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."

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.

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

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

20 Circus Facts

Continental Circus Berlin

1 - The word circus dates from Roman times when arenas such as the Circus Maximus staged chariot races, gladiatorial contests and mock battles.

2 - The modern circus was founded in London by trick horse-rider Philip Astley, who opened his Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts in London, in 1768.

3 - Astley’s rival Charles Hughes was the first to use the word circus in the modern sense when he founded the Royal Circus.

4 - A standard circus ring is 42-feet in diameter.

5 - Clowns are nicknamed Joeys after 19th century pantomime star Joseph Grimaldi.

6 - Leotards are named after the first star of the flying trapeze, Jules Leotard.

7 - The word jumbo, meaning large, entered the English language because of Jumbo, an 11-foot-tall elephant that the American showman PT Barnum bought from London Zoo.

8 - The traditional circus theme music is called Entrance of the Gladiators.

9 - Charlie Cairoli was the first clown to appear on This Is Your Life.

10 - Chinese acrobats first appeared in European circuses in 1866.

11 - Cirque du Soleil was created as part of the 1984 celebrations to mark the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada.

12 - Enrico Rastelli (1896 - 1931) is widely considered greatest juggler of all time, being able to juggle ten balls at once.

13 - The first American circus was founded by John Bill Ricketts in Philadelphia on April 3, 1793.

14 - A ‘josser’ is an outsider who joins the circus.

15 - According to circus superstition, it’s unlucky to wear green in the ring.

16 - Foot-juggling with a person is known as a Risley act after the 19th century American pioneer of the style Richard Risley Carlisle.

17 - The mischievous clown in a double act is called the ‘auguste’ and the straight man is the ‘whiteface.’

18 - The word clown is believed to come from the Icelandic word klunni, meaning a clumsy person.

19 - The first elephant to appear in a British circus performed at Covent Garden in 1810.

20Joshua Purdy Brown staged the first circus in a tent or big top in America in 1825. Before that, circuses were performed in buildings or the open air.

Circus Mania
"A passionate, up-to-date look
at the circus and its people"
- Gerry Cottle.
For more on the history of circus, and the lives of today’s performers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus by Douglas McPherson.

“Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”
- Mail on Sunday.

“The Greatest Show on Earth... in a Book!”
- World’s Fair.

Click here to buy the paperback or ebook from Amazon.

And may all your days be circus days!

Friday, 18 March 2016

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott - Book Review.

Bull-hook (noun) A pointy stick used by animal rights activists to bash circuses and prod the consciences of fans.

It was largely local bans of the bull-hook, ankus or elephant goad that led Ringling to retire its iconic elephant parade. Without the guiding tool, which has been used by Indian mahouts for thousands of years, it would be impossible for the circus to safely control its elephants in the street or circus ring, thus making it untenable for the show to visit major cities such as Los Angeles.

Or would it?

I recently watched some Golden Age footage of Britain’s Bobby Roberts working his elephants at the height of his fame. It was an exciting, fast moving act. The elephants ran around the ring, sat on tubs with their forelegs in the air, laid down in perfect choreography and performed headstands... all the things circus elephants are famous for doing.

Bobby and Anne
Look ma, no bull-hook.
Yet Roberts says he has never used or even owned a bull-hook in his life. His control of his herd, which he worked from their infancy - when he himself was just a lad - was entirely with his voice.

“I always said if you couldn’t hold it (the elephant) with your tongue, you couldn’t handle them,” said Bobby. “When I shouted, that was enough.”

The only tools he used were a whip (for cracking, not hitting the elephants) and a walking stick that the lead elephant would hold in its trunk when he led his parade, marching trunk to tail, from railway station to circus ground.

That’s one of the surprising details to emerge from Claire Ellicott’s new book, Saving Anne the Elephant - The True Story of The Last British Circus Elephant.

It was, of course, undercover film of Anne being hit by Romanian groom Nicolae Nitu that led to the closure of Bobby Roberts Super Circus after a media outcry in 2011. The case led to Lord Taylor announcing a ban on wild animals in UK circuses, although the legislation has yet to be introduced.

Click here to read about my part
in the BBC documentary The Last Circus Elephant
There’s no getting away from the fact that Ellicott’s book is part of the ongoing campaign for a ban - and many fans and circus industry insiders won't like it for that reason.

It is, however, an important record of a landmark case and in attempting to untangle the complex issues involved, Ellicott includes plenty that the animal rights groups that protested Roberts' circus won't like either.

Ellicott was one of the reporters that originally broke the story of Anne in the Daily Mail. The paper campaigned and fundraised to get the elderly Anne moved from the circus to Longleat Safari Park and, on the surface, Saving Anne plays to the expectations of readers who want a clear cut story of an abused animal given a happy ending.

Ellicott takes the view “it is now almost universally agreed on that elephants shouldn’t perform in circuses.” She heavily lays on the “terrible suffering” of Anne at the hands of Nitu at a time in the twilight of her career when, as the last survivor of Bobby’s herd, the arthritis-stricken elephant was too old to perform and the ageing Roberts was himself too ill to personally care for her.

A lot of space is given to the views of Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, the husband and wife founders of Animal Defenders International who spent 15 years trying to infiltrate Roberts’ circus before obtaining the undercover footage. Further anti-circus opinion is provided by Dr Ros Clubb of the RSPCA and Professor Stephen Harris, the latter a long term opponent of circuses who is currently heading a study of circus animals on behalf of the Welsh government (Read more about that here).

But Ellicott's concise, journalistic book also looks at the story from the point of view of the Roberts family, and Roberts is portrayed perhaps surprisingly sympathetically as a "victim of circumstances."

It was Ellicott who first showed ADI’s video to Bobby and his wife Moira. She saw their reaction first hand - they were as disgusted by Nitu’s actions as anyone else. She clearly warmed to the couple’s sincerity and devotes two chapters to an interview with the couple carried out especially for this book.

As the author writes, “It’s hard not to be fascinated by the Robertses lives.”

Anne at Longleat
The most compelling chapter relates the history of the circus family’s illustrious lineage and glory days; Anne’s meetings with the Queen, Princess Anne and other celebrities; and Bobby’s romance with Moira, the fairground girl who ran away with the circus. In their early days the couple had a western act and Bobby accidentally shot off the finger on which she wore her wedding ring. Moira hid the injury from both Bobby and the audience and finished the act.

Back in the present, Ellicott airs the Robertses' belief that they were set up: that Nitu was paid to attack Anne; that it was suspicious that he never normally wore a hat, only in the video to hide his face, as if he knew he was being filmed. That he conveniently disappeared the morning the news broke, despite speaking no English and having no money as he hadn’t been paid.

It’s also suggested he hit Anne with a plastic pitchfork and that the thwack of a metal bar was overdubbed - a theory consistent with the observation that the noise was “almost the only sound on the video” - as well as with Anne’s minimal reaction to the blows and subsequent lack of marks on her body.

The truth about Nitu may never be known as animal cruelty is deemed too minor an offence to extradite him from Romania, where he fled to.

Bobby took the fall for employing a keeper who betrayed his trust and Ellicott stresses that there's no evidence he was personally cruel or knew what Nitu was doing.

The book also makes clear that Anne wasn’t seized from the Robertses; they gave her away voluntarily, and had in fact been looking into her retirement for a few years, but sanctuaries are hard to find in the UK and Anne was too frail to fly to America.

YouTube footage of Anne leaving the circus HQ.
When Anne moved to Longleat, Bobby walked her into the transporter  (This can be viewed on YouTube. With not a bull-hook in sight he leads her by the trunk with his hands). He was perplexed when her new owners wouldn’t walk her out without chaining her legs together. He was also apprehensive of her new keepers’ bull-hooks - it was the first time Anne had seen such an instrument.

Anne looks in much better condition in the video than she is described by the animal rights lobby. One of the new keepers in fact angered the animal rights groups by saying on TV “Hats off to Bobby” for getting Europe’s oldest elephant to such an advanced aged (around 60-years-old) in such good shape. The safari park depended on Roberts showing them how to look after Anne in her first few days there.

The move to Longleat was, in fact, a “slap in the face” to the circus-hating ADI, as it had been founded by the Chipperfield circus family.

It’s a shame Ellicott ultimately supports a ban on the grounds of changing times, and that she didn’t speak to more supporters of animals in the circus. After pages of anti-circus rhetoric by Ros Clubb and Stephen Harris, a couple of short quotes from Martin Lacey Sr and Chris Barltrop are taken from old Daily Mail articles.

My Daily Telegraph interview
with Thomas Chipperfield.
Thomas Chipperfield is however described as “the most interesting defender of circus animals” and some of his “fascinating insights” into training are quoted from the interview I did with him in the Daily Telegraph.

Elephant osteopath Tony Nevin, meanwhile, treated Anne while she was travelling with the circus in 2007 and comments that she was mentally more content than most zoo elephants, which he attributes to her varied life: “She got to swim in the sea, go on beaches, go across moorland. All sorts of stuff she’s done over the years. Then you look at most zoo elephants and they’re plodding around the same paddock.”

Ultimately, Anne is portrayed as happy in her purpose-built £1.2 million new home where she listens to Classic FM, rolls in the sand and eats wine gums “just like any old lady.”

Bobby, meanwhile, is labelled  "a misunderstood relic of a past era who had the best intentions," - a man who loved his animals and couldn't understand why what was acceptable 30 years ago was no longer accepted today.

But was he actually ahead of his time, a genuine elephant whisperer who needed no bull-hook to command his herd, just his voice and a bond built up in a lifetime?

Perhaps there are more out there like him, or will be, who could one day take elephants back into Los Angeles regardless of a ban on the bull-hook.

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott is published by John Blake and available from Amazon.

Further reading: For more on the bull-hook, click here to read Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is it Time to Let Circuses off the Hook?

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Clowns are the binding force of the Universe - An interview with Julie Varholdt aka Lovely Buttons

Julie Varholdt becomes Lovely Buttons

Clown Gathering UK, a week of talks, workshops and shows at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft in February attracted clowns from all over the world, including Julie Varholdt, aka Lovely Buttons, who flew all the way from Arizona. I asked her about her clowning life.

How would you describe your style of clowning?

I'm a bit of a Tom Boy type clown. I'm very physical and talk A LOT! I started off as a White Face clown for 3 years, then slowly changed to an Auguste Clown. In Arizona it's just too hot to be a white face clown. I usually wear funny shorts and cute t-shirts. I have almost as many costumes as I do real people clothes. Stilt walking is a big part of my clowning also, and face painting, and balloons, and walk a round.

How did the Lovely Buttons character come about and how would you describe her? 

First she never shuts up and loves everybody. The grumpier the person I'm entertaining the better! I just had a birthday and I'm now 1,523, 637,512 seconds old! So I'm still learning and growing. I have what they call ADLS- it means Attention Deficit Look Shiny!  It takes years and years to develop a character and be comfortable with it. Just because you put a clown nose on and a costume does not make you a clown. If I put a stethoscope on it does NOT make me a doctor. Or if I carry a brief case I'm NOT a lawyer.

Do you encounter many children who are scared of clowns and how do you deal with it?

No not really. I'm very approachable and lovely! There's nothing scary about my clown character at all. If I do run into a child that is timid and scared I have some funny lines I use that ALWAYS work and they're no longer scared.

What is it that most interests you in clowns and being a clown?

The shiny medals! There's nothing like seeing 100 clowns in costume and watching them interact with a crowd. It's surely brilliant and awe inspiring! Some clowns are more like family to me then some of my real family. Once we all become friends we keep each other in our hearts forever!

What percentage of clowns are women and do you see many women coming into the profession?

Would you believe that over here in America the majority of clowns are women. Men are in the minority. Out of 100 clowns about 90% are women. When you go to conventions here in the US, about 71% are women and 39% are men.

Why does the world need clowns?

Let's sing a song..... What the world needs now is clowns, more clowns.
We are the binding force of the universe..... Kind of like Jedis! Luke I am your clown father!

For more on Lovely Buttons, click here to visit her website.

For an interview with Simon Thompson's Clown Noir, click here. And for an interview with Bobbo Roberts - 30 Years a Clown - click here.

Bobbo catches up with his reading
at Clown Gathering UK
For more on clowns and clowning read Circus Mania - a book loved by clowns!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Clown Noir in Nose Business - Interview with Simon Thompson

A Clown Extravaganza, the gala show at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft as part of Clown Gathering UK in February offered a rare chance to see a wide range of clowns from both sides of the Atlantic performing a variety of clowning styles. Among them were Sean Rollo Rollason and son Tommy performing a classic pantomime-style baking routine; Canada’s Amanda O’Leary doing party magic; Arthur Pedlar as a classic musical whiteface clown; and a very physical mixture of tumbling, juggling, music and humour from the Foolhardy Circus Troupe.

Also present was Simon Thompson’s slightly scary character clown, Clown Noir, who clowns in a theatrical setting. Thompson is touring this year in his new show, Nose Business. I asked him about his life as a clown.

How long have you been clowning and how did you get into it?

I began to train as clown in 1984, my inspiration came from many directions. I lived near Belle Vue Circus so my first experience of trad clown was Jacko Fossett, then Charlie Carolli at Blackpool Tower, other inspiration came from Buster, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. It was in Paris with Le Coq that I first put on a red nose and started to play and I’ve never looked back.

How would you describe your style of clowning?

My style of clown is on the edge of Bouffon*, I like parody and making social commentary, yet play is central to everything I do. It allows for creativity so the obvious is avoided. I focus on audience engagement and shared experience.

How did the Clown Noir character come about?

Clown Noir is an extreme me, essentially childlike and full of mischief, yet he’s lived a full life and those experiences have coloured his persona. The make up is basically a mask to hide behind. It ease’s his feelings of vulnerability allowing him to comment where others may not. The laughter sugar coats the truth behind the dialogue or the game lulling the audience and pulling them in.

What were your workshops at this year’s CGUK about?

Find Play in Everything:
This workshop does what it says on the tin. Play for me is an essential ingredient for creativity and indeed Clown. Through play we can reveal childlike qualities, we can find solutions to problems and ultimately avoid the obvious.

Shared Experience:
In this workshop we will be focusing on our engagement with an audience and how we can tap into the emotional state of the clown and then share that with the audience. Thus creating moments of truthful and purposeful play. A clown is said to act as a mirror to society, I want to push that further by creating a silent direct communication with the audience. Allowing them to share your inner most thoughts, feelings, desires and be part of your journey, which then causes them to reflect on their own
circumstances. I want the audience to empathise, not pity. I want the audience to laugh with you not at you. I want the audience to share your pain and cry with you. I want the audience to scream, shout, swear, I want them to ride your emotional roller coaster and at the end, I want them to hug you, and love you.

What is it that most interests you in clowns and being a clown?

The humanity, the ability to be honest, fragile, insecure, vulnerable and present in front of an audience, a clown can connect at deeper level with the audience, because he shows the audience themselves but in exaggerated situations. He’s a problem solver and a truth teller.  

What’s the difference between a clown and a comedian or an actor; what sets the clown apart?

See above, hehehehe!

Why does the world need clowns?

Because they reflect humanity, a clown can stimulate laughter, tears, rage, love and empathy in fact all the human emotions, whilst making it easy to access for all ages and status’s.

What was the inspiration for Nose Business?

Nose Business is the last part of the Clown Noir Trilogy, which has echo’s of my life, career and failures along the way.

Catch Simon Thompson’s Clown Noir on tour in Nose Business at the following venues. More dates to be added. Check website for details.

13th, 14th May, Chapel on the Hill, Killorglin, Kerry
16th,17th May, Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
17th June, Fisher Theatre, Bungay. UK
18th June, Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft UK
23rd -26th June, Barnstaple Fringe Festival, UK
3rd – 6th August, Cork Arts Theatre, Cork
31st-4th Sept, Holbaek Clown Festival, Denmark
21st Sept, Carnegie Arts Centre, Kenmare, Kerry
22nd Sept, St John’s Arts Centre, Listowel, Kerry
23rd Sept, Friars Gate, Kilmallock, Limerick
24th Sept, Dance Limerick, Limerick City
28th Oct, Waterside Theatre, Derry, Northern Ireland
3rd Nov, Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, Northern Ireland

*Bouffon. Not a spelling mistake but a term coined by Jacques Lecoq:  “The difference between the clown and the bouffon is that while the clown is alone, the bouffon is part of a gang; while we make fun of the clown, the bouffon makes fun of us. At the heart of the bouffon is mockery pushed to the point of parody. Bouffons amuse themselves by reproducing the life of man in their own way, through games and pranks. The parody isn’t directly offensive with regard to the public; there is no deliberate intention to mock—the relation is of a different order. Bouffons come from elsewhere.”
Theatre of Movement and Gesture, 2006

Click here for an interview with Bobbo Roberts - 30 Years a Clown.