat, the burly butcher stared at Summer Day’s beautifully designed, hand-printed poster. “How many elephants ‘ave you got?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any elephants.” Summer, a 20-year-old vegetarian, tried not to feel queasy amid the split carcasses hanging from every wall.
A mince-splattered transistor radio in the corner was quietly playing the summer’s big hit, There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart by the Eurythmics.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” The butcher’s sausage-like fingers were leaving bloodstained creases on the poster’s edges. “I love the elephants, when Smart’s come to town. Have you got any lions?”
“We don’t actually have any animals,” Summer admitted.
“No animals?” The shopkeeper’s meaty features shifted from disappointment to concern.
“It’s a different sort of circus.” Summer could feel her cheeks becoming as red as his. “A new sort of...”
“Any clowns...?” The butcher asked with little hope.
“Ahem.” Summer pointed two index fingers at herself.
She was wearing bib and brace overalls decorated with multi-coloured patches, a hooped t-shirt and Doc Martin boots spray-painted with metallic purple and silver swirls. Her top hat had a large plastic daffodil sticking out of the band.
The meat vendor looked her up and down and frowned.
“So where’s your red nose?”
Summer sighed as she left the shop. It had been the same story up and down the high street. Although most of the retailers had let her put a poster in their window, their reactions made her wonder why she was spending the holidays promoting a show that defied everyone’s expectations of what a circus should be.
The reason, of course, was Raphael, the dashing, raven-haired English Lit student she’d met at the university’s juggling club. The always inspired and contagiously inspiring Raphael, who had decided to combine his passion for Shakespeare with his new love of circus skills to stage Romeo and Juliet with stilt-walking, fire-eating, a tightrope and clowns.
“Can I be a clown?” she’d heard herself ask, and the moment Raphael’s dark eyes and warm smile turned her way, her fate was sealed.
Oh, Raphael, Raphael! Wherefore art thou, Raphael?
Just the thought of him melted her innards like a Curly-Wurly left in the sun, and brought the skip back to her step as she headed to the park where their tent, a former wedding marquee, stood bedecked with bunting in the sunshine.
Olly was outside, wearing a court jester’s costume as he balanced on a unicycle and juggled with three clubs in a effort to draw attention. None of the passers-by were taking any notice of him.
Still, it was hours until show time, Summer consoled herself. She was sure an audience would come, because Raphael’s idea was such a brilliant one.
“Is Raphael around?” Summer asked, keen to tell him she’d placed all her posters. Maybe it would make him fall in love with her, she thought, giddily.
“Um, not sure.” Olly’s face was strained. Summer thought he sounded worried, but put it down to him trying to keep his balance.
She went into the tent and found it empty apart from its mismatched chairs, standing unevenly on the grass, and the plywood scenery that she’d spent so long carefully painting - picturing Raphael’s sublime features as she applied every stroke.
As well as directing the production, he was starring as Romeo, and Summer doubted that anyone had ever been better cast as Shakespeare’s most famous lover.
Blinking as she re-emerged into sunlight at the back of the tent, she saw the van and minibus that they’d borrowed from uni. The sliding side door of the ‘bus was open and the sound of giggles drew her to it.
At first, she thought there was no one inside. Then she saw a tangle of limbs writhing happily on the back seat. Raphael and Nicole, who played Juliet in the show, were doing a lot more than rehearsing their lines.

“Are you alright, Summer?” Olly asked.
She was sitting alone on a park bench, in the warm, still darkness at the end of the evening. The only light was a pale glow from a nearby streetlamp around which moths fluttered fruitlessly.
She was still wearing her bib and braces and holding her top hat with its plastic flower in her lap.
“Fine.” She looked away from him, her frizz of dark brown curls shading her smudged makeup, as Olly sat down beside her.
For what could she say? Neither Raphael nor Nicole had done anything wrong. There had never been anything between Raphael and Summer except a hope in her heart. But hope, she’d learned, was the most painful thing to lose.
“Beautiful show, wasn’t it?” Olly pulled the ring from a can with a ftt. “Shame no one turned up.”

Back at uni, Summer stopped going to the juggling club, and could offer no real reason when Olly asked her why. Luckily, she, Raphael and Nicole were reading different subjects, so she didn’t have to hang around and watch their relationship unfold. But it still brought her up short, like a punch to the heart, whenever she turned a corner on campus and unexpectedly saw them laughing together or talking closely, so clearly a couple.
For a while, she went out with a boy called Aide, but like a moth she found herself drawn back into Raphael’s orbit.
At a graduation party in a noisy pub, she was surprised to hear Nicole regaling her friends with her plans for a gap year in India - apparently without her Romeo.
“So what have you got planned?” Olly asked Raphael, who was looking distinctly sidelined.
Raphael shuffled his stylish winkle-pickers and looked up shyly from under his black fringe as he said, “I’m thinking of giving the circus a proper go.”
“You’re kidding me?” Olly had a job lined up with a city bank, his juggling days behind him.
“No, I’m serious.” Raphael stood straighter, his chin level. “If I can get a tour of arts festivals I think it could work.”
“Course it will,” said Summer, daring to move closer. “Shakespeare and circus is a brilliant idea.”
He turned, smiling gratefully, as if he hadn’t seen her for a long time. With an inward sigh, Summer wished she hadn’t that very morning accepted a job in Spain, teaching art to primary school children.

It was two years and a broken heart later that Summer found herself back in England. With the job market tougher than she’d expected, she was strolling through the sunny park when she heard shouts and saw the flapping colours of a small circus tent being erected.
With memories of juggling balls bouncing out of her past, she headed towards the small group of longhaired young people struggling with their ropes and poles.
Her heart quickened when she saw a single-decker bus painted like a rainbow, with the words Shakespeare’s Circus emblazoned like graffiti on the side. Then a raven-haired man straightened up from tying a rope, to wipe his glistening brow.
“Raphael!” Summer exclaimed.
Tanned and broad-shouldered from working outdoors, he glanced her way and did a double take.
“Summer!” His beaming face radiated health. “Long time, no see!”
He hugged her, and his muscular manliness left her light-headed.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Hand to mouth,” he admitted. “Still get ten people a day ask where the elephants are, but we’re getting there.”
“Need any clowns?” Summer asked.
“Got too many!” Raphael laughed.
At that moment, two men and a pole fell to the grass and the far side of the tent collapsed.
Raphael grinned at her and said, “I could use a good designer, though.”

Three years later, the orange and blue-striped big top was set up in the corner of an arts festival field. With Jimmy Sommerville singing You Make Me Feel Mighty Real on the sound system, people were milling around enjoying pre-show drinks and food.
“Summer, can you take over the barbeque a moment?” Raphael called.
“Sure.” But when she reached the smoking grill, the sizzling fat turned her stomach.
“’Scuse me!” Hand over her mouth, Summer dashed for the Portaloos.
“Summer...?” Raphael stared after her.

“So when are you and Summer going to tie the knot?” asked Olly, when the burger queue had died down.
“You can’t keep a woman waiting forever.” Nicole fluttered her hand to show off Olly’s ring.
“It’s alright for you two,” Raphael joked. “You’re both loaded.”
“If only!” Olly laughed, but everyone knew he was making a mint in the city. Nicole, meanwhile, was a successful TV producer.
The previous year, Nicole had made a documentary about Raphael using circus tricks to make Shakespeare accessible to underprivileged communities that wouldn’t normally experience the bard.
Raphael sighed and said, quietly, “Between you and me, we’ve been going through a rough patch. It might be time to call it a day.”
Nicole looked at him curiously, remembering how mildly he’d taken it when they broke up at uni. They’d both been young and flighty then, but she’d come to think he and Summer were much more serious about each other.
“Ah, here comes Summer now,” Olly cut in, too brightly.
Stunned and pale, Summer looked at the three troubled faces.
“Feeling better?” Raphael asked, nervously.
“Fine,” she said, quietly. “I better get changed for the show.”

The next morning, as the cast were taking down the tent, Raphael came up behind Summer and wrapped his arms around her.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
Summer wriggled free.
“I’m just tired, okay?”
“Aren’t we all?” Raphael huffed.
“I have to get something from the shops,” Summer said, without looking at him.
“Whatever.” Raphael headed back to help the others.
As Summer walked into town, her mind replayed for the thousandth time what she’d overheard Raphael tell the others about calling it a day.
He was right, they had lost the magic. They’d been preoccupied, trying to get the grant or sponsorship that would let them give up their part time jobs as supply teachers and run the circus full time. There hadn’t been much time for each other.
But if things were that bad, why hadn’t he said anything? Or was he just plotting his escape, the way that sneaky Miguel had in Spain?
Summer recalled the first time she and Raphael had fallen into each other’s arms, one scented summer night after a show. They hadn’t discussed the future, because it felt so right she’d taken that for granted. Now she wondered whether, to Raphael, their relationship had been just a convenience all along.
At the local chemist, her fingers trembled as she bought a pregnancy test. She knew it was more than a stomach bug that had put her out of sorts for the past week.
Sitting on the edge of a fountain in the town square, not wanting to go back to the circus to face her fate, she wondered what she would do if all her suspicions were correct.

That evening, with the circus packed away, Summer went into their little caravan to find Raphael had laid a table for two. A fine-smelling dinner was on the stove.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked, nervously.
“Take a seat,” Raphael said solemnly. “I need to talk to you.”
Feeling faint, Summer was glad to take the weight off legs that had suddenly gone weak. Her stomach tightened as he sat opposite, his smile tense.
Was this it, then? she wondered. The big break-up speech?
“I know things haven’t been so smooth between us lately,” he began. “And it’s probably my fault. We’ve been so busy trying to get funding...”
Her chest tight, Summer wondered if she should get her news in first. Would knowing she was pregnant change what he was about to say? Knowing Raphael, she reckoned it would. But she didn’t want to live a lie. If he was tired of her, she wanted to know.
“But this isn’t about the circus,” Raphael was saying. “It’s something I’ve been meaning to say for a while. Nicole made me realise I can’t put it off any longer.”
He reached out and took her hand. “Summer, my darling, will you marry me?”
“Marry you?” she spluttered. “I thought you were going to split up with me.”
“Why on earth would I want to do that?”
Tears sprang from Summer’s eyes. “I heard you tell Olly things were rough... you wanted to call it a day.”
“You heard...? I meant the circus!” Raphael protested. “I love what we’re doing, especially taking Shakespeare into schools. But unless we can get proper funding... I don’t want the way we’ve been struggling to come between us.”
“Nothing could ever come between us.” Summer tearfully squeezed his hand in both of hers. “I love the circus as much as you do.”
“Is that a yes, then...?” he grinned, hopefully.
“Of course it’s a yes!” Summer laughed. “And by the way, I have some news, too...”
Before she could finish, their chunky mobile phone rang.
“Hold on a moment... Oh, hi, Olly.” Raphael listened with an increasing look of disbelief, then clicked off the phone and beamed at her.
“Olly’s finally talked his bank into sponsoring us! We can do the circus full time, on a scale like never before!”
For a long time, Raphael talked excitedly about his plans for their next show. Summer watched him happily, full of the admiration and love she’d felt when he first had the idea of staging Shakespeare with circus.
She loved the way it had never been just about him or making money. His motivation had always been finding ways to help other people enjoy and understand the bard’s timeless beauty as much as he did.
Recently, he’d been so down, because it had seemed they’d taken their mission as far as it could go, but suddenly it was like a weight had been taken off his back and he was flying again.
Summer’s heart soared with him.
Eventually, Raphael said, “So what were you about to say?”
Summer blushed and said coyly, “Only that if we’re going to get married, perhaps we should do it sooner rather than later.”
Perplexed, his eyes flicked from her face to the hand on her belly, then the penny dropped.
“You’re not...?”
She nodded, smiling.
Raphael raised his eyes and spread his arms to the heavens as he declared, “Oh, the news just gets better!”
They both stood and she melted into his arms as he kissed her passionately.
“This calls for a toast!” Raphael pulled a champagne bottle from the fridge and popped the cork off the caravan’s ceiling. “To you! And to us!”
“And to Olly,” Summer reminded him.
“And to Olly, of course. It’s good of him to remember his old friends isn’t it?”
“It’s not just the sponsorship,” Summer grinned. “Didn’t he ever tell you? He only took me along to the juggling club in the first place in the hope that I’d distract you from Nicole!”
Raphael laughed and raised his glass. “In that case, here’s to Olly! And here’s to Shakespeare’s Circus!”

A Midsummer Night's Circus first appeared in the popular women's magazine My Weekly. If you've ever fancied writing for the women's magazine market, try my ebook How To Write and Sell Fiction to Magazines. Click here to buy it from Amazon.

If you're in the mood for another circus story, click here to read Murder at the Circus.


Crowds queue to see Martin Lacey's British lions at Germany's Circus Krone

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Brexit, sentient animals and animal rights - a lesson from the circus

So Theresa May's government has voted that "animals can't feel emotions or pain." That's what the headline says in the London Evening Standard and the Independent. Boy, has that got people up in arms on Facebook and Twitter. The Tory Brexiteers haven't sounded so heartless since May campaigned on wanting to bring back fox hunting and the ivory trade.

The only thing is... it isn't true.

The UK government is currently deciding which bits of European Union law it wants to write into the British statute after Brexit. Among the items they have rejected, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party wanted them to adopt Clause 13, Title 11 of the Lisbon Treaty which was introduced in 2009 and says "animals are sentient beings with feelings and that must be taken into account when creating policy that affects them."

That sounds fine on the face of it. After all, anyone who has a pet dog or cat knows their pet is both sentient and capable of feeling pain, fear, affection and other emotions. So why wouldn't we want that on the statute books?

The reason is the animal rights agenda, which isn't the good thing that many unthinkingly believe it to be. I didn't know anything about it myself until I began looking into the question of animals in the circus.

I used to believe that organisations such as Peta and Born Free campaigned against circuses because they thought training and transporting animals involved cruelty. When I started talking to circus trainers, I realised that they cared greatly for their animals and that their animals appeared to be happy in thier lives. So were Peta and the rest mistaken?

Eventually, I discovered that the issue wasn't cruelty at all. It is the vegan ideology that, regardless of how they are kept, animals shouldn't be in circuses at all. Not only that but, according to Peta, we shouldn't be farming them for food or skinning them for clothes, betting on horse races, visiting zoos or even using things like wool and eggs which don't involve killing animals but does involve keeping them in captivity.

Peta doesn't hide this agenda, which is stated in the motto on its website: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way."

Key to that is agenda is the idea of "animal rights." Again, the phrase "animal rights" sounds fine on the face of it. They've the right to be treated well, yeah? Well yes. But supposing those rights become closer to the rights of humans. We don't eat other humans, so therefore we wouldn't be able to eat an animal that had the same rights as us.

The words "sentient" and "feelings" in Clause 13 of the Lisbon Treaty makes it easier for groups like Peta to argue that animals have those rights, not to improve the conditions in which they are farmed but to legislate against them being farmed at all.

If that sounds far-fetched, look at the way animal rights lobbyists have driven nearly all the animals out of circuses on both sides of the Atlantic - destroying even the mighty Ringling Bros in the process. As Thomas Chipperfield argued in the Times a couple of years ago (If They Ban Circus Lions Pet Cats Will Be Next) circuses have always been the thin end of a very large wedge.

In fact, if you start researching the animal rights influence on agricultural policy in America in particular, and the campaigns against even milk production, you may start to wonder whether circus is the canary in the animal rights coal mine.

In that context, keeping the words "sentient" and "feelings" out of UK legislature is not a step towards a culture of cruelty to animals, as casual readers of the Standard and Independent may conclude. It is instead a sensible step back from a future of animal rights extremism in which all animals have 'personhood' and are completely excluded from human ownership.

Update 22 November 2017.
To clarify what MPs actually voted for, Stuart Andrews, MP for Pudsey, explained why he voted against inclusion of the EU clause:

“Can I make it very clear that I absolutely believe that animals are sentient beings. Of course they have feelings, emotions and feel pain – any pet owner, like myself, will know that first hand.
“I did not vote that animals cannot feel pain. We said the exact opposite. Minister Dominic Raab said in the debate. “Animals will continue to be recognised as sentient under domestic law”. This has been the case since 2006 and will continue to be so.
“A specific amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill was not deemed to be right, but the Government will deliver the same result using a different route.
“I am proud and pleased that the UK has higher animal standards than any other country in Europe and in the past four months we have announced an Ivory ban, CCTV in slaughter houses, increased the maximum sentence for animal cruelty and are banning microbeads. EU law is no panacea: you can keep animals in unspeakably cruel conditions without breaking a single EU law."

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wild animals to be banned from circuses in Ireland and maybe Italy

Next year is the 250th anniversary of the circus, a global form of entertainment founded on horseback in London in 1768. But will the future of the big top be animal free?

It was reported this week that the Italian government has announced its intention to phase out the use of animals in the ring over a three-year period. The Senate will debate the issue in March next year, although what animals will be affected remains uncertain. According to industry sources, circuses are negotiating to keep domestic animals, exotics such as camels, and big cat acts, while offering to not use giraffes and elephants.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Ireland's Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, has signed new regulations banning wild animals from Irish circuses from January 2018. Domestic animals such as dogs and horses will be unaffected.

The move follows the Scottish parliament signing off on the principle of a ban on wild animals in travelling shows in Scotland, although the details have yet to be finalised.

So far, a long-threatened ban in England has been staved off by the effectiveness of a licensing scheme introduced in its place - and perhaps the government's preoccupation with more pressing matters, such as Brexit.

But as the circus turns 250, the latest news from Italy and Ireland does not bode well for those who's idea of a circus includes elephants, lions and tigers.

Read about my visit to what could prove to be Britain's last circuses with elephants and big cats in Circus Mania. 2nd Edition available now.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bobbo's Diary of a Clown - Part One: Chovy Shops and Unicycles

How does a clown get his luggage from one end of a bus depot to the other? On a unicycle, of course!

In the first of an exclusive series of extracts from his diary, Bobby 'Bobbo' Roberts Jr, tells us about his return to the circus for a season on Clacton Pier with Circus Fantasia this summer.

When I was younger it was a case of an agent coming to see you work. I remember the likes of Roberto Germain's who was in this business himself as a very renowned horse rider, and Lew and Lesley Grade - although I don't remember them - but there was Bernie Delfont, who I remember as he was also a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and my very own uncle Laci.

“The reason I’m going on about agents is nowadays most acts post their acts on YouTube and Facebook. So although I might have left circus to try some different things from street work to music hall and burlesque and even working and teaching at Clown Gathering UK, I, like many others, like to keep up to date on Facebook.

“There was a post saying how Mathew Wingate, the director of Circus Fantasia, was looking for a clown, and a very kind lady called Tanya Mack, from Planet Circus, tagged me in it. So I sent Mathew, who I've known for a while, a message saying I hear you are looking for a clown. He said ‘Yes, Clacton Pier who I’m doing a show with want a run in clown.’ I said a few names to him and he said, ‘I want you, you prat!’

“I felt very chuffed as I'd been out the business for three years so I went to my boss and I explained that I'd been offered some circus work. He said, ‘Well, you must do it as its all you know.’ So then came the hard bit: telling my wife Gillian and my two boys Logan and Bailey that I’d be away for six weeks and I’d be away for Logan s 14th birthday. But they were all so very supportive. Bailey said, ‘Can you bring me a real Minion back?’

“So I booked the bus to London and with a giant case and a smaller one and a rucksack and a unicycle I got there in one piece. Having my bags checked when got to London I wondered what the lady thought as she brought out juggling rings and a rubber chicken with other bits of my trade like goggle specs and a giant fidget spinner that me and Gill had made a few days before the trip. It wasn’t the most funny prop but it was very topical. So after that I then got to looking at how to get to Clacton and believe me it was no easy task with bags full of props and my own things and my unicycle.

“As I was looking for where to go a good mate called Ed rang me. He was a former spotlight boy at Bellevue Circus when he was a teenager and is now in a very successful jazz/blues band. I said, ‘What line do I get to go to Clacton?’ He said ‘Why?’ I explained that I was In London and he said, ‘Can you wait till 11 and I’ll come and pick you up.’

“I said yes right away as I didn’t fancy struggling with them darn cases and unicycle. So I went for a coffee and, me being me, rode my unicycle to the other end of Victoria bus depot with my cases and stopped off at a coffee house. I can see why its called Costa as should be called Costa lot of money, but sure enough my mate came and we walked to his car. As it was coming to lunch time and the traffic was getting more busy then normal, he decided to go through Westminster and I got to do a bit of sight seeing at the same time, including some of the West End and the Talk of the Town, which was formerly a circus building. We passed the Windmill and saw a lot of buskers, and it made me think - my life really did pass me by in circus, street work and burlesque. Then, after a hour, we got out of the big city and I was on my way.

“In between talking about the business and how the world has changed so much we got to Clacton and I phoned Mathew up and said ‘I’m now in Clacton.’ He said, ‘Oh, can you hang around a hour or so as I’m still on the road.’ I might add here that as well as doing a show at Clacton, Mathew and his wife Anya run a very successful touring show. So I said that's fine. So after saying goodbye to Ed I found a spot to sit. I thought as I've been stuck on a bus and a car it would be nice just to sit outside as it was very rare for the UK to have a hot spell. So as I was getting burnt where I was sat, and I was getting a bit bored, I started juggling 3 balls and some people I was sitting there talking to later on came to see the shows.

“I decided to explore the town I would be in for six weeks, so I went up to a bloke who was selling all the normal seaside stuff: buckets and spades, giant blow-up things and, I’m pleased to say, the funny post cards still. I explained to him that I would be working on the pier for six weeks and how my new boss was still out on the road, and he kindly let me leave my cases with him and even give me an ice cream as he said ‘Welcome to Clacton.’

“I started to explore the seaside town and I knew I was going to like it as there were 23 chovy shops (second hand shops). After a short while, Mathew phoned me back and I got picked up by his advance publicly man, Roy, who as a teenager had worked for my dad. I last saw him when I worked for Charles and Rebecca on Circus Bollywood, so had a good catch up with him as we drove to where the wagons were. We weren’t going go stay on the pier like the circus did in 1982 with all the animals.

“We got there and I met Anya for the first time as we’d only ever spoke on Facebook. Straight away we got on as I've seen her dad do his very funny trampoline act on Zippos circus, plus she made a good cup of tea as Mathew was still on the road. I would be staying in the bunk wagon with some of the other artists, two dancing girls and a BMX man, so I was finding out about some of the other acts who would be working on the show when Mathew phoned up and said the filters had gone in the lorry he was in. In the true circus way, he changed them by using his belt from his trousers.

“In the meantime, a white lorry turns up with a lovely looking wagon. A bloke jumps out and it’s Danny Hasler who I've known since we was both much younger, who does two very nice acts - a juggling act on the back of a quad bike  and a unicycle act of different heights and going up and down steps. So more tea was drank while we looked out for Mathew, and then two vans and wagons  pulled up and out jumped two girls and two boys who I was told do a trapeze act.”

To be continued... 

Click here to read about Bobbo's upbringing in one of Britain's oldest circus families.

For more on clowns and clowning click here to order the updated 2nd edition of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Circus Elephants ban in Illinois

The fate of the traditional circus with animals has suffered another blow with Illinois becoming the first state in America to ban elephants from the big top.

The ban is due to take effect from January 1, 2018, which means the Kelly Miller Circus, currently touring the state, could be the last opportunity for locals to see jumbos in the ring.

The circus blamed campaigners such at the Humane Society for the ban and recently posted a video on its website showing how Cindy and Jenny, the two elephants on the road with them this year, are cared for by trainer Joey Frisco. The 35-year-old Frisco describes in the clip how he literally grew up alongside the two elephants, which are now 45 and 51-years-old. View it here.

"Animal rights extremists put their agenda through without letting the public know," Tavana Brown, general manager of the Kelly Miller Circus, said of the new law passed by the state House and Senate.

The circus insists it will return to Illinois next year, without elephants, but ringmistress Rebecca Ostrof warned the absense of the elephants - which form part of the Kelly Miller logo - could hurt ticket sales as it did for America's most famous circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, which was forced to close earlier this year after withdrawing its elephants in the face of local legislation in places like California that made it impossible to tour with them.

"They're part of our story," said Ostrof. "What did people want to go see at Ringling? They wanted to go see elephants. People really missed them."

For more on the story of elephants in the big top, including my visit to quite probably the last British circus to feature the giant beasts, pre-order the new edition of Circus Mania from Peter Owen Publishers by clicking here.

"A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
-Mail on Sunday

Saturday, 26 August 2017

God bless the circus animals - Archbishop welcomes Zippos to Brighton

A Zippos horse with ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE

The horses and budgies of Zippos circus were blessed upon their arrival in Brighton and Hove when Jerome Lloyd, the local Archbishop of Selsey performed the formal ceremony in the big top.

The clergyman told local newspaper, the Argus: “My relationship with Zippo’s began in 2009 when I walked the tight rope without any safety harness for the Sussex Beacon. I became a sort of unofficial chaplain for them. When Reverend Roly Bain died – the renowned priest who also performed as a clown – I took over from him as their official chaplain. Every since then I’ve come back to visit the circus – there’s an affinity with the performers.”

According to Zippos owner Martin Burton: “Circus people generally are very religious. People who risk their lives are very spiritual. You’ll often see the performers crossing themselves backstage before a stunt.

“In the circus community the most wonderful thing is that we have people from all sorts of faiths,” Burton added. “They all work together for the common good. It’s a wonderful thing, I often think the world should live like a circus.”

The blessing seemed to work - opening night was completely sold out.

Zippos is in Hove until September 3.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Nights at the Circus Fantasia

What a fantastically atmospheric, magical and inviting picture of Circus Fantasia! As well as presenting a summer show on Clacton Pier until September (click here for more) the show's big top unit is still touring as usual. Catch it on Canvey Island this weekend.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Get the new edition of Circus Mania before anyone else!

Nothing like opening the mail and finding the new 2nd edition of Circus Mania! The book the Mail on Sunday called "brilliant" is back with a new yellow cover (seen here with one of the purple first editions) and a new chapter bringing the stories of Circus of Horrors, Danny and Clive, Circa, Gerry Cottle, Zippos and others up to date. 

Timed to celebrate the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the circus, my continuing journey behind the scenes of the circus world also finds me visiting the traditional sawdust under canvas show Peter Jolly's Circus and meeting Britain's last lion tamer, Thomas Chipperfield

You won't find the new edition on Amazon yet, but you can get it early by buying direct from Peter Owen Publishers on 020 8350 1775 (London) or clicking here to visit the Peter Owen online shop. Be sure to ask for the new edition!

Celebrating 250 years of the circus
with Gerry Cottle and Dr Haze from
the Circus of Horrors
(Pic from the original Circus Mania book launch)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Circus250 celebrations launched!

A year-long nationwide festival marking 250 years of circus in 2018 was launched this week on the very spot on London‘s South Bank where horseman Philip Astley set out the first circus ring in 1768.

The Circus250 logo designed by Sir Peter Blake - the pop artist best known for the legendary cover design of the Beatles record Sgt Pepper - was also revealed.

Throughout 2018, all over UK and Ireland, contemporary and traditional circuses, museums, festivals, churches, theatres and archives will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of circus in performance, exhibitions, concerts and events.

Bobbo back in the circus in Clacton

Bobbo returns to the ring

A clown from one of Britain's oldest and most famous circus families is among the stars of Circus Fantasia for their summer season on Clacton Pier.

After a while away from the ring, clowning in other environments including burlesque and the Clown Gathering UK gala show at the Seagull Theatre earlier this year, Bobbo Roberts says he's tickled to be back in the ring with jugglers, a unicyclist and a flying trapeze troupe.

"Having so much fun at Clacton-on-Sea. Come and see the show three times a day. It's better than the NHS," says Bobbo.

Bobbo grew up in the circus, where he learned his craft from such legendary clowns as Jacko Fossett. Click here to read his full story. And for more on Circus Fantasia click here.

Those daring young men and women on the
flying trapeze in Clacton.

Where it's all happening
from now till September!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

New Joseph Grimaldi film The Funniest Man In The World

On the showbiz grapevine...

Vicki Michelle, the actress who came to fame in hit BBC sitcom 'Allo, 'Allo, tells me she's just finished making a new short film about Joseph Grimaldi, the Victorian pantomime star known as the Father of Clowning.

The film, produced by John Conway, was shot in Blackpool and the starry cast includes real life funsters The Chuckle Brothers, with Barry Chuckle playing Grimaldi. Singing star David Essex plays Charles Dickens, who was Grimaldi's biographer; and Charlie Cairoli Junior plays Charles Dibdin - an often overlooked but important historical figure who gave the modern circus its name!

Michelle stars as Grimaldi's wife, Mary, while Jonathan Thomas-Davies makes an appearance as Lord Byron.

The short film is currently in post-production, but if it's successful, could it lead to a full length feature or TV drama?

Watch this space!

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Circus returns to Clacton Pier this Saturday

A great circus tradition returns to Clacton in Essex this month, when Circus Fantasia sets up its ring in the Jolly Roger at the end of Clacton Pier.

Built in 1891, the Jolly Roger last hosted a circus when Chipperfields' appeared there in the 1980s. Since then, the Victorian building has been mothballed.

After a trial run during half term earlier this year, the 300-seat circus will be open every day from July 22 - September 3, with three one-hour performances each day. It promises to add a bit of sawdust magic to a salty day at the sea.

The Jolly Roger as it used to be.
Fantasia is an all-human show. But what must it have been like on the pier in the days of Chipperfields? Jamie Clubb and his father provide an atmospheric eyewitness account in a fabulous blog post here. With an elephant and lions stabled on the end of the pier and waves crashing over the top, it sounds like a scene from Noah's Ark!

For more on Circus Fantasia, click here to see my pictures of their transport.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Hugh Jackman stars with fake elephant in Barnum flick The Greatest Showman

PT Barnum
Drawing by Douglas McPherson

Well, the Ringling Brothers dropped the elephants - and we know what happened next - so perhaps its unsurprising that you'll have to make do with GCI pachyderms when The Greatest Showman, a musical biopic of circus founder PT Barnum rides into cinemas this Christmas.

Talk about movie 'spoilers', I have to say I lost some enthusiasm for the film when its star, Hugh Jackman, was snapped looking completely ridiculous astride a mechanical bull on the back of a truck during filming in Manhattan... the elephant he's supposed to be riding being added later by computer trickery.

Barnum himself would probably approve. The showman was known for his far-fetched publicity stunts such as presenting a white elephant... courtesy of a bucket of whitewash. As one of his competitors once said of him, "There's a sucker born every minute!"

Douglas McPherson met
only real elephants, not CGI ones,
in the research for
Circus Mania!
In the meantime, click here to read all about Barnum and his real-life elephant Jumbo - the world's most famous elephant - in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.