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

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Circus Fantasia Christmas Spectacular, Snetterton

The advance men for Circus Fantasia have been working hard to promote their Christmas Spectacular in Snetterton Park on the A11 bypass in Norfolk. The town of Wymondham has been plastered with posters as these ones outside a boarded up pub show - and Wymondham is miles from Snetterton. Phone for bookings: 0844 888 9991 or just roll up, roll up from now till Jan 4.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Circus Vegas in Stratford for Christmas

The Circus Vegas Showgirls

East enders are in for a circus cracker this Christmas as the American-themed Circus Vegas rolls into Stratford, East London for the holidays accompanied by all the fun of a fair.

The circus will make a visual splash with its array of American trucks when the big top pitches up alongside waltzers, dodgems and other fairground rides. And according to director John Courtney there will be plenty of thrills inside the big top:

“We have acts from all over the globe who will be coming together with the winter theme park for this spectacular occasion.
“It’s definitely going to be a real extravaganza. Duo Marin and their extreme Wheel of Death provide astonishing aerial skills and will really have you gripping your seat.
Elaine Courtney creates the perfect blend of strength, skill and fearlessness when she flies high across our big top. Gordon Marquez is one of the fastest jugglers in Europe and The Nutty Professor and his trampoline antics introduce an element of comedy alongside our mischievous clowns Dexter and Blakey. But to top it all off we have Captain Vegas, the Human Cannonball, who will be shot into the air at speeds of 70MPH!

Catch this guy in Stratford
The circus runs everyday except Christmas Day from December 18 to January 4 opposite Westfield Shopping Centre. Tickets: 07572 982 749

For more American trucks in the UK, click here to see the transport of Uncle Sam's American Circus.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mexican robot elephant - the future of circus entertainment?

Robo-elephant - the future of the big top?

Is this the future of the circus? Meet Big Yorgi, the $50,000 robot star of Mexico's Magic Spacial Cyber Circus. He curls his trunk. He kicks footballs. He draws a gun and shoots bad guys. Oh, sorry, no - that's Robocop.

But as Mexico stands on the brink of a ban on real circus animals, their robo-replacement has reportedly played to sparse audiences.

"The circus is dying," said one of the show's directors. "When we arrive in town the first thing people ask is 'What animals did you bring?'"

It seems robo-jumbo is no substitute.

But is a ban on circus animals justified? Click here to learn what happens to circus tigers when they retire from the ring.

What's life like in a Mexican circus? Click here for my review of the award-winning documentary Circo.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

What happens to circus tigers when they retire?

Back in October, Alex Lacey, the English star of America's Greatest Show on Earth - the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - retired the two oldest tigers in his act, the first two he ever trained and which he has worked with for the past 19 years.

On his Facebook page, the trainer paid tribute to the long-serving cats and reveals their future:

"Tara and India will stay with me and live along side their offspring and the other cats that they have have formed family groups with. They will continue to be included in morning practice sessions and keep the next lot of youngsters "in line" that are currently being trained. They will stay with me and receive the very best veterinary care available from Ringlings veterinary team. The best possible diet and the best possible team of animal carers. Tara and India have been replaced with Bella and Suzy who performed for the first time in a live show this evening and were excellent :)))
Bella is India's daughter. 
Thanks for everything my old girls xx"

Alex Lacey and his Gold Clown-winning brother Martin Lacey Junior are probably the two most accomplished big cat trainers in the world.

It was a visit to the Great British Circus, which was run by their father, Martin Lacey, that inspired me to write my book, Circus Mania. For a chapter on Lacey Sr and the truth about how circus tigers are trained, click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

Friday, 12 December 2014

What happens when an animal rights activist goes undercover at the circus?

Find out in The Lion's Den, one of three romantic adventures in The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions by Julia Douglas - a perfect read to download to your e-reader this Christmas.

Here's an exclusive extract...

It was love at first sight - for Charlotte, anyway. What the lion was thinking, she had no idea.

A printed sign tied to the wire mesh identified him as Sphinx, and he sat as proud, still and beautiful as the ancient Egyptian monument after which he was named - head up, forepaws gracefully crossed in front of him, in the exact centre of the cage.

It was a chilly evening. Charlotte was glad of her cable-knit tights and the sheepskin coat that had been a real find in the charity shop. But Sphinx, so far from his African home, seemed oblivious to the damp English wind that stirred ocean-like waves in his luxuriant mane. He appeared oblivious, too, of his harem of four lionesses, lounging and washing themselves in the shadowy far corners of the enclosure.

Charlotte wondered if he was aware of her, or the other circus goers - mums and kids who had paid an extra 50p to gawp at the show’s ‘performers’ in a shanty town of pens and tents behind the big top.
If Sphinx was aware, he feigned regal indifference.

Charlotte moved closer, her tied-back copper hair a righteous blaze in the sunset, and dared to touch the cold mesh. She imagined the lion dreaming of the open veldt, its horizons shimmering in the heat haze, with no cruel humans in sight.

That’s where you should be, Charlotte thought, angrily. Not caged among these throbbing generators, caravans and lorries. Not forced to earn your dinner by jumping through hoops.

It was the 1980s, for heavens sake, not the 1890s when people knew no better.

Her pulse quickening, Charlotte glanced around for a door to the enclosure. She’d set him free this minute if she could.

Not that she would dare, with all the families around. She didn’t want anyone hurt, no matter how misguided they were in paying to see an ‘entertainment’ that made slaves of creatures as noble as Sphinx.

She forced herself to be calm. There was a longer game to play.

“Beautiful, isn’t he?”

Charlotte jumped at the sound of a man’s voice, close behind her. She spun around and found herself staring at the broad chest of Guy Starr, the circus owner.

Want to read more? Click here to buy The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions - three stories of women in unique worlds on the fringes of entertainment.

In The Fairground Girl, Beatrice falls pregnant by fairground worker Eddie and runs away to join his world in the rock'n'roll years of the 1950s.

In The Lion's Den, animal rights activist Charlotte goes undercover to expose cruelty at the circus and finds herself torn between two men and two ideologies.

In Blue Eyes and Heels, Angel fights for equality in the world of professional wrestling.

Read all three adventures in The Fairground Girl and Other Attractions.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

When Emily ran away with the circus

If you're looking for a circus adventure to curl up with this Christmas, try downloading The Showman's Girl by Julia Douglas to your Kindle or other e-reader, or pick up the large print paperback at your local library. 

Here's how the adventure begins...

It was ten in the morning, on the first of May, 1932, and the circus on the common was just coming to life. In the roped-off paddocks, horses snorted in the morning sun. In makeshift runs beside ornately carved and painted caravans doves and chickens cooed and clucked. From nearby tents, more exotic animal noises carried on the air: the low, raspy yawn of a lion, and the trumpet of an elephant’s reply.
They found Adam Strand, the circus owner,
in the big top...

Thirteen-year-old Emily Brooke had come to know the sounds and animal smells of the circus well, and its sights, too: gleaming motor lorries and horse-drawn goods wagons, each emblazoned with the
name of Strand’s Grand Circus; simmering, shimmering traction engines that provided electricity; the doll-like circus women, in their silk dressing gowns and headscarves, hanging tiny costumes on washing lines; the men in their vests, painting pieces of scenery or repairing props.

This morning, though, as she hurried across the rough grass, trying to keep up with the long, confident strides of Molly Malone, the elephant trainer, Emily scarcely noticed her surroundings. Her insides were too tied up with nerves.

They found Adam Strand, the circus owner, in the big top. The side panels were rolled aside, like curtains, to let some air under the towering roof, and as Emily’s eyes adjusted to the strange half-light beneath the canvas, the sight of the tall, imposing showman made her catch her breath.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

10 Circus Books for Christmas

Mabel Stark tussles with a tiger
- a picture of the real life Mabel Stark
from Robert Hough's novel

If you need a present for a circus fan, or a treat for yourself, may I suggest some stories from the big top...


From cooch dancer to tiger-wrestling star of the Greatest Show on Earth, with half a dozen husbands along the way, the real life of Ringling legend Mabel Stark provides plenty of material for Robert Hough’s novel. But, written like a memoir, this work of imagination probably brings the golden age of the American circus more thrillingly to life than any factual account. The descriptions of life in the big cat cage, Stark’s many maulings and her relationship with her favourite kitty, Rajah, are especially vivid and convincing - informed, as they are, by some letters about her work that Stark wrote to circus writer Earl Chapin May in preparation for a ghost-written autobiography that never materialised.

From the era to the circus trains and the animal training - and even the structure, which flashes back and forth between Stark's older and younger self - there are parallels with Water For Elephants. But this is a far, far better book, not least due to Hough’s glorious evocation of Stark’s spunky, spiky voice which snaps and snarls from every line.


The poster has always been the primary means of publicising a circus. Billed as the Quality Show and the show that put the 'O' in Olympia,  Bertram Mills was Britain's biggest and most famous circus in the first half of the 20th century and they produced the finest artwork. Often every act on the bill would have its own poster, painted by some of the best regarded artists of the day, meaning a town could be blanketed with arresting images. In 1960 alone, Bertram Mills printed more than 60,000 posters. And what became of them? Most were simply ripped down and thrown away when the circus left town, meaning surviving examples now command big sums. You'd have to be a millionaire to collect all the designs in this handsome coffee table book which makes it both a visual delight and a complete snip at under £40 including postage. Order from

GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years
by Nell Gifford

In October 1999, Nell Gifford was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"
The director booked the show. The problem was, Gifford didn’t have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.
In Gifford's previous book Josser (by Nell Stroud, as she then was) she described her apprenticeship as a circus runaway. This beautifully illustrated follow-up tells how she and husband Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own - and one of the most successful of the past decade.
Click here to read my full review.

My Life With Lions by Martin Lacey

It was a visit to Martin Lacey's Great British Circus in 2009 that prompted my book Circus Mania. I’d already become fascinated with the daredevil lives of human circus performers and had written several articles on the subject. But when  Lacey reintroduced elephants to a British circus for the first time in a decade, they called to me with the promise of a glimpse into the history of the art form. The highlight of my visit was watching Lacey in the cage with his Bengal tigers and it was as I sat ringside that I realised I had to document a traditional form or entertainment that was - and still is - in danger of being killed off in the land of its creation. Sadly, Lacey is retired now, but this slim hardback book provides a concise and colourful account of his more than 40 years of working with animals of all kinds. Best of all is a 140-page collection of photos of Lacey and his family with not just lions, but polar bears, zebra, camels, elephants and even a rhino.
Click here to read my full review.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOWMAN - My Life in the Circus by Gerry Cottle

From running away with the circus at 15-years-old to running several of Britain’s biggest big top shows, few have lived the circus life as fully as Gerry Cottle and I have met no one with a greater passion for the sawdust and canvas theatre. This candid memoir provides a fascinating look at the inside workings of the circus industry while entertaining with all the pace, daring-do and belly laughs of any show ever presented by Britain’s Barnum.

THE ADVANCE MAN by Jamie MacVicar

It doesn't matter how good a show is if there's no audience to see it. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - plays in arenas that hold 12,000 to 20,000 people and the job of filling those seats falls to promoters such as Jamie MacVicar - advance men who arrive in a city two or three months before the circus train arrives and strive to ensure it's greeted by a snowstorm of publicity.
MacVicar's account of his time promoting the circus in the early 70s reads more like a novel - at times a thriller - than a memoir as he takes us into offices where deals are cut, backstage as tickets are counted, and out on publicity stunts with the advance clown and Michu, the Smallest Man in the World. Click here for a full review.

THE SHOWMAN'S GIRL by Julia Douglas

When Emily runs away with the circus in the 1930s, she enters a magical world of perilous adventures, intense friendships and deep passions. Growing up in the big top, she admires from afar the charismatic showman Adam Strand. But Adam is torn between his wife, Jayne, a daredevil tight-wire walker and Molly the elephant trainer who's always carried a torch for him. Emily becomes a star, but will she ever be able to tell Adam how she really feels?
Click here to read this atmospheric big top romance on your Kindle - or pick up the large print version in your local library.


If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the 8-14-year-old girl in your life, look no further than the Olivia books by Guardian theatre critic-turned-author Lyn Gardner. Beginning with Olivia’s First Term, the six books follow the adventures of two circus girls - Olivia and her younger sister Eel - who are billeted at their grandmother’s London stage school while their dad Jack, the Great Marvello, busies himself with such stunts as walking a high-wire between the towers of Tower Bridge.
With a huge cast of characters, the books convey all the excitement of a school where students are daily called to auditions, appear in West End shows and pursue careers as pop singers.
On top of all this there are plenty of thrills as Olivia uses her tightrope skills to foil villains and rescue her pals from peril. Click here for more.

INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS by David Lewis Hammarstrom
(Bear Manor Media)

Like a modern day Earl Chapin May, David Lewis Hammarstrom guides us through the American circus as it exists now. Things have changed from the glory days when Mabel Stark ruled the centre ring, with the Ringling Brothers having become the “Ringless Brothers” since moving out of big tops “that you could almost feel breathing in and out,” and into indoor arenas “as exciting to behold as an abandoned airstrip in the Nevada desert.” Alternately bubbling with enthusiasm and seething with frustration, Hammarstrom is rare among circus writers in pointing out the rubbish, rip-offs and peanut pitches alongside the wonderful in his quest to make you “a more discriminating circus fan.”

CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
(Peter Owen)

Modesty forbids me saying too much about my own book, so let’s leave it to Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday“Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Click on the above tabs to read an extract or click on the book cover above right, go to the Amazon page and reader some of the 5-star reader reviews.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Circus rhino takes a walk in Germany

Pick your caption:
"Look left, look right... and if you see a rhino..."
Pedestrian: "I thought this was a zebra crossing."

Poor old circus staff, they just can't win. Normally they're accused of keeping animals confined. But if they take their rhino out for a breath of fresh air...

According to news reports, the staff of Circus Voyage were given a stiff telling off by police after taking a 32-year-old, 2.5 tonne rhino named Hulk for a walk to a local park without a lead or restraint when the big top pitched up in the German town of Luckenwald.

According to keepers, the rhino is completely tame and unlikely to harm anyone.

But how much do they charge for admission, that's what I'd like to know.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Advance Man by Jamie MacVicar - Book review - an inside account of promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus

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 Amazon.

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
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.