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."

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Will Scotland be first part of UK to ban wild animals from circuses?

Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of the last elephants to perform
in a British circus.

There has been talk of banning animals from British circuses for more than 100 years (you can read the full timeline here) but talk has come a step nearer to reality with the Scottish government announcing that its Wild Animals in Circuses bill is one of 15 bills to be debated in the new parliamentary term.

If passed, the bill will outlaw wild animals in travelling circuses in Scotland.

A ban was proposed by the UK government in 2012, but the promised implementation date of 2015 came and went without the bill being passed into legislation. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to introduce a ban via a private members bill, but these have all been blocked. (Click here to read Why Christopher Chope is right to block ban.)

This week, several animal rights groups delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street, calling for the Prime Minister to implement the current ban. In the wake of brexit, however, it seems unlikely that the government would be willing to devote parliamentary time to such a fringe matter for the foreseeable future.

There are only two circuses currently licensed to travel with wild animals - Circus Mondao and Peter Jolly's Circus. Both are regulated by a license and inspection scheme that has been in place without incident or complaint since 2013.

With Westminster seemingly unwilling to implement a ban, however, pressure groups have turned their attention to regional government where they appear to have found more willingness to act.

Earlier this year, there was concern within the circus industry when Professor Stephen Harris was appointed to carry out a study of wild animals in circuses with a view to implementing a ban promised by the Welsh Assembly last autumn. Harris' report backed a ban although no further action by the Welsh Assembly has been reported to date.

Whether the Scottish government's bill will be passed remains to be seen, it is however the first regional government to assign parliamentary time to the issue.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Jack Ryan 1939 - 2016 - May all his days be circus days

A Ringling programme book

There are some phrases that sound like they were never written, they've just been around forever. One of them is the traditional circus sign-off: "May all your days be circus days!" It sounds like a goodbye handed down through the centuries, but in fact it's a tradition that dates from just 1969.

The words were coined by Ringling Pr man Jack Ryan who sadly died yesterday, 25 August, aged 77.

Remember him next time you hear that famous ringmaster's farewell.

At Ryan's request, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory should be made to Circus World, Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus, Paighton Green Seafront until August 30

Like music? Love circus? Roll up, roll up for Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus on the seafront at Paignton Green this month.

The latest venture from Britain's best-loved circus impresario promises hit songs from the past 60 years with an array of big top treats including trapeze, juggling on quad bikes and a trio of female magicians.

Cottle is, of course, the best known showman of the past 45 years - the Billy Smart, PT Barnum, John Ringling or Lord Sanger of his generation. His enduring influence became clear while writing Circus Mania! in that there is hardly anybody in the industry who either hasn’t worked with him or is related to him.

It’s 50 years since Gerry turned his back on suburban life as a stockbroker’s son growing up in Cheam and, at the age of 15, ran away with Robert Brothers circus. From humble beginnings as an apprentice, he taught himself to clown, stilt-walk and, most importantly, the tricks of running a circus.

Cottle and Austen's Circus posters
By 1970, he and his business partner Brian Austen had started the first Cottle and Austen Circus. With no cash to buy animals, the owners and their wives performed nearly all the acts themselves. From the beginning, however, Cottle proved a natural publicity magnet. The circus was featured in a BBC documentary, The Philpott Files, and on the cover of the Radio Times as ‘The smallest greatest show on earth’.

By the end of the decade, Cottle and Austen’s Circus had become Britain’s biggest circus, thanks in part to a policy of monopolising London’s parks, and providing the big top venue for Saturday night TV variety show Seaside Special.

Cottle and Austen went on to promote the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus, which were soon established as the UK’s most successful shows, and Cottle became a founding partner in the Circus of Horrors, which has been another of the biggest circus success stories of the past decade.

In 2003, Cottle sold Austen his share in the Chinese and Moscow circuses so that he could buy the tourist attraction Wookey Hole. Proving that old adage that you can shake the sawdust off your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your heart, however, Cottle never gave up his love of the circus. At Wookey, he swiftly established a circus museum and a circus school for local kids.

Gerry Cottle (Left) with Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson (Centre) and Dr Haze from
Circus of Horrors at the launch of Circus Mania 
When I interviewed Gerry for my book Circus Mania! he said his love of circus was greater than it has ever been. He sees every circus that comes within range and will talk knowledgeably and passionately about any show you mention.

As for his latest venture under the big top, Cottle says: “It’s got my name on it and I promise you a great show LIKE NO OTHER. A whole world of LIVE entertainment for all the family – we think you’ll have the time of your life!”

Gerry Cottle's Wow Circus is at Paignton Green until August 30, before moving on to Plymouth, September 2 - 18.

For times and tickets call: 0845 835 50 50

And for the full story of Gerry Cottle and many other circus stars, from trapeze artists to animal trainers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus by Douglas McPherson.

Click here to buy from Amazon!

Friday, 15 July 2016

Cirque du Soleil's Varekai returns to UK February 2017

Here's the poster for the next Cirque du Soleil production coming to the UK next February. For an in-depth critique of the show on a previous visit, plus the history of Cirque du Soleil, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Pope praises circus folk and meets tiger

The Pope has praised circus artists, carnival workers, street performers and other travelling performers, and also given his blessing to animal entertainers, it seems, after petting a performing tiger in Rome.
According to a report in the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis thanked the artists for bringing beauty and joy to an often dark, sad world.
“You cannot imagine what good you do, the good you sow,”said Pope Francis during a special audience celebrating the jubilee of circus and travelling-show performers.
While they may never know the impact they truly have on people, “you can be sure,” he said, that “you sow these seeds that do many people good.”
Hundreds of performers, family members and supporters gathered in the Paul VI hall as part of a two-day pilgrimage to Rome for the Year of Mercy.
To the tune of “O Sole Mio” played by an organ grinder, an animal wrangler used a baby bottle filled with milk to lure the leashed tiger toward the Pope, who was invited to pet the enormous cat.
In his talk, the Pope noted the performers’ special ability to bring a smile to a child’s face, brighten a lonely person’s day and draw people closer together.
Calling them “artisans” of wonder, beauty and celebration, he praised their abilities to lift people’s spirits and offer communities “healthy entertainment.”
The often difficult life of being on the road was “a special resource,” he said, because it meant they – like Christ – could bring God’s love, joy and embrace to even greater numbers of people, especially those on the margins of society.
He thanked them for offering shows and free admission to the poor, the homeless, prisoners and disadvantaged kids during the Year of Mercy.
“This, too, is mercy: sowing beauty and happiness in a world [that is] sometimes gloomy and sad.”
The Pope urged local parishes to reach out to travelling performers, offering them the sacraments and eliminating prejudicial attitudes that marginalise them. He also invited the entertainers to deepen their faith, especially by handing on God’s love to their children and others.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Tommy Chipperfield - Interview with a Tiger Trainer

Tommy Chipperfield in the 1980s

The name Chipperfield is synonymous with the circus. Tommy Chipperfield was born into the family show in the middle of the last century, when Chipperfield’s Circus was the largest in Europe with a huge menagerie of animals from chimps to giraffes. Following in his father’s footsteps, Tommy grew up to be a big cat trainer. As well as the UK, he has worked in Spain, Africa and Australia, where he met his wife, Marilyn. For 23 years, the couple appeared with Duffy’s Circus in Ireland before returning to England in 2013, with their son, Thomas Chipperfield, who is carrying on the family tradition as a lion and tiger trainer.

What are your earliest memories of the circus?

There’s a picture in one of the old programmes of the first time I got on a horse - a big spotted horse - with my father when I was 3-years-old.

But after that, I can always remember being asleep and in the middle of the night and being woken up by a little bear cub being pushed into bed with us. You never know what’s going to happen on a circus when you’re little.

I can remember looking out the caravan window and the ground would be overrun with public. There’d be thousands and thousands of people. We weren’t allowed to go out in case we’d get lost amongst all the people. We were too small. The parades on the Sunday at 3 o’clock, after the show was built up... the animals would come from the railway station. The elephants would walk through the town with the horses and the other animals. The public would follow and the circus site would just be full of people.

What was it like inside the big top?

There would have been about 17 rows of tiered seating with a gangway around the back, because in those days you’d walk up steps to get into the seats at from the back, on the top row. In front of the tiered seating there’d be a gap with the boxes in front of that - about two rows, sometimes three rows of chairs. In front of that there’d be a track for all the animal parades and such like.
Around 1953, they actually had chariot racing inside the tent. It was an 8-pole tent and the track went right around all the king poles.

When we were really young, we were allowed to see the performance once in the beginning of the year and that was it. It was very strict. The circus kids weren’t allowed to just run amok inside the tent. We had to behave ourselves, of course, and sit in the back of the seats.

The earliest I can remember going into the ring... in those days they used to have Popeye and Mickey Mouse... big  heads you used to put on and walk around waving to the people. We were allowed to do that sometimes, in between the acts. I would have probably been 5 or 6-years-old.

Did you always want to work with the animals?

I always wanted to work with the animals. My father made all of us kids learn hand balancing and tumbling, somersaults and things like that, just in case we needed it later on in life. You can always put something like that in an animal act as well. But I wasn’t brilliant at that, so it was the animals really, for me.

Was your father the animal manager?

Old Dickie Chipperfield used to run the show. He was the main one. There was Jimmy Chipperfield at the time, who opened the safari parks. He was organising a lot of the away stuff - looking for acts, things like that; a lot of the business side of it. My aunty Majorie used to take over all the costumes and decoration for the shows. And my father was the main animal trainer on the show. He loved horses. But he worked very good with the wild animals and also with the elephants. He was an all-rounder, and a trick rider as well.

What are your memories of Jimmy Chipperfield?

I wouldn’t really remember him on the show, because when he left and opened the parks, I was very young. But later on - we were always close; we always got on - what he wanted, he went for. There was no maybes. You just keep going until you get it.

What are your memories of Dickie Senior? 

Dickie Senior was more circusy. It was more give and take. My uncle Jim, he’d set his mind on something and he’d do it, whereas in the circus you give and take a lot more. I suppose uncle Dick was a bit like that. He was working with the animals a lot as well. He worked lions mostly. The old fashioned way which you wouldn’t do nowadays. Loud. I don’t mean beating them or anything like that, but a lot of whip-cracking and that sort of thing. Which is just noise, but these days people would get the wrong impression.

Did you use a calmer presentation?

I was sort of in between when I started out. Naturally, I was 16 and didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I was taught. But you have to learn from experience. So you have to keep your distance a bit more. Later on in life, I went the calmer route.

Tommy, Marilyn and Thomas Chipperfield
(Photo: Jane Hilton)
Thomas said you had a more self-effacing style in the ring than he does...

I’d be happy enough just to train animals and not have to go in the show. It’s the working with the animals that’s the important bit for me. Like I said to Thomas, when you’re taking your compliment, you’re showing the animals off, not yourself.

What we do in the ring is show off what the animals can do. I mean, you wouldn’t have a tiger balancing on a globe in the bush, but they’ll balance on a branch. Walking on their back legs... a tiger will stand up and fight on its back legs. A lion will sit up in the long grass to see over the top of the grass to see where their prey animals are.

Are you more of a lion or tiger guy?

Out of what we call the wild animals - lions, tigers, bears, leopards and such like - I think I like the tigers more. Thomas prefers the lions, but I like the tigers. The tigers to me seem more cat-like than lions. Lions are a bit more doggified. Tigers have got a mind of their own. It’s a bit more of a challenge, because you have to get them to like you. They’re more nervous than a lion would be. So you treat them different. Lions will play very rough together, so because they play like that, you can work them faster. They don’t mind. Tigers will play for about 30 seconds and then get a bad mood with each other. So you work them a lot steadier.

A lot of people ask which are the more dangerous. I think they’ve all got their own ways. It’s the way you treat them, really. You wouldn’t treat a tiger as you would a lion and vice versa.

What other animals have you worked with?

Oh god, I’ve lost count, really. It started in 1970, I think, with the elephants, then horses. Then in 71 it was the lions. Then I had a good break. I went to Roberts brothers Circus for a couple of years. Then I trained my first tigers. I then went to Australia and took over an act of an English fella out there. His contract ran out, so I took over his two acts and put a few more animals in and trained a few horses out there as well. And some pigeons. You lose count of the animals, really. Zebras, all sorts.

How many animal acts were in the circus in the heyday?

It was nearly all animals. Of course there were the speciality acts: the high wire, the flying trapeze. But we were known for the animals. When I was a kid, I can remember three wild animal acts that opened the show: The polar bears, the black bears, the tigers or leopards and the lions. The you’d have about three horse acts. probably high school or riding acts. Sea lions, chimps, alligators, dogs, exotics - camels, zebras - everything you can imagine.

Click here for an interview with Martin Lacey
on life in the big cat cage.
It must have been a huge job moving the circus?

What they used to do, before my time, was the advance crew would take through a set of king poles and one of the crane lorries, the big Macks. They’d put the king poles up ready, and the stakes in the ground, so when the circus arrived all they had to was roll out the canvas and put up the tent. So a lot of the work was already done.

Where did you go to school?

Boarding school. Marsh Court in Stockbridge, Hampshire.
I used to hate it. I mean, when you’re brought up on the circus with all the animals, who would want to leave? I remember crying and hanging onto one of the baby elephants once, when it was time to go to school.

What was the attitude to circus people, at school?

It wasn’t negative at all. You were somebody different, I suppose. In those days, circus was a big thing. You were somebody if you were circus. Now, it’s turning a bit the other way. I think in the old days it was because people put a bit of effort into schooling. You weren’t like what we call travellers. You were somebody. You had a good education.

Thomas did correspondence schooling. He did more schooling than I did at boarding school. My wife Marilyn taught Thomas and she said the correspondence course was a lot more than she ever did, actually going to school.

Is discipline and hard work instilled at an early age on the circus?

I think you have to be hard-working or otherwise you wouldn’t be able to make it work. One day you might have a full load of staff, the next day half of them could be gone - because to a lot of people it’s still just a job. So whoever’s gone, you have to take over and do it yourself. You can’t just stop because that person’s not there, or that light doesn’t get put up or that horse doesn’t get groomed. It has to be done.

When we came back from South Africa with the show, we were basically starting again over here. I said I’d do the grooming rather than hire staff in for that. So my father and myself did all the horses.

What did your brothers and sisters do on the show?

Charles was very mechanical minded. He liked the vehicles more than the animals. My brother John, he liked the animals and used to work the animals a lot, but he liked the business side of it more. He was very clever with the books. He was very good with office work. My little sister (Sophie) was very small then, so she was at school. And my other sister (Doris), when she came back from school, would help out with the horses as well. Sophie, when she grew up, was very into everything. Whatever was going, she’d have a go at.

Marilyn Chipperfield
How did Marilyn join the circus?

Marilyn actually ran away to join the circus. She went to Ashtons, in Australia, when she was 16. I think she might have been 15 but told them she was 16. She used to work in a shoe shop in Perth. So a bit different. I think the circus came to town and from then that was all she wanted to do. She’s done that many different acts. She’s done the high wire, the trapeze, the high perch where you balance it on someone’s shoulder and climb up. She’s done trick riding, bare-back riding, high school horses, ridden elephants. And of course since she’s been with me, she’s done the wild animals as well. So basically the lot.

In the old days they called people who came into the circus jossers, but there’s a josser and there’s someone who has been in it all their life and you would think of as an actual circus person, and that’s what she is. She’s a circus person.

Did Thomas show an early determination to follow in your footsteps?

Thomas always loved it. He was always out with me, helping me put the tent up. He was born in Winchester, but he was brought up in Ireland. He was always helping me with the animals.

I’d show him the tigers. Naturally not right up close. But I’d lift him up when he was very little and show him the tigers. They’d be roaring and carrying on and he’d just be laughing.

Click here for a review of Fortunes Wheel
- the story of Irish lion tamer
Bill Stephens
His first animals were the alligators. He was helping getting them in and out of the tank. The whole lorry was the tank for them. He’d be in there with his cousin Ben (Sophie’s son, Ben Coles) feeling about in the water for these little alligators. Well, six or seven-foot-long... little, you know! They get very quiet. They can bite, naturally. They’re alligators. But it’s the same with any animals. it’s how you handle them. They used to come and take food out of your hand in the end.

Thomas used to put his head in the alligator’s mouth. Once, being young, he got the wrong one out of the tank. My wife tried to tell him in the ring he had the wrong one, you can’t put your head in its mouth. He being young and a bit big headed didn’t take any notice, until he realised he had the wrong one and he had to put his head in the wrong alligator’s mouth - the one that wasn’t trained for it. He still did it!

How did you come to join Duffy’s circus?

They were very small at the time. We went over with more vehicles than they had at the time. We took the monkeys, the bears, the dogs. We had lions and tigers. I trained the horse act there for them. We had the alligators there. We were there about 23 years. Then we came back to fight the cause over here.

When did you hand reins to Thomas?

For one thing, people don’t want to see old, bald people in the ring. They want to see young fellas. So when it’s time to get out, you get out.

Thomas wasn’t just chucked in. He had to learn first. He did a long time looking after the animals, and a long time learning about the animals when they’re working. And when he was capable, I was actually in there with him, just in case he needed a bit of advice now and then. Then he took over himself. The lions he has now he trained completely himself, from the beginning. He thinks the world of the animals.

For more stories from the big top, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Circus Mania publisher Peter Owen dies age 89

Peter Owen
1927 - 2016

Britain’s longest-serving publisher has died at the age of 89. Peter Owen, who has headed the company that bears his name since 1951, passed away on May 31.

Born Peter Offenstadt, Owen emigrated to the UK from Bavaria in 1933. He founded Peter Owen Publishers, with just a typewriter for equipment, and went on to head a firm the Guardian called “A byword for literary adventure and experimentation.”

Owen’s first editor was Murial Spark, who’s memories of working for him informed her novel A Far Cry From Kensington. His authors include seven Nobel Prize winners, the artist Salvador Dali, singer Yoko Ono and... Douglas McPherson who’s Circus Mania is published by the firm.

According to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, Owen was a "a champion of the obscure, the neglected, the modern, the foreign, the difficult and the downright unpopular ." No wonder he published a circus book!

Owen was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2014. His daughter Antonia Owen takes his place as Publisher at the company which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.

Managing director Nick Kent said, “Many will say that 89 was a good innings, but it is a deep shock nonetheless, Peter is irreplaceable.”

Circus ManiaPeter OwenPublishers

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Pictorial History of Gerry Cottle's Circus and The Posters of Billy Smart's Circus

The Wells, Somerset postmark meant the sturdy package could only have come from one man: Britain's most legendary living showman, Gerry Cottle. And what a treat it was to open the jiffy bag and pull out A World of Circus - A Pictorial History of Gerry Cottle's Circus by ace photographer Andrew Payne.

This is Volume 2 and takes us from 1991 to 2015. The A4-size hardback is stuffed with glorious colour photographs from in the ring, to backstage, the transport and shots of the big top being built up and pulled down; plus hundreds of fabulous circus posters.

All Gerry's ventures from the past 25 years are here: the Moscow State Circus, Circus of Horrors, Cottle and Austin, Wookey Hole caves and theme park, the recent Wow! and Turbo shows - forming a fantastic visual journey with a year-by-year written account of the shows.

It's a book every circus fan will enjoy, although the Cottle story is far from over.

Slipped into the cover of my copy was a photocopied list of dates for Gerry's latest venture, Gerry Cottle's Electric Circus, which begins its 2016 tour on Southsea Common, July 2.

For more on Gerry Cottle, click here.

And if you like the new Gerry Cottle book, you'll also enjoy The Posters of Billy Smart's Circus by Steven B Richley. Before Cottle, Billy Smart was the showman who's name came to mind in Britain whenever the word circus was mentioned, and the Smart name is still synonymous with the big top.

2016 is the 70th anniversary of Smart's first circus, and this is another A4 hardback, beautifully printed and positively overflowing with amazing circus art that traces Smart's history through the years.

The Smart name lives on, and it was recently my pleasure to interview the Guv'nor's granddaughter, Yasmine Smart for this piece in the Daily Telegraph in which she recalled growing up in Britain's most famous circus. I hope you can download the image and blow it up large enough to read.

UPDATE September 2016: Just heard that The Posters of Billy Smart's Circus is SOLD OUT - although a reprint is scheduled for 2018, to mark the 250th anniversary of Philip Astley's first circus. In the meantime, Steven B Richley's next book, Sir Robert Fossetts Circus - The Definitive Visual History, will be out in November. More details here

Gerry Cottle, left, with Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson
as pictured in The Stage.