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

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Eileen Atkins - Why not everyone wants to run away with the circus

Click here for a great story in the Guardian about not quite joining the circus.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Andrew Rosindell MP defends circus animals against "cruel" animal rights activists

Andrew Rosindell MP
speaks up for circus animals

Conservative member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell has explained to his local newspaper the Romford Recorder why he blocked Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick’s circus animals bill in the House of Commons last week.

He told the paper he was “asked” to object by the government, which wants to prioritise the “more important” EU referendum bill, explaining, “If the circus bill goes first, other parties will try and stop the EU bill, that’s why they asked me to put my objection down.”

He added, however, that he was personally against a proposed ban on wild animals in the circus, saying, “There is a very tiny number of animals left in the UK circus and no cruelty. Cruelty existed years ago, it is no longer there.”

Rosindell also hit out at the underlying agenda of animal rights organisations. “They’ll want to ban zoos and wildlife parks next. They will want to it to be illegal to own a dog. Extremist people seem to think any person who does anything with an animal must be cruel. These so called animal rights people, they are the cruel ones.”

Mr Rosindell added that his research shows circus animals have a “rhythm to their lives. There are generations who know nothing else. They get more exercise than they would in a zoo. They treat the trainers as their papa. The kindest thing is to leave them - to do anything else would traumatise them.”

Jim Fitzpatrick will make another attempt to get a second reading for his circus animals bill this Friday. His efforts are to hasten a ban that the Government promised would take effect at the end of 2015 but which has been put back until at least after next year's general election.

Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson
meets one of Britain's last
circus elephants
Read more about the issue of animals in the circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Andrew Rosindell MP fights Jim Fitzpatrick's circus animals ban

Andrew Rosindell MP, right, blocks circus animals ban

Britain's handful of remaining circus animal trainers have been given another brief respite from the threat of an impending ban.

Jim Fitzpatrick's private member's bill to implement a government ban was due for a second reading today but was blocked by Conservative MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell.

The House of Commons was almost deserted - which shows how little interest the circus animals issue is to politicians of any party. (Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently admitted it was low priority)

The Deputy Speaker asked for those in favour and one person spoke - Fitzpatrick himself. She then asked for those against and Rosindell stood up to object - which was all it took. Fitzpatrick apparently took the defeat badly and Madam Deputy Speaker had to shout to regain order.

Rosindell is a long term supporter of the circus. The above photo shows him with Martin Lacey and Helyne Edmonds, directors of the former Great British Circus. The shot appeared in the circus' 2009 programme, in the foreword of which he wrote:

"As the Shadow Minister for Animal Welfare I am proud to be associated with one of Britain's biggest and best animal circuses. The Great British Circus is a wonderful traditional day out."

Martin Lacey's retirement means the Great British Circus is no longer with us. But the threat of a ban has not gone away.

Fitzpatrick's bill will get another chance of a reading next Friday October 24. Click here to read Andrew Rosindell's explanation of his objection to the circus animals bill.

Read about my visit to the Great British Circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Click here to read the 100-year history of attempts to ban animals from the circus.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Does a clown need a red nose?

It looks like Britain's funniest clown, Danny Adams, has dispensed with his red nose, white lip and the rest of his clown make-up. But who needs a red nose to be funny when you've got an enormous... leaf blower with a toilet roll on the end!

Welsh comedy fans are in for a treat when Danny and his dad, Clive Webb, make a one-off appearance at the New Theatre, Cardiff, on October 27. Click here for my review of their truly hilarious Cirque du Hilarious show.

For more on the great debate of whether clowns should wear make-up or whether it scares the kids, read Circus Mania - my behind-the-scenes journey through the big tops of the British circus scene. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon
Oh yes, and Circus Mania even has a full chapter on Danny and Clive, including the story behind their leaf-blower gag and other routines. 

Sawdust sights - Zippos in London

Great picture from Zippos. See them in Barham Park, Wembley, tonight and tomorrow, then on Hampstead Heath October 9 - 14.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Fire-eater sets himself alight in circus accident

When circus stunts go wrong

This is the moment when fire-eater Ilya Golubev burped during a performance in Russia. The spilled paraffin set his face on fire and then his hands as he tried to beat out the flames.

Amazingly, he finished his act before being rushed to hospital where he was treated for severe burns.

Click here for film of the accident.

For more proof of the danger faced every day by circus performers, read Circus Mania - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Eva Garcia
She lived and died
in the ring.
The book was inspired by my meeting with aerialist Eva Garcia, just days before she fell and died during a show at the historic Great Yarmouth Hippodrome.

As my backstage journey through the circus world continued, I heard more tales of death in the ring, including that of Neville Campbell who fell from a Wheel of Death during a Christmas show at the Blackpool Tower Circus.

Campbell was the godson of Circus of Horrors founder Dr Haze, and a chapter on the Horrors includes an account of how to swallow a sword by fakir Hannibal Helmurto - and a graphic description of how easily the act can go wrong: "I perforated my oesophagus and ended up in hospital for three weeks without any form of food or drink."

There's also an account of a fire-eating stunt that went wrong during an audition.

Click here to read about the death of Eva Garcia in an extract from Circus Mania.

Think of Eva next time you go to the circus, remember that the danger you see is real... and that everything could go wrong at any moment.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Life of a clown

Further to my previous post on the Circus Federation's photo competition winner, here's a backstage shot at Mr Fip's Wonder Circus that I think really captures the atmosphere of life in the big top. Pictured are two generations of clown, 75-year-old Karl Brenner, aka Charlie the Clown, and his son Jan Erik Brenner - Mr Fips. Dig those clown shoes, Mr Fips!

The picture was taken by Mary Turner, who's photo story on Mr Fip's Wonder Circus appeared in the Daily Mail earlier this year. Click here to see it.

Click here for 10 Clown Facts.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Circus picture of the year?

Here’s the winning picture, by Dutch coach and choreographer Vincent Michels, in this year’s Federation Mondiale du Cirque’s photography contest for which the theme was World Circus Day.

The striking zebra-striped image was chosen from 115 entries from 19 countries. But could it have been better?

To my eyes, the matching costume and tablecloth effectively blends the imagery of traditional animal circuses with the look of more contemporary human-skills-based forms. Personally, though, I think the picture's impact could have been intensified by cropping it along the top of the table and down the right-hand table leg, or even along the innermost table legs to left and right. The bottom margin would also benefit from being cropped at the edge of the mat. The black rectangle above the table, the glimpse of background to the right and the strip of floor to the front add nothing, and provide a needless distraction. By focusing exclusively on the contortionist and the zebra-print tablecloth the stripy motif would be emphasised and the image would be more ambiguous - teasing us with the illusion that the contortionist was performing beneath or between some real zebras.

Having not seen the runners up, I'm not knocking the judges' decision. I'm just saying. But the photo will be used on the cover of the Federation's 2015 calendar, so there's still time for the picture to be cropped. Trust me, guys, you'll improve it if you do.

The contortionist is Li Ling, a student at the private acrobatics school Corpus 
Acrobatics and the shot was taken at the World Circus Day celebration hosted by De Leeuw Circus Events in Amsterdam, The Netherlands in April 2014.

My pick from last
year's runners up.
Click here for last year's winner.

Cirque du Soleil's Kooza preview plus Big Apple Circus on screen

My previous post on Mr Fips Wonder Circus highlighted the division between circus and cirque, the former term being associated with traditional, family-friendly big top shows and the latter with contemporary or progressive theatre-based productions.

It’s a fluid division, of course, and not a battle line. Showman Martin Burton presents Cirque Berserk alongside his traditional Zippos circus and argues that the important question isn’t whether circus is old or new but good or bad.

Katherine Kavanagh, who reviews a tremendous quantity and variety of circus shows on her blog The Circus Diaries rightly commented that shows with cirque in the title can be as accessible as those with circus, and vice versa.

Katherine also mentioned Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, which comes to London in January. Soleil was largely responsible for the rise of the term cirque and its adoption by a proliferation of companies hoping to grab a little of Soleil’s thunder. So I’m pleased to report that Kooza not only asserts Soleil’s supremacy atop the tree of cirque but is a very accessible and circusy show.

It’s a pity Soleil won’t be pitching the big top - or Grand Chapiteau - of its American travels in Hyde Park, although the in-the-round setting of the Royal Albert Hall is perfect for circus, and circus buildings actually pre-date tents, recalling the atmosphere of Astley’s Amphitheatre in the early 19th century.

A pity, too, that (as far as I know) they won’t be bringing superstar juggler Anthony Gatto who seems to have done that most un-superstar-like thing and retired at the peak of his powers.

But Kooza has many thrills still to offer, including a three-person human pyramid on bicycles on a high-wire; a wheel of death and some charismatic solo trapeze from Darya Vintilova (in the States at least; I guess the cast may change).

On the ground, meanwhile, there’s a charming double act on a single unicycle that works both as ballet - the depiction of a romance between the characters - and gymnastics: the girl standing on the male unicyclist’s head.

Kooza - check your pockets before you leave.
The highlight is a clown pickpocket routine originated by Michael Halvarson. While Soleil is great at doing ‘big,’ it’s compelling to watch a ‘close-up’ act where we can see how the volunteer’s tie is removed with out him realising.

The routine is slickly scripted, with sly lines like “You’re a waste bin, my friend,” as some scrap paper is returned to the victim, and the punch-line: “Don’t forget your Viagra!”

The sketch ends with an exploding police wagon and disappearing trick that would fit perfectly into Mr Fips Wonder Circus.

So yes, cirque can be as accessible as circus.

The only trouble is, having watched all the best bits on YouTube, would I drive 100 miles each way to spend an evening in the Albert Hall?

(And you thought I'd seen it America, didn't you...?)

Big Apple on the Big Screen

Which brings me to New York’s Big Apple Circus. On November 8, the Apple will stream its show live to cinemas across America. US blogger Showbiz David is looking forward to seeing the show in California while his brother watches in Utah.

In a country as big as America the broadcast offers circus fans a fantastic opportunity to see a show that would normally cost them a tremendous amount in airfares and hotel accommodation. It would be wonderful if the Big Apple extended the favour to the rest of the world. Perhaps the organisers of UK circus festivals should consider augmenting their programmes of visiting acts with live cinema shows of circuses from around the world, letting us watch the gold acts of Monte Carlo, the elephants of Ringling or, indeed, Soleil in Las Vegas.

But can watching a circus in a cinema, or at home on a DVD or YouTube, be as good as sitting ringside? Or could it even be better?

The atmosphere of a big top, with grass under foot and popcorn in the air, has to be experienced first hand. But multiple camera angles and close-ups can offer a better view than the best seat in the house.

The Kooza pickpocket, for example, was enthralling for me because on screen in close-up I could see everything so clearly. Would I have been able to follow the routine as closely from a side seat ten rows back?

Darya Vintilova’s trapeze act was enhanced by the sudden close-ups of her face that let us see the exhilaration in her eyes.

Click here forreview
Circus acts are by their nature often too fast for the eye to fully catch, so might there be a place for the slow-motion action replay? I’ve seen many flying trapeze acts, for example, but watching from the ground has never matched the drama of the trapeze scenes in the (fictional) movie Trapeze, where we’re given a real sense of vertigo.

Finally, while experiencing a show in person may be more atmospheric, not all atmosphere is good atmosphere. Take the ‘atmosphere’ of a tall person sat directly in front of you, a noisy eater to your side and a coughing kid behind you, and the distraction of people fiddling about with their brightly lit phones. How about the queue for the loos and scramble for over-priced refreshments? Or the traffic jam at the car park?

Douglas McPherson
Frankly, he'd rather be at home...
One advantage of traditional circus is that the big top comes to your local town or village. You may not see the biggest or best acts, but you can park easily or go on foot and prices tend to be on the low side, whereas most cirque shows necessitate a trip to a bigger town or city with its attendant cost and bother.

At home, though, you get the best acts in the world without the crowds or hassle and, dare I say it, a volume control and fast forward button - things I often sorely wish for when I’m reviewing shows in person.

Cirque or circus, live or on screen. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, more that they all have advantages and disadvantages, and they all have a role to play in making all our days circus days.

Read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus. Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mr Fips Wonder Circus comes to Mildenhall, Suffolk

Horses and sawdust
Mr Fips presents circus
as circus should be

According to Zippos ringmaster Norman Barratt, you're never too young, too old or too cool to go to the circus. That's the difference, I guess, between circus and cirque - where'd you probably have to be quite old and cool to appreciate the mix of gymnastics, dance, mime and abstract theatre.

Circus meanwhile was 'immersive theatre' before the term was trendy. In the big top you enter a magical world of sights, sounds, touch - the feel of grass beneath your feet - and even smells, from popcorn and hotdogs to horses.

Yes, horses. For me, I'm afraid, a night in the big top would no longer be worth a trip without a few animals to keep the circus atmosphere different from every other kind of entertainment. So I'm pleased to say Mr Fips Wonder Circus delivers Andalusian horses and Shetland ponies alongside the contortionist, high wire walker and that childhood crowd-pleaser... a clown car!

Mr Fips' clown car
No circus should leave home without one
According to ringmaster Jan Erik Brenner, also known as Mr Fips the Clown, “We’re trying to make circus more traditional. We want more colour and spectacle, the way it should be seen through a child’s eyes. It’s magical, a whole circus experience and very visually pleasing.

The Fips big top
“We’re trying to bring back the romanticised side of circus – a lot of shows have lost their individuality and we’re trying to bring that back.”

The show is in Mildenhall, Suffolk until October 12. For details call 07719 877422.

"I love this book!"
- Reader review
What's life like for those who run away with the circus? From front row to backstage, read my journey through Britain's big tops - Circus Mania - "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form," - the Mail on Sunday.