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."

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Insuring the circus

Ever thought about accident insurance?

Ever wondered what it costs to insure all those high-risk acts in the circus? I looked into the matter for an article in The Stage - and my findings were surprising. Read the article here.

Monday, 15 June 2015

# Tiger Douglas!

Not being on Twitter, I've only just noticed what a storm blew up around my Daily Telegraph article, A Critic's Plea: Stop All Arts Funding Now.

There have been newspaper articles about it and blogs. No less than the chief executive of the Arts Council weighed in with a column. I was even given my own hashtag on Twitter - #tigerdouglas, which makes amusing reading.

The nickname came from this brilliant send-up in Exeunt Magazine which you just have to read to the end. The tears of laughter are still rolling down my face!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Why the circus needs to take risks

In The Stage today, read Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson's views on why the circus needs risk... and animals... and why contemporary shows forget that at their peril. Click here to read it.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Love in the Elephant Tent - Book Review

Fancy reading a real-life Water For Elephants? Kathleen Cremonesi's new memoir Love in the Elephant Tent is equal parts love story and circus adventure. Click here to read my review on the world's fastest-growing news site, Blasting News.

Clowns - Scaring people since 1892

According to a report in the Guardian over the weekend, the 'Jimmy Saville factor' is scaring off business for party clowns. But scary clowns are nothing new - they've been scaring people since Victoria was on the throne. Click here to read my 200-year history of scary clowns.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Bobbo Roberts - The Life of a Clown (Part 2)

Bobbo Roberts has been a clown since he was 13-years-old and, without wishing to give his age away, next year will be his 30th in the business. Bobbo was born into one of the world’s oldest circus families and next month will make a guest appearance in Simon Thompson’s ‘clown noir’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love, Labour, Lost at the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow.

In the second part of a two-part interview (you can read the first part here) he gave me his views on what it takes to be a clown and the future of clowning in Britain.

What tips would you give an aspiring clown?

Don't become a clown because you want to be funny, become a clown because you NEED to be funny. A wiser man than I once said clowns aren't made, they are born. You can learn all the skills in the world, buy the most expensive costume and the biggest boots and never be a clown. If there's something inside you that is already a clown just waiting to be born it will come out by itself. You need to love people, watch them interact, study from past masters who've paved the way for you. You never stop learning or growing. There isn't a magic formula that will make you a clown, but if it is your passion and you look for inspiration everywhere your clown will let you know where you need to be. Oh and if you've ever thought it's ok, I can mess up, I'm supposed to be clown, or looked at a cheap afro wig and thought this is my look then maybe consider a career in accountancy, because it's not for you. You have to be yourself as a clown. I can't tell you how to be YOUR clown but I can say you'll know it's for you if you always seek out new opportunities to learn and to work in different places and ways.

Bobbo is a proud member of the
Grand Order of the Water Rats
and is seen here with fellow members
 comedy legend Ken Dodd
and legendary scriptwriter Jimmy Perry,
co-writer of Dad's Army.
Please tell us a bit about your part in Love Labour Lost and how it differs from what you’ve done before?

It's a different experience working in a theatre as opposed to in the sawdust ring. I only recently started working theatres this past winter. There's a lot to be learned from working with other talented performers such as Simon. His style is more theatrical but he has worked in circus and street too. My main reason for working this kind of show is that I want to tread the boards where some of the greats have worked and let Bobbo out to play on the music hall stage. It's been in his heart for a while (and in his blood). It's about time it was under his feet too. Clowning has always grown and adapted to the world around it, after all it's a reflection of the world. So I thought what better way to bring my clowning bang up to date than performing in the world's oldest surviving music hall in my 30s-style way with a clown doing Shakespeare.

How do you see the future of clowning in Britain?

Clowning in recent years has taken something of a downturn in the public’s eyes - ironically, as more and more people don the slap and motley. Circus clowning is a very different kettle of fish to what birthday party entertainers, and walkabout/street clowns may encounter. At the same time, circuses have big bills to pay and may not want to pay feature artist prices for a clown that really knows how to entertain and perform a signature act. Run in clowns seem to be the norm to cover act changes and equipment moves within the circus and of course everyone expects to see clowns at a circus so some shows make the decision to employ young lads, josser clowns or ring boys to don the make up and baggy pants and re hash the same old routines that haven't got laughs for years. It's a real shame as the public never get to see the quality of clowning out there that say the European audiences get to enjoy. Unfortunately this financial decision creates the idea that clowns are just folks in oversized clothes cheap wigs and with make-up they haven't even grown into yet, and for the short term financial gain they're losing their future audience. Sometimes I just want to grab them and give them a good shake and say, clowning is more than that. It can be delicate, tender, make you think, connect with an audience on an emotional level, It doesn't have to involve laughs but benefits form them. It can have pathos and make you really feel for the clown's plight. Clowning is after all an art but if we in the business see it as something anyone can do, can we really blame our audiences for thinking the same? Clowning will survive. It's been about for thousands of years in one form or another. I'm still growing and performing and taking my show to the theatres, on to the streets, in burlesque clubs and anywhere else that will have me. The future of clowning is in the hands of the clowns. As long as we grow and move with the times then we'll always have an audience. After all everybody loves to laugh.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I’d just like to say how proud I am to be a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and how I love my folks and my Gillian and two boys, Logan named after a well known Scottish music hall comic called Jimmy logan, and Bailey, named after Bailey Fossett my god father. It's the next lot of Roberts Brothers.

Bobbo guest stars in Love, Labour, Lost at the Britannia Panopticon, Glasgow, July 8. Box office: 0141 553 0840.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

When Circus Stunts Go Fatally Wrong

Twice hospitalised but undeterred
and accidents likes the two headline-making cases last week keep happening
in the world of circus, sometimes with fatal results. 

Read all about it... in Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson's account in the Daily Telegraph.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Bobbo Roberts: The Life of a Clown (Part 1)

Bobbo by the river (Photo: Mike Brittain)

Bobbo Roberts has been a clown since he was 13-years-old. He comes from one of the world’s oldest circus families but combines a sense of tradition with an eye to the future. As well as circus rings, he’s worked in burlesque clubs and next month will make a guest appearance in Simon Thompson’s ‘clown noir’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love, Labour, Lost at the Britannia Panoptican, Glasgow. 

In the first part of a two-part interview, he tells us about his life as a clown.

Did you ever want to do a different circus act?

When I started in the business I had mentors in all of the circus arts willing to teach me. That’s one of the advantages of being born into the profession. I tried presenting horses at first, but doing the same structured act every time wasn't for me and I started mucking about and milking laughs from the audience. I did a dog act with a little comedy in it, thinking that'd be enough but the act still required structure as you can't really go off script too far with dogs. They're very intelligent animals but aren't the best at improv comedy. I even tried a goose act at one point. One day my dad took me to one side and said "It's obvious you lack the discipline in the ring for these acts, if you really want to clown about and get laughs why don't you go talk to your uncle Jack (Fossett) and see if he can make a clown of you."

Passing on the tradition
Bobbo's father Bobby Roberts with Jacko Fossett
and Jon Fossett in 1958
Who taught you the most about clowning?

From an early age I had a love of music hall as well as circus clowning and it's hard to pick one clown who Influenced me. The Rastelli Clowns were the first to put me in makeup, Jacko Fossett took me under his wing and around the world, David Konyot helped me grow as a performer and develop a more subtle make-up. I worked with Karl Brenner for 2 seasons learning how to get maximum laughs out of a bucket of slosh. Alongside working with all these pros I kept researching all types of clowning, watching clowns from European circus, big American shows but also the clowns of the stage: George Carl, Ed Wynne, Harry Langdon; and the silent movie clowns, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Harold Lloyd. The thing about clowning is you have to be yourself, you can't be someone else. I've always believed if you do what makes you laugh and bring the audience along with you it's more true. So I seek out all comedy clowning and otherwise, and whilst I'm not a clone of anyone, everyone who has made me laugh has influenced me in some way.

Bobbo with the (fairly) big cats
on Peter Jolly's Circus last year
How would you describe your look and style of clowning?

The look has changed a lot over the years. Most clowns start out with a full face of slap and as they grow as performers it become less of a mask and more of a window. My style has changed as my confidence grew along with my makeup. Experience teaches you a lot. Yes, you can get a laugh from pouring a bucket of slosh down your trousers but you can get massive laughs from a well timed look once you can read your audience. My current look is referred to by some as European style auguste, personally I refer to him as Bobbo. My style is constantly growing as I grow. I'd say Bobbo is currently a clown out of his time, an innocent born of the 1930s era, equal parts music hall and circus. He's everybodys best mate and wants everyone to enjoy themselves as much as he does.

Where do you buy things like your clown boots and make-up?

Prada and Louis Vitton, but mostly Oxfam. No, seriously, it used to be a struggle to get decent costumes and boots, you'd have to pester people who can sew on the show. Nowadays you only have to go to Google and type clown boots and you'll have pages of results come up. I still like to look around charity shops, though, as I like to look different. Some things are ready to wear some may need adjusting but everything will be unique.

What do you most enjoy about clowning?

Making someone smile. It's corny but true. Clowning is a form of theatre where the fourth wall doesn't get broken; it's never built in the first place. You interact with your audience. You don't perform to them, you conspire with them. Not a lot of performers get that level of intimacy with their audiences. Most artists with a skill based act can repeat a fluffed move to rapturous applause, a clown gets one chance to get to the punch-line or he's blown the gag. The audience will really take you into their hearts and that's a lovely feeling.

Bobbo guest stars in Love, Labour, Lost at the Britannia Panopticon, Glasgow, July 8. Box office: 0141 553 0840.

In Part 2 of his interview, coming soon, Bobbo offers his thoughts on what it takes to be a clown and how he sees the future of clowning in Britain, in circuses and elsewhere. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Hopelessly Hollywood Book Review

“Call me a sucker for Hollywood mythology,” writes David H. Lewis. And if you feel the same way, you’ll be charmed by Hopelessly Hollywood, his colourful memoir about a young man’s efforts to make it big in Tinsel Town.

Just a flip through the photo selection drew me in. Who wouldn’t be captivated by the sight of the Pan Pacific Auditorium - shaped like an ocean liner complete with funnels - where Lewis competed in a roller-skating tournament as a boy.

Growing up in the I Love Lucy era, Lewis says, “Hollywood cast a spell over me when I could barely walk.” He lived fifty miles from San Francisco in Santa Rosa, an unspoilt piece of small town America that was often used for location filming, and the opportunity as a young man to be an extra in the Bette Davis film Storm Centre cemented the showbiz dream in his heart.

Before long, he was living in LA, where he paints a vivid picture of an aspiring acting community sweltering in the heat by day and chilling by evening in the cool breeze on the pier.

In the faded grandeur of the Halifax Apartments on Yucca Street, “once home to top line entertainers from silent film stars to opera queens” were now “hordes of aging holdouts and young blurry-eyed believers in great American dreams.”

Despite Hollywood’s association with the silver screen, Lewis’ dreams weren’t of movie stardom but of penning a Broadway musical. Los Angeles was also a theatre town. “There were dozens of small theatres, a good many in walking distance of where I lived.” There was also a bottomless pool of acting, composing and producing talent with everyone desperate to be part of any show that might get a review and lead to bigger things - even if that meant working for free or paying for the privilege.

Lewis is also the author of Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History. But he’s best known today as America’s foremost commentator on the world of circus. He blogs on the subject as Showbiz David and has written several books on the big top including, most recently, Inside The Changing Circus (penned as David Lewis Hammarstrom).

So it’s no surprise that he pinned his Broadway dreams to a show about the origins of the Ringling Brothers Circus called Those Ringlings.

Lewis takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the staging of his first show at the 58-seat Actor’s Playhouse: the artistic differences, the thrill of a rave review in Variety - “Tears came streaming down my face” - and the subsequent come down of playing to empty seats.

“Have a good LA reality check laugh on me,” he invites us, ruefully.

But in Hollywood, dreams never die; not completely. “You allow yourself another chance, it just keeps going.”

Lewis is a prose stylist with a voice that sizzles on the page. His rich style is perfectly suited to the self-hyping world he describes and makes it easy to imagine how the dialogue in Those Ringlings must have danced. His song titles make me wish I’d been there on opening night.

I hope the show will one day find a new commercial life. (See how easy it is to be caught up in the great Hollywood “maybe...”?)

Lewis is a Hollywood survivor. But woven through his book, and providing its real emotional punch, is a genuine Tinsel Town tragedy in the story of his early collaborator and lifelong friend Mike Kohl.

It’s clear that Mike’s problems were within himself. Hollywood was the backdrop to his downward spiral, not necessarily its cause. Mike’s story nevertheless symbolises the fate of many Hollywood dreams.

Most showbiz memoirs focus on success stories, obscuring the fact that stardom is actually attained by very few. Lewis’ book shows us the reality for the majority who reach for stars that appear closer than they are. Yet such is the passion of the author and the other characters in the tale that even the broken dreams and broken dreamers have a sheen of glamour.

Ultimately, Lewis’ strength is his ability to see through the fantasy without losing sight of it. He’s both clear-eyed cynic and starry-eyed believer, often in the same sentence. If you’ve ever dared to dream, you’ll be with him all the way.

Hopelessly Hollywood by David H. Lewis is available from Amazon.