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."

Mail on Sunday Review


Roger Lewis’ 4-star review of Circus Mania in the Mail on Sunday.

In the old days, the best way of disposing with a killer elephant was to change its name and sell it to a rival circus. You wouldn’t get away with that now. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find elephants in any travelling circus, according to Douglas McPherson in this excellent book. Mostly gone, too, are the footballing poodles, unrideable mules and snarling lions and tigers.

The public finally turned against performing animals in 1998, when Mary Chipperfield was convicted on 12 counts of cruelty against a chimp called Trudy. Animal rights charities have also been persistent, putting pressure on shops not to display posters advertising circuses and getting their fanatics to yell ‘child abuser!’ at parents who take their offspring to see a show.

- an illustration from
Circus Mania
It is illogical. Animal rights people ought to vent their rage on the horse-racing fraternity, or on anyone with a goldfish. The Government has recently completed a two year investigation which concluded circuses are ‘perfectly capable of meeting the welfare needs of animals in their care.’ Furthermore, animals are inspected by local authority vets and the RSPCA at every new site the circus visits. McPherson says circus animals have ‘always been fantastically looked after.’

Nevertheless, I agree with him when he says there is no need to see elephants or horses do demeaning tricks, as it is a privilege simply to be able ‘to admire them in motion at such close quarters.’

For that is the appeal of the circus: there is no computer-generated trickery. The galloping palomino stallions are real. The acrobats feats of strength and balance on the trapeze are real. The risk of sudden death is real.

Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form. McPherson vividly describes the frisson of entering the big top, the pulsating music and ‘the strange light beneath the canvas.’ Part of the appeal, he says, is the combination of ‘low budgets and high spirits,’ a mixture of ‘the tacky and the amazing.’

Gerry Cottle, author Douglas McPherson
and Dr Haze from Circus of Horrors
at the launch party for
Circus Mania
The circus has a venerable and noble tradition. It commenced in the arenas of ancient Rome - the Circus Maximus, the Circus Flaminus and the Circus Neronis - with equestrian displays and gladiatorial contests. Acrobatic feats derive from the Chinese theatre. Horsemanship was a Cossack and Hungarian gipsy skill. The clowns came from pantomime and the music halls described by Charles Dickens.

McPherson’s interviews with today’s circus artistes are particularly interesting. Circus families are tight knit and have been slaving away for centuries. ‘There are no sick notes in the circus,’ one performer told him. ‘You go on and do the same act with a smile on your face, even if you are in pain.’

Such stoicism and dedication are only to be admired, for it can be a pitiless existence, living in ‘rusty, showerless caravans,’ and taking down and re-erecting the Big Top at a new ground every week or so.

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of Britain's last
circus elephants
To become an escapologist or juggler, or to perform gravity-defying stunts high in the air, takes immense concentration and years of practise. The great clown David Konyot was shot out of a cannon before he could walk. Anyone who wants to become a sword-swallower must train their oesophagus to open at will by poking a coat hanger down the throat.

Not everyone is cut out for the circus ring, despite their best efforts. Saddest of all are the likes of Otis the Frog Boy and Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf, deprived of their livelihood by disability rights activists.

McPherson also tells of a duff fire-eater who set fire to his finger and chin at an audition for Gerry Cottle. He tried to put out the flames on his chin and his finger reignited. Eventually, Gerry had to run over and cover him with a blanket. ‘He turned up at the show three days later with his finger all bandaged up and wearing his McDonald’s uniform.’

Perhaps the success of Cirque du Soleil, which currently has 19 shows running worldwide, means that the circus will stage a comeback. Fifty years ago, the Queen used to go regularly to Bertram Mills and Billy Smart’s, and I’m glad to see that Norman Barrett, ringmaster and budgie trainer, was included in a recent honours list.


Click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition of CIRCUS MANIA - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

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