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

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Advance Man by Jamie MacVicar - Book Review







Most circus memoirs are written by performers or showmen. But it doesn’t matter how good a show is if there’s no audience to see it.

Jamie MacVicar’s book lifts the lid on the life of the promotions men who travel to cities two or three months ahead of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to make sure arenas that hold 12,000 or 20,000 people are packed night after night for the arrival of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The suit-clad advance men may not be as glamorous as the grease-painted performers, but their work is every bit as high stakes and just as skilled. Their job is not just to buy TV, radio, print and billboard advertising, but to multiply the effect of their cash spend by trading tickets for additional ads and arranging promotions that result in a snowstorm of publicity.

MacVicar shows us this world of modern day hucksterism through the eyes of an ambitious trainee and as his narrative unfolds day-by-day, scene-by-scene and conversation-by-conversation, The Advance Man reads more like a novel than a memoir.

Weaving an atmosphere of immediacy rather than reflection, he gives us the sense of being in the office with these guys as deals are hammered out; in windowless backstage rooms as tickets are counted; and in his “beyond seedy” room at the Piccadilly Inn where the relentless pressure builds.

The book appeals on many levels. Circus fans will enjoy visiting backstage where MacVicar carries Michu, the smallest man in the world, to interviews and gets charmed into giving free tickets to the actor Cary Grant.

Anyone interested in sales and marketing - and anyone charged with promoting a circus today - will get a master class in the nuts and bolts of the game.

There’s also a gripping human story here as the young MacVicar’s endless drive eventually propels him to risk his sanity for his “numbers,” the way the high-wire walkers and lion tamers wager their physical being for applause. And, just like the performers in the ring, for the advance man there’s no safety net.

In any book, it’s not so much the story as the way it’s written that creates a satisfying read and it’s in this area that MacVicar delivers with the zeal that drove him during his time with Ringling.

He goes beyond his personal memories to provide us with well-researched digressions into the history of the show’s founders, the Ringling Brothers and PT Barnum; and some of its stars from Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, to Gargantua, the fabled gorilla.

We get a lengthy reflection on the lives of a previous generation of advance men at the dawn of the 20th century - “Would we have been able to adapt to each other’s world? I’d never know. Would we have liked one another? Undeniably.”

There are also insightful passages on small town life, suburbia and the inner city - all viewed by a traveller not sure if he wants to belong or is glad he doesn’t. Such moments give this book depth and, in places, a kind of poetry. They make it more than a book about the circus but a book about America, with a coming-of-age story thrown in. I was reminded of Steinbeck.

Click here to order The Advance Man from Bear Manor Media.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Dick Whittington screened live from Bristol Hippodrome to your local cinema

Ashleigh and Pudsey
Panto stars coming to cinema screens
December 7





Earlier this month, America's Big Apple Circus made history - or rather, missed its chance to make history - by broadcasting its show live from New York to cinemas across America.

Sadly, as reported on the Showbiz David blog, hardly anyone showed up in the movie houses to see the show. In the cinemas attended by Showbiz, his family and friends, ticket-buyers were outnumbered by the usherettes. And there were plenty of empty seats up on the big screen. The BAC couldn't even fill its tent before putting it on display for the world.

Presumably, it will be a while before another circus repeats the experiment, although it's not entirely without precedent.

As chronicled in my book Circus Mania, Gerry Cottle's fame in the 1980s rests in no small part on the fact that the BBC televised a Saturday night variety show from his big top every week, mixing circus acts with the singing stars of the era. Other more established circuses had apparently been offered the gig but turned it down. They didn't want to surrender their tent on the most profitable night of the week in exchange for the fee the Beeb offered.

What the old circus families couldn't see, but the young and hungry Cottle could, is that the fee was immaterial compared with the publicity. The TV exposure helped Cottle become the most famous and successful showman of his era - and what was to stop him taking a second tent out on the road on Saturdays?

Jump back to the present and, although not a circus, it's interesting to learn that the Bristol Hippodrome is following in the Big Apple's clown shoes by broadcasting it's pantomime, Dick Whittington, to cinemas across Britain on December 7. The cast includes Ashleigh and Pudsey, the dancing dog act that came to fame on Britain's Got Talent and Mr Bloom from children's TV programme CBeebies.

Clive and Danny
Clowns and panto
stars
One thing's for sure: I doubt there will be any empty seats on screen. While I've often been in a circus tent more empty than full I've never attended press night at a pantomime and found it anything but sold out. And they don't fill the theatres with comped seats, either. In many regional theatres panto is so popular the annual show pays for the venue to stay open the rest of the year.

Could the circus learn something there, such as casting bankable names famous from TV? Maybe, maybe not. At the Theatre Royal in Newcastle they stopped casting minor celebs when they realised that for the past ten years the big draw was father and son clowns Clive Webb and Danny Adams - perhaps the only true stars on the British circus scene.

If you've never seen them, take a look at this YouTube clip to see just how funny they are.

But, given that panto relies even more than circus on audience participation and the experience of "being there" in an excitable crowd, will Dick Whittington be able to break through a cinema screen and work up a multiplex crowd into shouting "He's behind you!"

Did you know clowns are nicknamed Joeys after Victorian funny-man Joseph Grimaldi? And that although joeys are synonymous with the circus, Grimaldi never performed in a circus - he was a pantomime star.
For a full chapter on Britain's funniest clowns, Clive Webb and Danny Adams, plus much on the history and dynamics of clowning, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Has the new worn off new circus? Michael Billington of the Guardian gives La Soiree a lukewarm review

La Soiree








Do you prefer old circus or new? Reviewing the circus-cabaret-burlesque hybrid La Soiree - now in its tenth season in a Speigeltent on  London's Southbank - the Guardian's Michael Billington found himself missing the older style of circus:

"I loved the show’s more daring physical acts. But, although people deride the old-style circus for its exploitation of animals and variety theatre for its tat, they both had a poetry and grace somewhat lacking in this frenetically kaleidoscopic spectacle."

Could it be that 24 years after Cirque du Soleil first visited London, the new is wearing off new circus and the pendulum of taste is swinging back to the traditional sawdust ring?

Read the Guardian's review here.

And for a journey through all the many styles of circus in the UK today - including traditional big top shows with tigers and elephants; circus and ice-skating spectaculars; the cringe-inducing Circus of Horrors; the Butlins-based Cirque du Hilarious; the Speigeltent-set contemporary circus of Circa; and the ancient eastern wonders of the Chinese State Circus - read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to read the reviews.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thomas Chipperfield in The Times: "If they ban circus lions, pet cats will be next."









Why is most press coverage of traditional circuses dominated by the views of animal rights organisations, with usually just an apologetic comment by the circus tagged on for the sake of 'balance'?

The simple reason is that animal rights groups bombard the papers with press releases setting out their side of the story, so their protest becomes the story.

Sadly, the circus industry seems to have lost the ability to take the initiative and generate positive stories.

The good news is that one man, Thomas Chipperfield, seems determined to reverse the trend, as evidenced by an outspoken opinion piece in today's issue of The Times.

Prominently situated in a spot normally occupied by foreign prime ministers, economists, church leaders and other political heavyweights, Britain's last lion trainer highlights the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. He spotlights the real issues in the debate over wild animals in the circus and defends calls for a ban on both welfare and ethical grounds.

The headline is If they ban circus lions, pet cats will be next.

Read all about it in today's Times and online here.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Jim Fitzpatick's wild animals in circus ban blocked until November 28

Britain's last circus lions
wintering in Scotland while threat of a
ban rumbles on.





Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick made another attempt to get his circus bill read in Parliament this afternoon - the fourth time he has tried since September - only to have it blocked by Conservative MP Christopher Chope.

Originally, the attempt to ban wild animals from the circus was blocked by Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, who has professed a personal interest in defending the traditions of the big top. Rosindell was, however, apparently acting with the blessing of the Government. Despite pledging to ban wild animals from the circus from the end of 2015, the Government apparently didn't want to waste time on Fitzpatrick's bill as it would distract from pushing through the EU Referendum Bill. This time it was blocked by another Conservative MP, Christopher Chope.

With the EU Bill having been shelved, it remains to be see whether the Conservatives will be as interested in blocking Fitzpatrick's bill when he makes his fifth attempt to get it read on November 28.

But is there a limit to the number of times he can keep bringing his bill to Parliament, or will the issue be brought to the Commons and blocked every few weeks from now until the next election? Sounds to me like it's becoming more of a pantomime than a circus...

Click here for more on this story.

And click here for the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

Thomas Chipperfield big cats in Scotland

The Lions in Winter
Thomas Chipperfield and big cats
in Scotland







On the day Jim Fitzpatrick brought his Wild Animals in Circuses bill back to the Commons for a third attempt to hasten a ban, it's a shame to see the Daily Mirror latching on to a non-story of claims by animal rights campaigners Born Free that Britain's last circus big cats are suffering in their winter home.

"Prodded with sticks and caged in Misery" screams the online headline. The accompanying picture (above), meanwhile, shows Britain's last big cat trainer Thomas Chipperfield not "prodding" a lion but feeding a healthy and contented-looking animal with a titbit on the end of a stick - which, as anyone who has ever seen a circus will know, is how you reward them during training and performance.

The story centres on the fact that Chipperfield and his animals are wintering on a "desolate" farm in Scotland.

Anna Wade of Born Free apparently went along "undercover." This wouldn't have been hard. The simple fact is that news Chipperfield was staying at the farm - known at the Circus High School - spread like wildfire around the local area. Hundreds of people began turning up to take a look at the big cats and Chipperfield has a policy of simply letting in anyone anyone who comes along.

Crowds view the big cats at their
winter quarters
When I spoke to him on the phone recently, he said this was because he had nothing to hide and if people are curious about his animals he's happy to spend time showing them around and answering their questions.

The Mirror reported that the animals' living conditions had been approved by the local authority. But it's a shame they didn't go along to see for themselves and perhaps write a more positive piece about a young man trying to keep alive a vanishing tradition while opening the doors on his profession to show that nothing is amiss behind the scenes.

Anna Ward was obviously shocked by what she found, but then I doubt if she would enjoy seeing animals in a circus or zoo. She and Born Free are, of course, entitled to their opinion but the danger with this kind of reporting is that opinion can very easily be perceived by readers as fact, when it is just one view. Other views are available, but in this instance don't seem to have been sought or given.

For more on the agenda of animal rights organisations, click here.

Everyone else who went along seems to have enjoyed a chance to see - free of charge, (although donations are welcome, and why not, since big cats are expensive to keep) - some well-cared for lions and tigers.

Although the story was obviously broken in an attempt to support Jim Fitzpatrick's proposed ban, it failed to stop a second reading of his bill being blocked once again. Fitzpatrick will bring the issue before the Commons again on November 21. For more on the story, click here.

Click here to read my interview with Thomas Chipperfield in The Daily Telegraph.





Monday, 27 October 2014

Zippos fans want elephants and lions










As the travelling circus season comes to an end, what sort of acts would you like to see in next year’s shows? Zippos asked its patrons that question on its Facebook page and among calls for a human cannonball, tightrope and globe of death, it’s clear that animals remain a priority. Here are some of the replies (each from a different respondent):

Elephants and big cats and maybe some exotics.

“A dog act would be good.”

“Plenty of horses and some lions too please.”

“An elephant would be nice.”

Monkeys.

A further 10 of the 32 replies expressed a desire to see again the horses and budgies that are a staple of the Zippos experience. In the chapter on Zippos in my book, Circus Mania, showman Martin Burton said he introduced animals to his circus because of popular demand after ten years of operating as an all-human show. He added he had a policy of featuring only domestic animals, never wild ones. But in a time of a looming ban on wild animals in the circus, it's interesting that the demand to see them is still there from some fans at least.

Zippos Christmas Circus will be at Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park from 21 November to 4 January.

Why Nik Wallenda is no push over


Nik Wallenda
What a man can do on Niagara.





How easy would it be to push a blindfolded man off a tightrope? Not easy at all, if the man's name is Nik Wallenda. To get in practise for the 120mph gusts of wind he faces when walking a wire several hundred feet in the air, the daredevil gets family members to try and make him lose his balance.

"They push me harder and harder and I'll stay on the wire. Never come off. Never," says Wallenda who will be performing his latest stunt this coming Sunday, November 2.

After walking across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, his next sky-walk will span three skyscrapers in Chicago.

The first stage will take him from the 578ft Marina City west tower, across the Chicago River to the 635ft Leo Burnett building - and it will be uphill all the way, with the tight wire rising at a 15-degree angle.

Then, he'll put on a blindfold and walk from the east Marina City tower to the west.

For a member of the world's most famous wire-walking family, he says risk is "just what we do."

What does it take to be a tightrope walker? I asked Alexa Leconte who skips, dances and lies on a wire - at albeit rather lower levels than Wallenda - in Spanish circus troupe Circ Panic. "A level head and a lot of muscle," she answers. Read her story, and those of trapeze artists, clowns, sword-swallowers, tiger trainers and showmen in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Jim Fitzpatrick circus animals ban blocked again in political pantomime - Updated November 7

Political pantomime
Andrew Rosindell MP meets directors of the
former Great British Circus








Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick made another attempt to get his circus bill read in Parliament this afternoon - the fourth time he has tried since September - only to have it blocked by Conservative MP Christopher Chope.

Originally, the attempt to ban wild animals from the circus was blocked by Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, who has professed a personal interest in defending the traditions of the big top. Rosindell was, however, apparently acting with the blessing of the Government. Despite pledging to ban wild animals from the circus from the end of 2015, the Government apparently didn't want to waste time on Fitzpatrick's bill as it would distract from pushing through the EU Referendum Bill. This time it was blocked by another Conservative MP, Christopher Chope.

With the EU Bill having been shelved, it remains to be see whether the Conservatives will be as interested in blocking Fitzpatrick's bill when he makes his fifth attempt to get it read on November 21.

But is there a limit to the number of times he can keep bringing his bill to Parliament, or will the issue be brought to the Commons and blocked every few weeks from now until the next election? Sounds to me like it's becoming more of a pantomime than a circus...

Click here for more on this story.

And click here for the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Animal welfare or animal rights - the big difference


Can you tell the difference between
these two circus performers?

Read on to see how animal rights groups like to blur it.





After Andrew Rosindell blocked Jim Fitzpatrick’s attempt to get a second reading for his Circus Animals Bill last week, I looked up a YouTube clip of the former shadow minister for Animal Welfare addressing the Commons about the issue on a previous occasion.

From the constant barracking, jeering, laughter and attempted interruptions (par for the course in the Commons, of course) it was clear that no one wanted to hear what sounded like a perfectly reasonable argument by Rosindell in defence of the big top.

His view was that the Government should base its decisions on facts rather than emotions and opinion polls; that he had personally investigated circuses rather than being blindly guided by anti-circus campaigners, and found the animals to be well cared for. He added that we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty, and that it would be more cruel to take circus animals out of the environment where they had been bred than to leave them in a situation they were accustomed to.

That last point prompted another MP to ask whether Rosindell believed third generation African-American slaves were more comfortable with their slavery because they’d been born into it?

The questioner smugly thought he’d played a trump card and so, it seemed, did most of the House.

But in fact, the questioner had pinpointed an issue that he probably wasn’t even aware of, and which is this:

Slaves were people.

Circus animals are animals.

To regard them in the same way is to cross the line between ‘animal welfare’ and ‘animal rights.’

The difference is important, but generally overlooked in the circus animals debate.

Animal rights organisations such as Peta - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - believe animals should have similar or the same rights as humans, i.e. that they shouldn’t be eaten, owned or otherwise exploited. That’s fair enough. But is it a philosophy shared by the 94.5% of people that such groups generally claim oppose the use of animals in the circus?

I would say most people in the civilised world are opposed to cruelty to animals. But I reckon the vast majority consider humans and animals to have very different ‘rights.’ Most of us have no objection to eating meat, wearing clothes made from animal products or owning pets.

Most of us can see the difference between eating an animal and being cruel to it - or owning a pet and being cruel to it. We will happily support laws that prevent farmers being cruel to their livestock, but would we so ready support a law that gives cattle the right not to be eaten?

We’re constantly told by campaigners that the use of animals in the circus is wrong. But is it wrong from an animal welfare point of view - i.e. that the animals are cruelly treated or institutionally suffer in the circus environment? Or is it wrong from an animal rights point of view - i.e. that the animals have the right not to be kept in captivity, trained and exploited for entertainment?

If you believe animals should have the right not to be owned and exploited, go ahead and support a ban on circus animals on ethical grounds. Just be sure that you are committed to not eating meat, buying animal products, riding horses or owning pet cats and dogs - because banning all those things is the next logical step on the grounds that they would all infringe the rights of the animals concerned.

If, on the other hand, you’re happy to eat meat and own a pet, be 100% sure that there are grounds to ban circus animals for reasons of welfare. A scientific study headed by Mike Radford for DEFRA in 2007 concluded that circuses were no less able to meet the welfare needs of their animals than other captive environments such as zoos, while the 2012 prosecution of Bobby Roberts and 1999 conviction of Mary Chipperfield proved we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty within the circus industry, just as we have laws to deal with cruelty by livestock owners without needing to ban the meat trade.

If you are unsure about the welfare of circus animals, I suggest you do what Rosindell did - and what I did while researching my book, Circus Mania - visit a circus, inspect the living conditions and meet the trainers before you make up your mind.

The most important thing, though, is to be clear whether you support a ban on the grounds of animal welfare or animal rights.

Anti-circus campaigners generally blur the distinction because they know nearly everyone supports animal welfare while very few share their view of animal rights.

Understanding the difference means you can be an animal lover and still love the circus.

And what about the positives...
All of the above, of course, looks at the issue from a negative perspective - suggesting that the welfare of circus animals be judged by the absence of cruelty or suffering. But should we actually be talking about the positive aspects of training animals?

Could circus animals benefit from interacting with their trainers? Every dog and cat owner knows that pets enjoy playing with their human companions. Chasing some string or fetching a stick is stimulating and makes them happy. The owner is also enriched by the relationship - the love for a pet and the sense of bereavement when one dies can be as intense as any human relationship. So why should it be any different for a lion and its trainer?

Audiences, and particularly young children, surely also benefit from seeing well-trained circus animals up close. Apart from seeing the animals themselves, seeing the degree to which an animal can think and learn must surely encourage respect for other species.

In wishing to completely segregate animals and humans, and illegalise the relationship between them, it strikes me that animal rights activists have a very different agenda to the animal lovers they appeal to for donations. They seem to me to be more like animal haters.

I understand why people often harbour an instinctive belief that keeping animals in circuses is cruel or distasteful. I was brought up with that belief. When I began writing a book about the circus, it was the daredevilry of the human performers that I wanted to celebrate. I quickly realised, however, that I would have to visit some of the last remaining circuses with animals because that was where I could get a glimpse into the history of the art form. I went along as a sceptic. Indeed, I went looking for signs of cruelty. But I was determined, too, to speak to the trainers and find out the truth. You can read about my journey behind the scenes in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.
Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.