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, 17 May 2018

Father of the Circus celebrated in Philip Astley's home town of Newcastle under Lyme

Celebrations marking 250 years of the circus have continued in Newcastle under Lyme, the birthplace of Philip Astley, the Father of the Modern Circus, with a new multi-part metal monument that forms the gateway to the town.

Located on George Street, the monument, which lights up at night, was designed by Candida Kelsall and built by 17-year-old Liam Robinson with funding from the Realise Foundation and Newcastle Business Improvement District. It depicts ringmaster Astley flanked by two rearing horses.

The unveiling was attended by the local mayor and mayoress, along with a delegation from the Circus Friends Association, Carol Gandey from one of Britain's foremost circus promoters Gandey World Class Productions, and performers from Circus Starr, the charity circus that is part of the Gandey organisation. Also present was Zsuzsanna Mata, executive director of Monte Carlo's Federation Mondiale du Cirque and illusionist Andrew Van Buren from the Astley Project, who for 30 years has campaigned for recognition of Astley's legacy in his home town.

For 15 Facts about Philp Astley, the Father of the Circus, click here.

For more about Circus Starr, the circus that helps kids, click here.

For more on the history and culture of the circus, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus! Click here to buy the updated second edition.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Aerialist by Rebecca Truman - Book Review

Rebecca Truman is the Grande Dame of aerial. “Cut me in half and I will have aerialist written all the way through,” she writes in this engrossing memoir.

In 1988, Truman founded Skinning the Cat, a pioneering all-woman trapeze troupe that performed principally at outdoor events throughout Britain and Europe, but also in circus tents and theatres. Truman was star, costumer, artistic director, rigger, truck driver... in fact, she did pretty much everything. Her reluctance or inability to delegate responsibility led to an punishing schedule that eventually brought her to the point of breakdown.

“My years as an aerialist are divided into before and after the falls,” she writes on the first page. “Those accidents changed everything. Before the falls I was running wild and fulfilling my fantasies. Afterwards, it became all too real.”

The Silver Tree rig
When Truman’s colleague Lou plunges head-first to a concrete floor, the dangers of trapeze are brought violently home to the reader. Was Lou’s accident Truman’s responsibility for running an un-funded company too close to the brink of exhaustion? When Truman subsequently breaks an ankle (that never heals properly) was it her fault for bringing a still-recovering Lou back to work too soon, or for not training her sufficiently on the lunge that would have prevented Truman’s accident?

Those are the questions that haunt her as company leader. But the show always goes on. Forced to hobble on stage on crutches, Truman creates a character that makes the crutch part of her act. In the air, the trapeze frees her from her disability.

Everyone in the circus has a colourful story to tell, but few can tell their own tale as well as Truman. In this gripping journey into the life and mind of a trapeze artist, Truman writes with all the evocative colour and underlying precision of the shows she describes

With a novelist’s eye for detail, she brilliantly evokes the glitter and grit of her surroundings at art school, in training gyms, in lorries and caravans, and freezing cold offices in derelict former woollen mills.

For students of the trapeze, Aerialist is essential reading. There’s an insider’s manual worth of detail on every aspect of how to run and rig a show, down to how to remove a cobblestone from a town square in order to drive in a stake to anchor the rig - or, if that doesn’t work, anchor it from a builder’s skip.

Chameleon rig

But this is also the story of a life. From a bohemian childhood scarred by sexual abuse by her grandfather, and the death of her father when she was young, to the nervous breakdown when all those unresolved issues eventually caught up with her, Truman reveals how her career on the trapeze was driven by the desire to escape.

Her narrative is broken up and enriched by the accounts of her mother, company members and, memorably, Zippos founder Martin Burton who recalls asking the Arts Council for funding in the days when circus wasn’t recognised as an art form. Sitting in opulent offices full of furniture he reckoned was worth more than his entire circus, he was told, “If we had any money we’d give it to you.”

Since they claimed not to have the money, he decided to steal the reception desk - a plan that failed when he couldn’t get it through the revolving doors.

Many years later, when Burton was appointed chairman of the Arts Council's Circus Advisory Committee, he told them, “You obviously don’t remember the last time I was here.” “Yes we do,” they said, “which is why the desk is screwed down.”

The text is also peppered with information boxes that provide a glossary of trapeze moves and equipment - Skinning the Cat takes its name from an aerial manoeuvre - plus some poems by Truman that offer insights into an aerialist’s connection to her work that mere prose couldn’t quite capture.

It all adds up to a thrilling read that sits with the best circus memoirs, such as Nell Gifford’s Gifford’s Circus - The First Ten Years (and Josser, written as Nell Stroud) and Gerry Cottle’s Confessions of a Showman.

Click here to order Aerialist by Rebecca Truman from Amazon.

See also: 10 Books for Circus250!

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The sad case of the vanishing circus animals

The circus - where else can you get this
close to a tiger?

I just read an article in which the writer took a package trip to India costing £3195 per person. The “highlight” was a visit to a national park where a tiger walked within 200 yards of her truck. This was considered “lucky” since a sighting is not guaranteed.

Compare that with my spur of the moment visit to the Great British Circus (tickets about £5) where I sat within feet of half a dozen tigers displaying all their natural cat-like behaviours, such as jumping between pedestals in return for a piece of pork. And where I also saw horses galloping within feet of me, camels parading past and elephants swishing their trunks and tusks around close enough to make me lean back in my seat.

Compare it, too, to my visit to Peter Jolly’s Circus where I sat for a hour listening to Thomas Chipperfield explain how big cats are trained by using their natural inquisitiveness. The trainer’s stick and whip, for example, aren’t used to keep the animal away, but to draw it towards you, the way a house cat follows a piece of string.

Tsavo the lion relaxes backstage
Within minutes of talking to Thomas, who’s family has been training animals for 300 years, it was clear he knew more about his animals than you would ever learn from a television documentary. Out behind the tent, meanwhile, it was a pleasure to see one of his lions, Tsavo, looking so relaxed, contented and well-kept in his sunny enclosure.

During the shows, it was clear that the animals were the main attraction, particularly for the many children in the audience, who watched enthralled, unlikely ever to be so close to such beasts (for the big top was set up in an area where few residents were likely to spend £3000+ per person on a foreign safari).

Yet the pleasure and educational benefits that the circus brings is under threat.

The Great British Circus closed several years ago when a ban on wild animals in travelling shows was first mooted. A licensing scheme was brought in as a temporary measure, which allowed Chipperfield to tour his animals with Peter Jolly’s Circus.

Me and the Elephant
The author meets one of the last jumbos
to appear in a British circus
Earlier this year, however, Chipperfield was denied a license to tour with his big cats in a show of his own. He is currently planning an appeal against the decision, but with DEFRA proclaiming its commitment to letting the temporary licence scheme expire in 2020, and thus bringing in a ban by default, the political deck is clearly stacked against Chipperfield.

We can only hope that Britain's Last Lion Tamer prevails against the odds and gives audiences at least one more chance to see his animals close up.

When my book Circus Mania was first published, including accounts of my visits to Britain’s last animal circuses, the Mail on Sunday called it “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Is it still “vanishing”? Or will Circus Mania prove to be the last description of an art form that has already vanished from the country where the circus was born?

Click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition of Circus Mania from Amazon. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

American Circus in Paris!

Ringling may have retired across the pond, but in Paris zay have ze elephants! Ze tigers! Ze parades! Ze 3 (count 'em) rings!

Book now for Christmas!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Peter Jolly's Circus - The Most Traditional Show On Earth!

A lovely teaser for one of my favourite circuses. Read about my visit to this beautiful traditional show in the new updated edition of Circus Mania.

Click here to buy from Amazon.

Monday, 2 April 2018

New plaque marks site of the first circus

2018 is the 250th anniversary of the very first circus, and to mark the occasion, Lambeth Residents Association have installed a blue plaque as close as possible to the site of the very first ring, which was established by Philip Astley, the Father of the Circus, in 1768.

Chris Barltrop as Philp Astley
The plaque was unveiled on Easter Monday by ringmaster and circus historian Chris Barltrop, who was dressed as Astley and added to the celebrations by performing his one man play The Audacious Mr Astley.

Astley, of course, was a horseman, famed for brandishing his sword while standing atop of a galloping horse, and so there were naturally horses on hand, too, ridden by the Khadikov Riders from Zippos circus, which is currently resident in Blackheath.

The plaque, which also commemorates Astley's wife Patty, herself a horsewoman who performed in his shows, is located at Cornwall Road, in Waterloo. The unveiling was followed by a residents' street party.

For 15 Facts about Philip Astley, the Father of the Circus, click here.

The Khadikov Riders

When the circus was on the cover of the Radio Times

Bobby Roberts, 1979

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Zippos rides into 2018!

A image to gladden the hearts of circus fans! The Khadikov Riders are among the stars of Zippos' new show Legacy, which opens in Blackheath, London on March 29, as the first stop on its 2018 tour. 

Also on the bill are Cuban acrobats the Hermansito Troupe, clown Totti Alexis, the legendary Norman Barrett MBE and his famous budgies, and Brazilian aerialist Alex Michael, who will be performing 30ft above the ring with no safety wires or net!

Book your seats on 0871 210 2100.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Why circuses should have animals, by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington

It was refreshing to read an article by noted animal behaviourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington stressing the positive benefits to both humans and animals of having animals in the circus ring.

In this quote from Country Squire Magazine, Kiley-Worthington doesn't just defend the practise but endorses it.

"There are very important arguments why pleasant interested contact between animals and humans should be encouraged and fostered and circuses can do this.  These are: 1) because relationships between humans and non-human animals can be mutually rewarding and enriching for both (and not just for therapy). 2) Because humans then have some experiences of direct contact, experience the emotions and mental abilities of different animals and realise that they too are sentient, thinking beings with desires and needs of all kinds, have value in themselves (not just an instrumental value for humans to benefit from) and therefore must be conserved. No TV documentaries, films, or watching through binoculars will provide these emotional exchanges & experiences that contact with others does provide "

Dr Kiley-Worthington was previously the author of Chiron's World, a ground-breaking study of circus animals that was sponsored by the RSPCA but not published by them because its findings conflicted with the Society's anti-circus agenda. Click here to read it in full.

She is currently a director of the Eco Research and Education Centre and has just published a paper on the similarities between all mammals, including humans. Read it here.