LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the circus!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Chaplins Circus brings exciting new concept to the big top

Following my last post about the need for big top shows to offer something special if they're to draw audiences from cosy indoor venues comes news of an exciting new show to tour Britain this year.

Chaplins Circus is a theatrical show about the backstage drama of a 1920s circus and it will be travelling the country in one of the biggest big tops on the road - all the better to accommodate its finale human cannonball stunt!

A poster for the real
Charlie Chaplin's
film The Circus
- which was the 7th
highest-grossing film of
all time.
Chaplins Circus is the brainchild of Charlie Pakdel, a veteran Charlie Chaplin imitator; Mark Foot, who ran away with the circus at the age of 8 and went on to run one of the biggest suppliers of seasonal entertainment to shopping malls; and Gary Stocker, a street entertainer and magician.

The show opens in Highfield Park, St Albans, May 24 - June 1. Info:

Given these PC times, the circus features no animals, which is fair enough, and, because they're deemed too scary, no clowns. But hang on, wasn't Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp a hobo clown?

Friday, 4 April 2014

The future of the circus - can the big top survive?

My thanks to Mark for buying a copy of Circus Mania and leaving a great review on Amazon (please click here to read half a dozen more reader reviews):

Great interviews underpin the analysis, I was particularly gripped by the accounts of current and ex people of the traditional circus with wild animals. A type of show now almost universally unloved in Britain. Hardly any exist now. The main wild animal show featured in the book has since changed name and removed the wild animals. A good move since that is likely to be law by 2015. A few, like Zippos, continue with horses only but are sometimes met by animal rights activists bearing leaflets showing elephants and tigers.
The elephant not in the room, - why a tent in a field and sawdust ring if there are no animals? Circus will develop differently. The trend is more theatrical, better lighting, music and production. But the skills remain much the same.

What struck me most was Mark's astute comment:

The elephant not in the room, - why a tent in a field and sawdust ring if there are no animals? 

The elephant in the room
My article in The Stage on the return of elephants to
the Great British Circus
Before I wrote Circus Mania I wrote an article in The Stage about the return of elephants to the Great British Circus after a decade-long absence from British big tops. Phoning around for comments, I spoke to members of the Circus Friends Association and well remember hearing comments along the lines of "A circus is not a circus without animals." I think Martin Lacey, director of the Great British Circus, said the same thing himself.

At the time I thought, cynically, 'Really?' But then, I'd been brought up with the idea that training animals to perform in a circus was fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, although I was fast becoming a circus fan, it was the daredevilry of human performers that had drawn me to ringside. In fact, all the circuses I'd seen up until that point were all-human shows performed in theatres. Even the historic Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, where I got my first adult taste of circus magic, was a building and presented a thoroughly contemporary all-human show.

So did circuses really need animals? Cirque du Soleil had become the biggest circus company in history without them.

Inside the big top
- a full house at Zippos
My attitude changed when I went to see the tigers and elephants of the Great British Circus for myself, and the camels, zebra and horses of Circus Mondao a week or so later. I fell under the spell of seeing tigers and elephants at such close quarters. There is something magical about the sight of plumed spotted horses trotting into an atmospherically lit circus ring. There's also a connection with the action in a circus tent that television and film - or even the stage of a traditional theatre - can never reproduce. A big top wraps itself around you and makes you part of its world.

Horses and Sawdust
at Zippos
- the type of act the
circus ring was made for
It was, in fact, my visit to the Great British Circus that prompted me to move from writing articles about the circus to writing a book, Circus Mania, because I felt there was such a powerful story to be told.

During my research I spoke to many current and retired animal trainers and formed a more complex picture of the way animals are trained and treated. Yes, there has been cruelty but no, I don't believe it's inherent or widespread. What came across most from the trainers I spoke to was their deep love of the animals they work with.

But I also came away with the question Mark asks in his review of my book - why a tent in a field if there are no animals? And if animals are eventually banned from the circus (and they've almost disappeared from British circuses already) can the big top survive without them?

The sawdust ring was invented by the father of the modern circus, Philip Astley, for the presentation of galloping horses and it's for such acts that it remains best suited. You couldn't parade elephants and polar bears around in a theatre, so the rougher and more raw setting of a big tent once provided the only viable place to see them.

But without the need for an animal-friendly setting, why swap a cosy theatre seat for the often cold and muddy environment of a tent in a field?

Girls on a bike
- some stunts only fit in a big top
(a picture of the Chinese Stage Circus
from Circus Mania)
My two visits to the Chinese State Circus, first in a theatre and then in a big top, showed me that the tent in a field can still serve a purpose, even if the only 'animals' I saw there were the glittering puppets of the Chinese lion dance. That purpose is the presentation of tricks too big to be staged in a theatre.

In the Chinese big top, as I chronicled in Circus Mania, that was girls performing Astley-style horse-riding tricks but on furiously pedaled bikes, and guys flying off swinging poles the length of telephone poles. The theatre version of the circus had to do without such acts and, although still good, was a paler copy by comparison.

You can't perform the flying trapeze in a theatre, or a wheel of death, or put a human pyramid on a high-wire, because you don't have the height. There's only so much water and goo a clown can throw around in a theatre, too.

In a big top you can do anything. But if the circus is to tempt the public out of theatres and into tents, it won't be a case of 'can do,' but 'must do.'

The big tops that pull crowds without animals will be the ones that give us the big tricks - the Russian swing; the human cannonball; the globe of death. The shows that can put the 'big' in the big top will thrive.

Big acts are expensive, however, and the prospects are grimmer for the small traditional circuses where a few family members gamely turn their hand to several smaller scale tricks. Take away their animals - their one unique selling point - and such circuses may have little left to offer us.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers). 
Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Britain's newest clown runs away with Peter Jolly's Circus

Say Hi to Britain's newest clown, Kyle Samuel - or Clown Jerry as he's now known since running away with Peter Jolly's Circus. The 18-year-old Hereford funny man fell in love with the circus on a visit to America when he was just two years old and says he's been longing to join the world of the big top ever since.

He couldn't have picked a more traditional show to join. Jolly's is the last show in Britain with a big cat act, presented by Thomas Chipperfield.

But what's life like for a young clown in today's circus? I got the full story from Gareth Ellis, better known as Bippo, who's whole family ran away with the circus when he was 9-years-old.

Bippo the clown
- Read the story of the
boy who ran away to join
the circus in
Circus Mania
Read Bippo's incredible behind-the-scenes story, and first-hand tales of jugglers, sword-swallowers, trapeze artists and showmen in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Click here for more on the Chipperfield tigers.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Zippos open day

If you've ever wanted to go behind the scenes at the circus, pop along to Zippos on Blackheath Common on Friday April 18. As part of this month's World Circus Day celebrations, the circus will be holding an open day from 11.00 to 12.00 when visitors can meet the animals, performers and staff and find out how a circus works.

"A very enjoyable book"
- the latest 5-star customer
review on Amazon.
Visit the site to read
another six.
Another way to go behind the scenes of the big top is to buy my book Circus Mania - a backstage journey through the British circus scene from traditional tent shows with tigers and elephants to such freakishly contemporary shows as the Circus of Horrors. Along the way you'll find clowns, trapeze artists, animal trainers and showmen talking about their unique lives, culture, traditions, secrets and superstitions. There's even a full chapter in which Zippos founder Martin Burton tells the story of his circus and the part it played in BBC sitcom Big Top.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

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

Monday, 31 March 2014

Turquoise Radio celebrates World Circus Day

Laid back radio presenter Michael Sargent
will be talking circus with Douglas McPherson
on Turquoise Radio
to celebrate World Circus Day

My thanks to Michael Sargent for inviting me onto his Write To Be Heard book programme on Turquoise Radio to talk about World Circus Day, Circus Mania and all things circus.

The hour-long show will be broadcast over the internet on Tuesday April 15 at 8pm US ET (that's 1am Wednesday morning in the UK) and repeated at 10am on Sunday April 20 (a far easier to catch 3pm in the UK).

Tune in at

Circus Starr spring tour

Balancing act
Miss Lara star of Circus Starr
the circus that helps kids

Have you heard about the circus that sells out its big top every night, yet no one who buys a ticket ever sees the show?

The Circus Starr big top
Circus Starr, now celebrating 26 years on the road, is a unique not-for-profit organisation that sells tickets to businesses in the towns it visits, then donates the tickets to disabled and disadvantaged children and their families with profits going to local charities such as hospices and the air ambulance service.

Just because it's for charity doesn't mean it's not a great show, though. Starr is part of Gandey World Class Productions which produces shows such as the Chinese State Circus, Spirit of the Horse and the Krystal Dinner Show (the latter a fine dining experience with circus acts in a Speigeltent in Dubai). According to Circus Starr director Neville Wilson, the big top show "could be sold commercially, no problem" - as this picture of one of its stars, Miss Lara, surely proves.

The Circus Starr spring tour kicks off in Hanley Park, Stoke on Trent on April 14. More details at

If you've ever dreamed of running away with the circus, meanwhile, read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson to find out what life behind the greasepaint is really like. Click here to read seven rave customer reviews on Amazon.

Matisse was a circus fan

The Horse, the Rider and the Clown
Henri Matisse

According to the poet Charles Baudelaire, "Genius is just childhood one can return to at will." If that's the case, the artist Henri Matisse was perhaps blurring genius with second childhood when in the final decade of his life he swapped paint and brushes for cutting shapes out of coloured paper and sticking them together.

He also returned to some childhood memories, including a fondness for the circus, as expressed in the above work, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown, which is part of a forthcoming exhibition at the Tate.

Other pictures include dancers and knife-throwers. Matisse, in fact, compared his work with that of a juggler or acrobat - mind, hand and eye working in perfect harmony.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Circus Facts for World Circus Day, April 19, 2014

Roll up, roll up!
Who could have resisted this poster
for Rosaire's Big Circus in 1946?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, with World Circus Day, April 19, almost upon us, Roll up, Roll up for the Circus Mania bluffer's guide to circus history and culture with these 15 fabulous facts about the sawdust circle.

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.

A classic circus poster for
Manchester's Belle Vue winter circus
from 1960
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.

Perhaps the most famous name
in British circus was Billy Smart,
nicknamed the Guv'nor.
8 - The traditional circus theme music is called Entrance of the Gladiators.

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 1984’s celebrations to mark the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada.

12 - Circus Space, in London, is the UK’s only training facility to offer a BA (hons) degree in circus arts.

13 - The first American circus was founded by John Bill Ricketts in Philadelphia.

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

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

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!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Win Two Nights in Monte Carlo for the Circus Photo of the Year

With World Circus Day almost upon us, here are a couple of my favourite pictures from last year's photo contest run by the World Circus Federation.

The theme of the contest was Strength, Courage, Balance and Grace,
and this picture by finalist Nicole Bokhaus doesn't really tick any of those boxes
but it's one of my favourites for capturing the magic of the circus.
The little girl is Chanel Knie from the Knie circus family, but she could
easily be seen as a member of the audience experiencing the
wonder of the circus for the first time.

A beautiful shot of Claude Bouillon and a white horse from
the Luna Caballera Circus in a snowy Canadian landscape
photographed by Christa Fairchild.

And here's the winner by Essi Makela from Finland.
There's something other-worldly and out of time about this picture
of Laury Tissuer and Picasso, a Lusitano stalion, that
captures the traditions and Gypsy-like spirit of the circus

But have you a circus photo of your own? Submit it to this year's photo contest to be in with a chance of winning the top prize of a two night stay in Monte Carlo and two tickets to the 2015 International Circus Festival. The twelve finalists will have their photos reproduced in the World Circus Federation calendar and receive a copy signed by the Federation's patron, Princess Stephanie of Monaco. This year's theme is World Circus Day. For details of entry, click here to go to the World Circus Federation website.

"A very
enjoyable book"
- Visit Amazon to
read seven
customer reviews