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, 3 November 2015

Film Review: Fortune’s Wheel - The story of Irish lion tamer Bill Stephens

On the afternoon of 11 November, 1951, the Fairview Grand was packed with children thrilling to the adventure film Jungle Stampede. Little did they expect to emerge from the cinema to find a real lioness roaming the streets of Dublin.

Such incidents aren’t quickly forgotten, and Joe Lee’s entertaining documentary, Fortune’s Wheel, rounds up a posse of locals, now in their 70s and 80s, who remember it like it was yesterday. Filmed in the streets and gardens where the events took place, their fond testimonies track the escaped cat’s bid for freedom, which at the time made headlines from America to Italy.

The lion was owned by circus star Bill Stephens, and the film goes on to relate how the locally-born former welder came to be keeping lions in the back yard of a suburban high street garage in the first place.

The youngest of nine children, Stephens grew up with a love of music and a love of animals. His mother used to take in stray dogs.

Although he trained as a welder, Stephens soon quit his day job to play drums in Billy Carter’s swing band. He also caused a family rift by marrying a girl who kept snakes. Because of her dark hair and exotic looks, he liked to say Mai was a circus performer “from the East” - although she came from no further east than East Wall Road, a few streets away.

When Duffy’s Circus came to town, however, the couple left with it. At first, Stephens drummed in the circus band, but he soon acquired a lion cub from a performer who was leaving the show, and trained it like a pet dog.

A self-taught trainer, the young Dubliner modelled himself on Clyde Beatty, the whip-cracking star of America’s Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus who was known to Irish audiences through movie serials such as The Lost Jungle.

Clad in a pith helmet, Stephens performed an aggressive ‘bouncing lions’ act in a small beast wagon that was pushed into the ring.

Circus historian Michael Ingoldsby saw the act when he was 10-years-old and describes it as “The most thrilling act I’ve ever seen in the circus. The lions did a wall of death. They ran around the sides and the wagon was rocking from side to side. People were breathless, because you didn’t know if the wagon was going to turn over.”

Stephens had some narrow scrapes, such as the time he put his head in a lion’s mouth, and the lion closed its jaws on him.

But the escaped lion incident when he was wintering in his home town ramped up the trainer's taste for danger. For one thing, he was sued by a young petrol station attendant that the escaped lion pounced on - so he needed money. Second, the blaze of publicity stoked his dreams of hitting the big time in America.

To increase the sense of terror in his act, he purchased a particularly dangerous male lion from Dublin Zoo that everyone warned him against working with. Alas, on the day a Ringling talent scout came to see his act, he was so keen to impress that he wore a new suit, recently acquired for a wedding. The lion didn’t recognise his scent in the unfamiliar garment, and mauled him to death when he was just 29-years-old.

Because of the era he lived in and the limited fame he attained, no performance or interview footage of Stephens features in this doc, just black and white photographs and newspaper clippings, although a recording of the trainer’s voice is heard early on, relating his efforts to recapture his escaped lioness.

Told in a series of talking heads by mostly ordinary people, unknown bystanders to the tale rather than circus stars (although the big top’s Tom Duffy and Herta Fossett are there to relate Stephens’ final days), Lee’s film has the feel of a regional television documentary rather than a big screen biography. But Stephens’ story is no less engaging for that.

In fact, the low key local charm is part of this award-winning documentary’s appeal. Although circus fans will obviously love it for preserving the story of a performer in danger of being forgotten, Fortune's Wheel is more than a circus film. It's the story of a man from an ordinary suburban background who ran away with the circus but never severed his roots from the neighbourhood where he grew up. It’s as much about that community as it is about him; and the lasting impression a not-quite-famous son left upon the people that still live there.

As one resident says with a grin all these years later, “People were proud to have a lion tamer living in Fairview Green. It was an exciting thing to be close to.”

For details of the latest screenings, click here to visit the Fortune’s Wheel Facebook page.

See also, my review of The Last Circus Elephant.

And my review of The British Circus 1898 - 1972.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Gandy's Circus in Dudley for Halloween

It's time to break out the skeleton suits for Halloween as Gandy's Circus pitches its big top at the Merry Hill shopping centre, Dudley in the West Midlands, for the half-term holidays and Halloween.

Says producer Phillip Gandy“Circus as an art form has gone through significant changes in the recent years and it’s uplifting to see there’s still a thirst for live big top productions.
“This production has been a year in the planning so we’re very much looking forward to sharing our brand new family show this half term.”

For tickets and times, call 0843 208 0500.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Amanda Holden bitten by lion tamer Thomas Chipperfield

Anyone old enough to remember Johnny Morris being dragged across the Blue Peter studio by a widdling baby elephant will know that animals and live television just don’t mix. So getting Tsavo the lion to kiss his trainer Thomas Chipperfield on This Morning was always going to be touch and go - and it was. As Britain’s last lion tamer puckered up, Tsavo let out a roar and leapt off his pedestal in the other direction.

The 25-year-old Chipperfield wasn’t fazed, however, and calmly told presenter Phillip Schofield that he liked working with big cats because “they’re not machines and can have off days just like the rest of us.”

Appearing in a live link from Swansea, where he’s appearing in An Evening With Lions and Tigers for the rest of this week, Chipperfield then went on to conduct his interview from inside the lion cage, without so much as a glance at the disgruntled lion, who first sat on a nearby pedestal then lay down broodingly on the grass in the background. All of which made Chipperfield look like the bravest man on British television.

So it was no wonder he didn’t take any nonsense from This Morning’s co-host Amanda Holden when she said his animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity. When Holden suggested he’d feel “claustrophobic” and “like a prisoner” if kept in a cage, the lion tamer coolly countered that animals perceive the world in a completely different way to what we do.

Amanda Holden as ringmistress in
BBC sitcom Big Top.
Then, when Holden talked about her work with the animal rights organisation Born Free, Chipperfield went on the offensive and accused her of “double standards” after working with trained animals on the TV show Wild At Heart.

A clearly ruffled Holden harrumphed that the animals she’d worked with were “rescue animals - rescued from people like you.”

But before Schofield could break up the spat between presenter and guest, Chipperfield pointed out that he knew the trainer who had trained them.

This was thrilling television, and a reminder of why the crowds have been queuing to see Chipperfield’s show - because an entertainment that involves snarling wild beasts is completely unpredictable; anything can happen.

But full marks to Chipperfield for exposing the double standards of so many celebrities who are quick to partner with organisations like Born Free, PETA and Animal Defenders International in bashing the use of circus animals while many are happy to appear with trained animals on film and in TV shows.

Sherlock Holmes star Martin Freeman, for example, recently called on the Prime Minister to ban animals from British circuses, despite appearing with horses in The Hobbit and trained dogs in Sherlock episode The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

Holden, meanwhile, also appears on Britain’s Got Talent, which frequently features performing animals. Earlier this year, she told contestant Marc Metral that he had “made television history” with his ‘talking dog’ Miss Wendy - a trick apparently achieved by fitting a false mouth over the animal’s snout, much to the ire of the RSPCA.

Holden’s BGT co-host Simon Cowell has previously dismissed claims that having animals on BGT is cruel, saying, “God no, I think the opposite! We show animals’ personalities. I think they all have a great time on our show, you can see the dogs are wagging their tails.”

Anyone who’s taken the time to visit An Evening With Lions and Tigers will know that that all Chipperfield does is showcase the natural ability and personalities of his big cats, and that they enjoy the organised play of the training routines as much as any animal on BGT.

Anyone who looks a little deeper, will also realise that circus animals and circus trainers are the first port of call whenever an animal is required for film and TV work.

Actors and television celebrities should know that better than anyone, so isn’t it about time they all stopped bashing the circus and embraced Britain’s last lion tamer as one of their own?

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. .

Saturday, 17 October 2015

10 Reasons why Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans are wrong about circus animals

Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans are the latest celebrities to call for a ban on wild animals in the circus, with Carlyle writing to the Scottish government on behalf of PETA and Ifans campaigning in Wales for Animal Defenders International. I was brought up to believe it was wrong for animals to perform in circuses, so I understand why many people harbour that instinctive belief. But reading the comments in the press by the aforementioned actors - Carlyle used the words "obscene," "demeaning" and "painful," - I have to wonder whether either has first-hand experience of how circuses care for their animals. Having investigated the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania, I changed my mind and would like to present 10 reasons why the show - with animals - should go on.

1/ The Radford Report found no grounds for a ban. In 2006, the last Labour government commissioned a six-month study of circus animals, with full participation by circuses and anti-circus campaigners, and concluded that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.

2/ An earlier study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. The 18-month study, sponsored by the RSPCA and published as Animals in Circuses and Zoos: Chiron’s World? also pointed out ways in which the relationship between animals and trainers could contribute to our scientific understanding of how animals think, learn and perceive the world.

3/ Circuses with wild animals are strictly regulated by a licensing scheme, introduced in 2012, that sees them inspected by vets six times a year (twice unannounced) with the results available online. Every aspect of the animal’s life, diet and accommodation is governed by strict guidelines. Plus, every circus, including animal accommodation, is on continual show to the public.  

4/ Circuses aid conservation through breeding programmes and by raising awareness. It was largely the tricks performed by dolphins in aquariums that convinced the public they were intelligent and worth saving. Animals in the wild are endangered by human predators and shrinking habitats, and live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care. They live twice as long as their cousins in the wild.

5/ Circus animals lead rewarding lives. Every cat and dog owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a horse or a lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. Zoos stopped animal performances to distance themselves from circuses, but have reintroduced them because animals benefit from the stimulation. These days they call it ‘enrichment.’

6/ Children are enthralled by circus animals. It’s the only form of entertainment where the under-fives are guaranteed to enjoy themselves as much as their grandparents, making it a cheap day out for all the family. Seeing the skill and intelligence of animals at close quarters can only foster admiration and respect for other species. Even adults will seldom get as close to wild animals as they do in a big top. expectancy

7/ It’s what the public want to see. Unlike most contemporary all-human circus shows, traditional circuses with animals receive no public funding and survive entirely on ticket sales. I’m not sure who was surveyed in the oft-mentioned ‘public consultation’ that found 98% of respondents supported a ban, but it wasn’t circus-goers. The consultation was held during the year I was writing Circus Mania and regularly attending circuses, but I never heard about it. Perhaps it was only publicised by animal rights organisations to their existing supporters?

8/ No other profession is judged by the actions of individuals. There have been 7 prosecutions of circus trainers in 130 years; a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time. Banning circus animals as a knee-jerk reaction to the case of Anne the elephant would be as ridiculous as banning children’s television presenters because of Jimmy Savile. We have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty.

9/ A ban on circus animals would be the thin end of the wedge because animal rights campaigners have a wider philosophical agenda than animal welfare. The next targets would be zoos and aquariums, horseracing, meat consumption, wool, silk and leather-wearing, medical research and pet ownership. The slogan of the world’s largest animal rights organisation PETA is “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.”

10/ The circus is a 250-year-old art form that Britain gave to the world. It was started in London by horse-rider Philip Astley, and although the global success of Cirque du Soleil proves circus can flourish without animals, surely there should be room in the land of its creation for a few well-run and regulated shows that keep alive the entertainment in its most pure form, with a mixture of human and animal acts. Surely that's something that entertainers such as Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans should respect.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers)

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Crowds queue for Thomas Chipperfield's An Evening of Lions and Tigers in Swansea

Good to see the crowds queuing to see Britain's last lion trainer in An Evening of Lions and Tigers, in these photos from the South Wales Evening Post.

An Evening with Lions and Tigers is in Swansea, just off Junction 45 of the M4 until October 25. Box office: 07821 155513.

Monday, 5 October 2015

How to write a circus book

Ever been told you should write your life story? I expect many circus people have, and many have done so. But if a book is next on your ‘to do’ list as a showman or performer, how best to go about it? Former promoter of the Greatest Show on Earth, Jamie MacVicar wrote The Advance Man about his experiences. In the following article, which appeared originally appeared in Writers Forum, he shares his tips for a successful memoir.

Conversing with Jamie MacVicar after reading The Advance Man feels odd, like meeting your favourite fictional character. Because MacVicar’s adventures promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth - in the early 70s read less like a memoir than a novel.

Unfolding hour by hour, scene by scene, conversation by conversation, the 650-page narrative gives us a real sense of sitting in offices as advertising deals are hammered out; backstage as unsold tickets are counted; and in “beyond seedy” motel rooms where the pressure builds and eventually takes its toll on a young man thrust into a high-stakes world.

“To write a book you have to be passionate and objective for a long, long time, so you better have something compelling to say,” says MacVicar, who’s book was a finalist for the Marsfield Prize, an American award for arts writing. “Very few people have held the job of circus promoter and to my knowledge no one had ever written a book about it. What I wanted to do in The Advance Man that I hadn’t seen done before was to teach a craft - the marketing of live entertainment - while somehow blending it seamlessly into the personal story. Since most memoirs are reflective, looking back at past events, I decided to write it in the present. I wanted the reader to experience events exactly as I had.”

To create that sense of immediacy, MacVicar advises the aspiring memoirist to use all five senses in their writing: taste, sight, sound, touch and smell.

“Detail makes the reader feel as though they are there,” he explains. “Why just drive across the bridge when you can drive past ‘a little girl sitting on a rail selling worms for 35 cents a box.’ I try to strip down descriptive elements to one or two at most - a sidewalk lifted by an oak tree, a man in a button-down sweater - just enough to trigger the reader’s imagination. It then becomes their story, and will stay with them.”

Asked whether the wealth of detail in The Advance Man stems from a good memory or whether a memoirist is permitted some creative license to fill in the gaps, MacVicar says, “I’m amazed at how much I remembered when I transported myself back in time, heightened I’m sure by the intensity of the period. The important things stay with us.

“I believe you can add colour to evoke a mood - ‘A tractor rumbled by in a swirl of dust, the trees looked barren against the grey sky’ - and you can guess at irrelevant details, like did I sell 500 or 600 tickets at that show twenty years ago?

“But the events and dialogue should be to the best of your recollection, and any historical details should be as chronicled. Our memories are faulty and we can be forgiven for that, but not for a lack of ethics, honest intent and due diligence.”

Although a memoir is by its nature drawn from personal experience, MacVicar’s book is notable for detailed passages on the history of the circus he worked for and the parts of America he visited.

“History and surrounding material that evoke the times give the story depth, and that makes the narrative far richer,” he says. “Context also renders a greater understanding of the actions and decisions of the protagonists. More than most books, a memoir gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and what they might have done under similar circumstances.”

To aid his research, he hired a history graduate from his local university who uncovered “golden nuggets” of information, from the crops grown in Ohio during his time there, to a thorough biography of Gargantua, a famed circus gorilla. The author also sought the input of other people in the tale.

“I flew to Savannah, Georgia, and interviewed the head of the advertising agency I’d worked with twenty years earlier. He gave me perspectives and background material about Savannah that were priceless - things I never knew at the time.

“I also sent the manuscript to two of the main characters in the book as well as to the attorney for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, giving them three months to respond. My purpose was twofold: to discover any inaccuracies and to give them a chance to express any concerns before the book was published.”

MacVicar also hired a copy editor and content editor. The former would circle words in red ink with admonitions such as “You’ve used this word four times.” The latter would slash through entire scenes, saying, “This doesn’t move the plot forward.”

“They greatly improved the manuscript, tightening and streamlining the prose while teaching me what to look for myself,” say the author.

According to MacVicar, it’s becoming common for writers to hire their own editors, in America at least: “Agents will often insist on it before presenting your work.” Self-publishing writers are definitely encouraged to employ a professional editor, although MacVicar cautions, “Editors have different approaches. Not all are a good match. I advise asking two or three to do a chapter before deciding who is right for you.”

The Advance Man took eleven years to write, which is about four times longer than the period it describes. Editing and finding a publisher took another four years, and publisher Bear Manor Media took a further two years to bring the book to market.

MacVicar had to fit writing around his day job of running a graphic design firm. But while he would have preferred to complete the book more quickly, he urges all scribes to be patient with the writing process.

“Don’t look at the project as a whole - it’s too overwhelming. All you have to write today is one scene. Take your time. Fame and fortune are ephemeral. Pride in what you produce is permanent.

“I’ve never had a bad writing session because I don’t sit down to write until I know exactly what I am going to say and what I want to achieve. I stop when the going’s good, and then let the subconscious take over. At some point, the words start flowing again and I stop whatever I’m doing and write.”

Influences on his style included Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. “Caro is the master of making the mundane fascinating. But his pacing was particularly instructive. He knows how to build momentum into a paragraph.

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar took the leveraged buyout of Nabisco and turned it into a business thriller, introducing me to narrative non-fiction, a style I’ve been drawn to ever since. But it was Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways that prompted me to write The Advance Man. He wrote it not to be liked or admired, but to look at himself objectively, warts and all. I found that powerful.”

The Advance Man deals unflinchingly with MacVicar’s stress-induced breakdown and the family issues that caused him to overwork.

“Writing about myself, I employed what I call the cringe factor,” he says. “If I wasn’t cringing at times by what I revealed, then I wasn’t doing justice to the story, the reader, and the lessons to be gleaned.”

As for the thorny business of writing about family, which some writers might find inhibiting: “A memoir is personal, so writing about loved ones is usually unavoidable. But a searing portrait can be mitigated by conveying why they may have behaved as they did. Maybe a cousin was a kleptomaniac, but could the lack of attention from a fatherless home have been the cause?”

In other cases, changing names can be a good idea - not least to avoid being sued.

“You might recall thinking someone in your past was an idiot, and while you might not care what he or she thinks about your opinion now, what about his or her spouse and children? Is it necessary to hurt their feelings too? In general, if I portray someone in a negative light, I change their name and description.”

MacVicar’s new book, A Year in a B&B in Banff, is set thirty years after his circus adventure, and describes how a new relationship lead to him running a bed and breakfast in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Both books can be ordered from Amazon.

Click here to read my review of The Adavnce Man.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Why Sherlock's Dr Watson Martin Freeman is wrong about circus animals

Martin Freeman
No s***, Sherlock

Martin Freeman, who plays Dr Watson in TV’s Sherlock, is the latest celebrity to join forces with PETA in calling for a ban on circus animals. In a letter to prime minister David Cameron, he said, “I’d like to see my children grow up in a country where animals are treated with respect, not as objects of ridicule.” The actor, who is also known for his role as Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit films added that “allowing circuses with wild animals to continue sends the message that it’s okay to dominate animals and ignore pain and suffering.”

As someone who was brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals was wrong, I can understand why Freeman might harbour that instinctive belief. But I have to wonder whether he has witnessed any “ridicule,” “pain” or “suffering” first hand. Because when I looked into the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania, I found myself forming a very different view of the unique relationship between trainer and animal and the benefits that watching such interaction can offer audiences and society as a whole.

I expect Sherlock Holmes would advise his sidekick to consider all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. So, for the benefit of Dr Watson, here are my reasons why I believe the show, with animals, should go on.

The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government found no grounds for a ban. Although Labour wanted to introduce a ban, their six-month study, found only the inconvenient truth that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.

An earlier 18-month study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. Kiley-Worthington found circus training methods to be no harsher than those in riding stables, kennels or other animal husbandry environments, and noted that while farm animals find transportation stressful, circus animals quickly become acclimatised to it and enter their transport without concern. Her report, which was sponsored by the RSPCA and published as Animals in Circuses and Zoos: Chiron’s World? also pointed out ways in which the relationship between animals and trainers could contribute to our scientific understanding of how animals think, learn and perceive the world.

Historically, just 7 UK circus trainers have been prosecuted for cruelty in 130 years - a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time, and a tiny number compared with the number of livestock farmers and pet owners brought before the courts. Malpractice exists in every profession, but the solution is to ban the bad practitioner, not the profession as a whole.

Regulation is better than prohibition, and since 2012, UK circuses with wild animals have been strictly regulated by a licensing scheme that sees them inspected by vets six times a year (twice unannounced) with the results available online. Every aspect of the animal’s life, diet and accommodation is governed by strict guidelines. There is little room left for wrongdoing, and should it occur, we have existing laws to deal with it.

Mr Freeman doesn’t want his children to see animals ridiculed, but that’s not my experience of what you’ll see in a circus ring. Typically, animals are encouraged - not forced - to display perfectly natural behaviour, such as jumping and rolling over.

The children I’ve seen at ringside were enthralled by the animals they saw, and witnessing their obvious skill and intelligence at close quarters can only foster respect for other species, just as it was largely the tricks performed by trained dolphins that convinced the public that they were intelligent and therefore worthy of conservation.

The animals that I’ve seen in the circus, meanwhile, showed every sign of enjoying the interaction with their trainers. Every cat, dog and horse owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a zebra, camel or lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. To see how that works in practise, click here to watch Thomas Chipperfield’s video diary in which Britain’s last lion tamer demonstrates how he trained two young lions with patience and reward.

For some people, of course, the issue is simply that animals should be free. But we shouldn’t anthropomorphise and assume that a captive-bred animal is intellectually capable of sharing our concept of freedom - or assume that it is any worse off than its wild-born cousin.

Animals in the wild are endangered by predators (including human predators) and shrinking habitats. They live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care, and as a result live twice as long. One of Thomas Chipperfield’s tigers, for example, is 18-years-old. In the wild she would have died long ago, either from wounds or disease, or from starvation when she reached an age where she could no longer fend for herself. In captivity, she enjoys a healthy and pampered old age.

Do I think she’s happy? Elementary, my dear Watson.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers)

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chipperfield lions pictures

Here are the latest pictures from An Evening With Lions and Tigers, courtesy of the South Wales Evening Post. View the complete gallery here.

The show, presented by Britain's last lion trainer Thomas Chipperfield, is in Neath, Wales, until October 4. For details of how to get involved in the show, click here.