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."

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Educational value of Circuses, Zoos and SeaWorld

Douglas McPherson
author Circus Mania

The dumbest argument against animals in circuses, zoos and aquariums such as SeaWorld - and it's one I see parroted with irritating regularity in articles and comments threads - is that they provide "no educational value."

If only the people who blindly spout that view could be persuaded to actually visit such an establishment before condemning it, I am sure that most would find that the biggest educational benefit lies in simply seeing and sometimes touching wild animals close-up. TV doesn't have nearly the same impact, only a tiny percentage will ever go on a safari, and even those who do will probably not get quite so close to the animals as they can in a circus, zoo or aquarium. 

Society is becoming far too removed from the animal world. Kids in cities often won't even see horses or the farm animals they eat. Many couldn't tell you which animal some of the processed food on their plate came from. 

Circuses, zoos and aquariums reconnect us with the natural world, and that is life enhancing in the same way that pat dogs in hospitals are. It also creates an appreciation and respect for nature. It was largely the tricks performed by dolphins in aquariums, for example, that made people realise how clever they were and therefore worthy of conservation in the wild. 

As for the animals, as long as they are properly cared for, they're better off in human care where they are protected from all the natural threats (as well as the human kind) that they would face in the wild. Being animals, they don't have a human's mental capacity to conceptualise freedom or captivity, they only know if they are happy, mentally stimulated and physically well, and human care can provide that, in exactly the same way domestic pet ownership does. 

I used to believe entertainment-based animal shows were a bit iffy - largely because that was the view presented in the media - but the more I've looked into it, during the research for my book Circus Mania and many newspaper and magazine articles since, the more I've seen that the arguments against such establishments aren't based on genuine welfare claims (although they always campaign on grounds of alleged cruelty) but an ideological objection to captivity irrespective of welfare standards

Every circus animal I have seen in the ring or backstage has appeared to be in exceptionally good health, mentally and physically, and their keepers and trainers have been 100% dedicated to them. 

In my opinion, we need more businesses that put the public in close proximity with animals, not fewer.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Chinese State Circus back on the road

One of my favourite circus shows, the Chinese State Circus, is back in UK theatres this winter, with its trademark lion dance, plate spinning, contortionists and jaw-dropping tricks with huge earthenware pots that have to be seen to be believed.

The Chinese State Circus founder Phillip Gandey said: “We have returned to the pure and honest perfection in acrobatics upon which our reputation is based.”

For the inside story on the Chinese State Circus, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

And click here to read how the Chinese State Circus moves around

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Why we need circus animals more than ever

How dangerously removed we're becoming from nature when a survey by the National Trust finds nine in ten children can identify a Dalek but only three recognise a magpie. And when the Oxford Junior Dictionary has taken out terms like acorn, buttercup and otter in favour of blog, chatroom and voicemail, and the only Blackberry in its pages is the electronic kind.

No wonder kids go mad to see even the ducks run around the ring at Peter Jolly's Circus. We need the sawdust circle more than ever.

Click here for a glimpse of a vanishing art form.

Thomas Chipperfield debut on Moira Orfei Circus in Italy

Italian circus fans flock to see the white tigers

The trainer's costumes
before the show
Novaro, Italy, November 4. An hour before his first appearance with one of Europe’s most famous circuses, British trainer Thomas Chipperfield is polishing his boots before stepping into the ring with a new five-tiger act.

Click here for more.

And look out for more on Thomas in an exciting new updated edition of Circus Mania coming soon!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

30 Years of Circus Starr - the big top with a big heart

In this article, which first appeared in the world's oldest women's magazine, the People's Friend, I talk to the backstage stars behind a circus that exists only to help sick and disadvantaged children through the magic of the big top.

A couple of years ago, Simone Unett joined a circus, her mission to make kids happy. She doesn’t swing on the trapeze in sparkly tights, walk a tightrope or wear a red nose, multi-coloured wig and enormous shoes - not at work, anyway.

Simone is a fundraiser - or perhaps that should be fun raiser - for Circus Starr, a unique show that gives away all its tickets to vulnerable, disadvantaged and disabled children and their families.

Her job is to phone businesses in the 75 towns a year that the circus visits and ask them to help children in their area by donating the price of tickets. The tickets are then distributed to local hospitals, hospices, foster homes, special needs schools and women’s refuges.

“A lot of families who have a child with a physical disability or autism can’t get out to events because they’re afraid people will stare or that their child will make a lot of noise,” Simone explains.

“They don’t feel they can be themselves and enjoy quality family time, so we’ve created an environment for them where they can be as loud as they want and have a really good time in a relaxed environment with people who are dealing with the same issues that they are. Sometimes it’s the only event they get to as a whole family in an entire year,” Simone adds. “That really means a lot to them.”

The flexible seating inside the blue and yellow big top means they’ve even accommodated children in hospital beds.

Circus Starr was the brainchild of Philip Gandey, a third-generation circus showman who also runs such shows as the Chinese State Circus and Spirit Of The Horse. His philanthropic big top was born 30 years ago when Gandey’s Circus was asked to stage a fundraising event for a school.

According to director Neville Wilson, “That first show was so successful that word got around to other charities that wanted to do the same thing, so we set up Circus Starr to help low profile local charities like hospices that didn’t have the resources to raise funds for themselves.”

As well as providing an afternoon or evening out for hundreds of children and their families, the show’s profits are given to a charity that it partners with in each town.

“We donate over £1 million worth of tickets each year,” says Neville. “Then there are a lot of hospices and baby care units that get a nice cheque at the end of the show, so everybody wins.”

Circus Starr is an independent not-for-profit Community Interest Company. But Philip Gandey continues to produce the circus to the high standards of his other shows and books top quality performers from all over the world. It’s a family show with as much for parents and carers as the children.

According to Neville, a former acrobat who has worked in the circus business all his life, “It’s a proper touring circus, moved on six articulated lorries that could compete as a commercial circus, no problem.”

The day-to-day running of the show falls to Robert Price. In the spotlight, he’s the dashing ringmaster in a scarlet coat. Backstage, he cracks the whip (metaphorically speaking!) as show manager.

“We do everything we can to ensure every child enjoys the show, whether they need ringside seats or a bit of time out,” says Robert. “We don’t want to scare them with big flashing lights. We make it nice and gentle for them.”

The circus is in Robert’s blood. His mother was a foot-juggler and he’s now started a circus family of his own.

As soon as he joined Circus Starr, Robert fell in love with his wife Oana, who worked in the box office. Today, the couple travel around the country with the show and their two children, the youngest born this summer.

Also responsible for the troupe, the sound, the lights, the transport and just about everything else, Robert says, “There’s never a dull moment, but life is good!”

For the performers, living in caravans alongside the big blue and yellow circus tent, life is very different to that of the fundraisers, who are based in an office in Congelton, Cheshire. But one of the perks of Simone’s job is visiting the circus, so she and her team can describe the show to potential donors - and also so they can see the result of all their hard work on the phones.

Romy Bauer
One of Simone’s favourite acts is contortionist Romy Bauer who performs in a crystal globe suspended high above the ring.

“She’s dressed as a fairy and snow falls all around her while she’s performing. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the gasps from the children are amazing.

“Cold calling companies is difficult, because a lot of people say ‘No.’” Simone admits, “So to see the smile on a child’s face and to know you did that is very motivating.”

Pinned to the walls of the fundraising office are countless thank you cards and letters from families that have been given tickets.

Simone proudly reads one out: “Tonight we came to the show with our two daughters. Due to our elder daughter’s special needs we generally stay away from outings that involve confined spaces and crowds, but tonight was a magical experience for us all - the chance to be a family and see an amazing show that captivated the children and us from start to finish.”

Simone is especially proud of an award-winning app the circus has developed to prime children for their visit to the big top.

“A lot of children with autism struggle with anything outside of their normal routine,” Simone explains. “So they can download the app to their iPad and it takes them through their day at the circus. It has pictures of the entrance, the seating and the acts, so the child can get used to it and feel confident enough to go on the day.

“The feedback we’ve had has been brilliant. Families have said they’ve been playing dress-up circus in the garden before the show. They’ve sent pictures of children with a blanket tied around them like the ringmaster’s cape. It’s lovely.”

On the day, everyone is assured of a warm welcome. Even those - and there are a few adults among them - who are afraid of clowns.

“We’ve had some of those!” Simone admits with a laugh. “But Chico Rico, our clown, has such a warm, welcoming smile that those barriers are soon broken down. The children love him and they have time at the end to get their face painted if they want to.

“There’s always the chance to get their picture taken with some of the acts. It’s a magical day for them and we want to make it as special as we can.”

For Simone, meanwhile, every day is a circus day.

“I’ve been doing phone work for a long time, but this job is really special. I’ve got two kids of my own, so to be able to talk about something that benefits children, and just the fact that the circus is such a fun subject to talk about, is really lovely.”

With a grin, she concludes, “You can tell I love my job, can’t you?”

If you’d like to make a donation to Circus Starr or nominate a family deserving of tickets, visit

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Beer for elephants

Circus Mania will soon be reprinted with an exciting new cover. If you want to own a "rare" first edition with the original artwork, click here to buy one now while stocks last.
"The Greatest Show on Earth in a book... unmissable."
- World Stage
"Remarkable... a real page-turner."
- Eastern Daily Press.
"A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
- Mail on Sunday

Monday, 31 October 2016

Yasmin Smart remembers her grandfather Billy Smart

In an interview that first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the circus equestrian and ring-mistress Yasmin Smart recalls her grandfather, the circus showman Billy Smart, and the day they received a royal visit in this photograph.

"This is me at the age of six or seven presenting flowers to Princess Margaret at the charity performance my grandfather Billy Smart, pictured centre, presented on Clapham Common each year to raise money for the Variety Club.

Granddad had started out with a coconut shy and by the 1930s had the largest touring funfair in England. He always had a soft spot for circuses, and in 1946 he bought a second-hand big top. For a while he toured a circus alongside the funfair. Then the circus became so large that he carried on without the fair. By the time of this photo in 1960, our big top was a huge 6000-seater.

One reason we needed such a big tent was because Granddad loved big productions. We had a track around the outside of the circus ring and the finale was a huge western scene with everyone riding horses and shooting.

In the picture he’s wearing his trademark western tie. He always had a Stetson and a big cigar. He was a great fan of America and got a lot of his ideas from there, which is why he called his show Billy Smart’s New World Circus - he was very modern and brought something new to the circus world.

He was a very flamboyant man. When he came into the room, you couldn’t help noticing him. He was a very hard father but a fantastic grandfather. He had about 30 grandchildren and I think he was much warmer and more affectionate to us than he’d been to his children - even though he had a very dry sense of humour which could be quite hard for a child to understand.

One year I was begging my father for a horse. I looked out the window on my birthday and there it was, wearing a big bow. I hugged my daddy and he said, “No, it wasn’t me, it was Granddad.” I ran to Granddad to thank him and he just gave me a smile: “What horse...?”

That was his sense of humour; he didn’t want any fuss. But we loved him very much and he loved us. We’d go to his caravan on Sunday to get our pocket money and he liked me to scratch his head. His hair lotion had a distinctive scent and after he died there’d be times in the winter quarters that I could still smell it.

On the day he died, in 1966, we’d had a big parade through Ipswich. There was a band in front of the big top and he was dancing in front of the crowd to I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. I was looking after the pony rides and watching from a distance, giggling at the sight. He went into his caravan, and the next thing I saw was people rushing around and an ambulance coming. He’d just dropped dead.

For him, that was the best way to go. Shortly before he died he’d bought a big piece of land that would become Windsor Safari Park. He didn’t live to see it open, but to the end he was planning his next venture."

Interview by Douglas McPherson

Friday, 28 October 2016

Growing up in the circus - a picture that says it all

Here's a picture that surely sums up how wonderful it must have been to grow up in one of the great circuses of yesteryear. Two kids taking an elephant for a walk down a suburban street... on skateboards!
That's Bobbo Roberts in the foreground (read about his new clown show here) and his sister bringing up the rear. As for the elephant... surely this picture sums up the harmony in which circus folk and their animals once lived.* The jumbo was obviously part of the family, a big pet, considered safe enough to play in the street with two young children who she clearly trusted completely, and them her.
Notice there's not a bull-hook in sight. Bobbo's father Bobby Roberts, the circus owner and elephant trainer never used nor even owned one. He thought an ankus was something you found on a boat.
What a shame we're unlikely to ever see scenes like this on a British street again - a picture from the days when human and animal relationships were considered both normal and natural, to be celebrated, not outlawed, as they are today.
*And yes, I know there are still circus trainers keeping alive the tradition, but they are becoming ever more rare and the threat of a ban on their vocation grows ever closer in Wales (see article here) and now Scotland, where a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses will be debated in the Scottish Parliament next year.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if those with the power to ban could gaze upon a photo like this, from the days before protesters, political correctness and killjoys, and realise that those simpler times were better times. Let's bring them back!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

New clown and circus show coming soon - and you can help!

Smartii Pants and Bobbo

There are some shows you know will be good as soon as you hear a one-line outline. Such a show is the new venture by the newly-formed double-act of Bobbo Roberts and Ian 'Smartii Pants' Williams, which features "proper clowning in a panto-like theatre show." Oh yes, and it's is set behind the scenes of a traditional circus. What could be better?

It sounds like audience participation will feature strongly, and if you're a fan of clowns and clowning, you can get involved from the very beginning by supporting the production through its Go Fund Me Page. Alternatively, if you're a clown or circus person yourself, the boys would be pleased to hear from you if you could lend them any drapes or props to add to the circus atmosphere.

Bobbo took time out from preparing the show to tell us a little bit about it:

What is the title of your new show, and what's the storyline?
The new show is called "Trouble at the (Big) top" It features a failing circus as a backdrop where all the acts have walked out leaving only the ringmaster and a clown to put on all of the acts between them. It allows for the use of a lot of clown parody acts and gives a lot of room within the framework for a lot of proper clowning and play to involve the audience.
Who's idea was it and what was the inspiration? 
Ian and I had been bemoaning the lack of proper clowning and wanted to show audiences what we loved about real clowning. I suppose the inspiration came from various sources, The Crazy Gang, Norman Wisdom and The Pickle Family Circus over in the USA certainly helped but our main focus was on breathing life into some old concepts by performing them with the audience not at them. Oh and of course mention needs to be made of the amazing work Tweedy does with his one-man show.
Smartii Pants reacts to Bobbo's suggestion
that they put on a show
Will it be just the two of you or is anyone else in the cast? 
At the moment the intention is to run as a two-man show/crew. We'll  be tweaking the show so we can run the sound and lighting cues ourselves whilst mid act and trying to incorporate sound effects in to polish the production. Only with today's technology is this possible and we want to make a show that may be set in a simpler time but is really of it's time.
What can we expect to see in the show in terms of clown routines etc? 
There will be various acts represented such as Juggling, Strongman, Magic and a parody on animal acts. Of course for the changeovers there will be various other clown bits thrown in to allow for costume changes. The framework will remain the same but every performance will be different as each audience will help shape it as they join in and come along with us. Overall it will be  Burlesque in the truest sense of the word, parodying whilst at the same time reverie the acts we put on.
How did you meet Ian and what made you decide to team up for this show? 
We move in similar circles and realised when we chatted we had a similar passion for real clowning and the humanity in it. We ended up talking over coffee quite regularly when one day we suddenly decided talking was getting us nowhere and we started writing instead. Our good friend Simon Thompson (Clown Noir) has been touring a one-clown show for a while and really encouraged us to look deeper than the same old gags and to go into a room and play with the props till we found some truth. We went into a room and played around for a week in character and came out thinking this could actually be something good.
What are the challenges of starting a show from scratch? 
Time is the major consideration, writing and rehearsing the show takes time as does building props and editing music not to mention sewing costumes and designing posters. It really is a two-man effort to get everything done. We've set ourselves a target of performing an early draft of the show as a fundraiser for a local Boys Brigade before the end of the year to give ourselves a deadline to work to.
Clowns on their way!
How much are you hoping to raise through your funding page and what do you need to buy? 
The target is £3000 but we're not only looking to raise money. We are lucky in that we have friends in the business who may have drapes and set pieces lying around Ian used to teach sound engineering years ago but neither of us has a PA system as our backgrounds are not as party entertainers.
When are you planning to tour and what sort of venues? 
We're previewing the show this November to get a feel for what works and then by next year we'll rewrite parts and start touring in the first quarter of 2017. We're looking to play intimate venues so we can maintain eye contact with the full audience. Eventually as the show grows we'll be looking to include local drama and dance schools and speciality acts in the show to give them a chance to perform.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the show or other forthcoming appearances? 
We both have jobs coming up for the Christmas season with our solo acts. Ian is working some street jobs and I have some appearances at the Britannia Panoptican music hall. We'll be appearing together again at CGUK 2017 in March and we're taking the show to Limerick fringe in April, then we'll be working at Holbaek clown festival in Denmark in August. It's a busy old year but if you have a passion for what you're doing it's worth the effort.

Bobbo would also like to thank his comedy partner Ian for being his best man when he gets married this Friday (October 21), and his wife-to-be Gill, who has been supporting 'Trouble at the (Big) top' by keeping him and Ian topped up with coffee and bacon and eggs while they work on the show.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Zippos circus kicks out clowns shocker!

Years of attacks by animal rights activists couldn't stop Zippos circus touring with cats and budgies, but the evil clown craze has caused showman Martin Burton to call time on that other circus staple, clowns.

According to a report in The Sun, Burton fears the evil clown craze has stoked the fear of clowns to such proportions that he fears families would be put off buying tickets if they thought they'd see any red noses in the ring:

“The recent hijacking of clowns from comedy into horror, started by Stephen King and now adopted at Halloween horror mazes and in film around the world is simply not funny.

"I would like to make it clear to our visitors that Zippos Circus shows feature no clowns, in fact the 'red nose' has been redundant with us for a while - we prefer comic slapstick characters of the Charlie Chaplin style, but nonetheless we are concerned that families might be put off attending our circus, and robustly condemn these clown stalkers."

The press reports about Zippos' no-clown policy, however, are not strictly true. Zippos still features clowning in the form of Mr Lorenz, who may not wear a red nose or a scary mask, but still wears recognisable modern clown make-up including a white lip, and performs clown routines (as opposed to, say, stand up comedy or some form of non-clown funny business).

What we have, then, is a great example of a circus turning the bad clown publicity to it's advantage in the form of national advertising.

It still seems odd though that Burton, who is also the President of Clowns International and a former clown himself, appears to be distancing himself from the clowning profession he's supposed to represent. Is this an example of how badly the prankster clowns have unsettled the professionals?