Wednesday, 11 December 2013
If you're looking for a last minute Christmas present - or a book to download on your new e-reader - This Is Cabaret.com recommends Circus Mania among its list of gift ideas.
“From the travelling big top, through big name productions, theatrical circus, youth projects, circus education and resident shows right through to the weird and wonderful world of contemporary circus and freak shows, new book Circus Mania covers all the bases.”
Click here to read the full review on thisiscabaret.com
Monday, 9 December 2013
Horses, Facebook and a stolen clown nose - Zippos owner Martin Burton looks back at a "tremendous" year.
It was a pleasure last week to post pictures of full houses and long queues at Zippos this year. With Zippos currently resident at Winter Wonderland in London's Hyde Park, I thought it would be good to catch up with showman Martin Burton. In the following interview he shares his thoughts on the past season, the secrets of his success and his plans for 2014
|Martin 'Zippo' Burton|
How would you describe the past year for Zippos?
"2013 has been a tremendous year for Zippos Circus. My Circus team, led by
Beau Denning, has worked fantastically well together and we created a
show that really touched people nationwide, from the south coast of
Britain to the northern shores of Scotland. Our Scottish finale was one of
my favourite moments in the 2013 season."
What was the most memorable moment of 2013?
"Ultimately our performances at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland must create
my most memorable moments of 2013. I remember going to Paris to see Cirque
Pinder 25 years ago and commenting that I could never imagine that Zippos
could ever play to 9000 people a day, as Pinder was then (and now). At
Hyde Park to Wonderland we get 9000 people in every Saturday and every
show ends with a standing ovation. It's not the business that gives me so
much joy but support for the circus as a genre. Sometimes I hear that
traditional circus is dead but I can tell you it certainly is not!"
|Bring in the circus horses|
- Nicky de Neumann's
Roman riding was a big hit
with Zippos audiences
...and the worst?
"Listening to the vile and horrible lies sometimes chanted by animal rights
supporters outside of my circus, when I know that there is absolutely no
animal cruelty takes place in Zippos Circus - rather the animals enjoy
their life and performances and give great pleasure to their trainers and
To what do you attribute so many full houses?
"A great show of course but much more than that Zippos Circus is a brand
that the public can trust with the highest level of customer service. None
of us at Zippos Circus ever forget that it is our paying customers who
allow us to live the lifestyle we love so much."
You're not using the horses at Winter Wonderland.
Were there any other venues in 2013 where you had to leave out the animals
to secure a site?
"Hyde Park is of course very horse friendly. But with up to 8 shows per
day, very restricted space with no room for exercise paddocks and the huge
crowds that the event attracts I just could not guarantee the highest
standards of animal welfare that I require and expect. We miss the horses
Was Nicky de Neuman's Roman riding a big draw, and do you find there's still a
big demand for animal acts?
"I reintroduced horses to Zippos Circus over 20 years ago. I did so because
I realised the circus going public do still want to see at least domestic
animals in a traditional circus. I was proved right because our business
increased by 25% in the moment so I re introduced horses to Zippos Circus.
Nikki de Neuman offered Zippos visitors a very different style of
equestrian presentation, and a distinct change from all the wonderful
Liberty acts presented in previous years by Tom Roberts. Zippos creative
director, David Hibling, decided to present Nicky's work in a series of
short acts throughout the show rather than one big horse number. This
proved a very popular idea with our visitors."
|Married to the circus|
Zippos' Queen of Clowns Andreea Delbosq
was proposed to in the ring... at every show
How much do you use publicity stunts like the strongman pulling a bus
with his teeth and how effective do you find that sort of thing as a
"Brand development, publicity stunts and PR are the very lifeblood of any
circus and always have been. In 2012 my clowns chose to get married so I
had him propose to her in the ring during the clown entree every week to
get Zippos local press coverage. This year some costumes were stolen from
the backstage area and at the last minute my Clown told me he had his
clown nose stolen too. This was a true story which made national headlines
in the Scottish press. It's my job to recognise those stores which will
run and run and publicise the circus well."
|...the groom, meanwhile, had his nose nicked.|
How important is Facebook and Twitter etc to circus promotion today,
and have the main tools for promoting your circus changed much since you
first came into the
"Facebook and Twitter did not exist when I founded Zippos Circus. However
the birth of the Internet was something that Zippos Circus recognised at
the very beginning. We had a website designed before most people knew what
a website was. More importantly Zippos has been harvesting email addresses
and data from its visitors since the very beginning of email and we
regularly announce and promote our tour dates using that email data. More
recently Facebook has become yet another tool to keep Zippos in touch with
its visitors and tell potential customers know our plans and news."
- the dark and fiery side of Zippos
that get reviewed in the broadsheets and the type of circus that the wider
wants to see?
"No. It's not about traditional Circus versus new Circus. It's about good
Circus versus bad Circus. Circus artists are very willing to try new ideas
as proved by my own experiments with Cirque Berserk, which is about to
undertake a nationwide tour of English theatres in January 2014."
How would you describe the state of the British circus scene generally
as we head into 2014?
"There are more circuses touring Britain now than at any time in the
history of British Circus. Perhaps there are only two or three other truly
significant circuses touring the UK, but there are up to 50 smaller
circuses touring either for a full season or just part of the season and
finding new venues and new places to play. The British Circus industry is
expanding helped by the popularity of circus training and circus schools.
Circus will certainly change in the future, as it always has done in the
past. But I believe it will continue to thrive and I am determined that
Zippos Circus remain part of that scene for many years to come. Its time
of course, to see a great British circus back on mainstream TV regularly."
|Backstage at Zippos|
- Circus Mania takes you there
Buy the paperback or ebook from Amazon, or order direct from:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP
Tel: 020 8350 1775
|Circus For Sale|
Details on the Circus Mania
blog at the weekend.
Sunday, 8 December 2013
|Gerry Cottle (left) and Dr Haze (right)|
join author Douglas McPherson
at the Circus Mania launch party
Arriving early for the launch party for Circus Mania, I found myself with a little time to spare and wandered outside to the sunny square in front of the former Victorian power station that houses Britain’s premier circus school Circus Space.
Sitting at a table outside the Juggler café, I spied two distinguished gentlemen of the circus - Gerry Cottle and Dr Haze, founder of the Circus of Horrors. Both being of the with it and for it temperament, they were there to help me promote the book and, being a man without pretension, Gerry’s first action was to buy a fresh round of tea for us all.
He then showed me a book of his own which he’d just collected from the printers - a glossy booklet about the vintage rides and lorries of Carter’s Steam Fair, which is run by the lady in his life, Anna Carter.
Fairs have always been closely allied to circuses, so I decided to interview Anna and her son Joby about life on a fairground that winds back time to the rock’n’roll years of the 1950s and even earlier wherever it sets up.
Carter’s Steam Fair Part One:
Moving the Fair.
“Don’t ask me about lorries,” says Anna Carter, “I hate lorries!”
Yet this is a lady who owns and operates a fleet of more than twenty vintage Scammells, Fodens and Fords dating from the 1960s, 50s, 40s and even 30s. What’s more, she presses even the oldest of them into the sort of hard labour they were built for, hauling around the home counties the collection of beautifully restored dodgems, gallopers, chair-o-planes and other retro rides that comprise Carters Steam Fair.
That’s not to mention a fleet of 1940s showmen’s living wagons in which Anna, her sons and the other fairground workers reside - even when the fair is parked up for the winter on the edge of an airfield in Berkshire.
Until recently, Anna drove the fleet’s flagship, a 1932 Ford Model A that proudly bears the inscription Britain’s oldest working Fairground Lorry above its windscreen.
“It was agony to drive,” the fairground matriarch winces. But, when she’s not selling candyfloss at the fairground, or sign-writing her immaculately preserved vehicles back at the yard, Anna is quite happy to take her turn behind the wheel of one of the fair’s more modern workhorses. The bulk of them date from the 60s and 70s - and even that was an era when the idea of cosseting lorry drivers had yet to occur to most manufacturers.
As Anna’s son Joby puts it, “They’re hard work on a hot day, or a cold day - any extreme, really. When you get out you really know you‘ve done it, whereas driving a modern lorry is like sitting in your living room, isn‘t it?”
Yet, having grown up in a wagon, and been serenaded in his cot by the sounds of vintage rock’n’roll from the waltzers and octopus, while his parents plied their trade from showground to showground, you’d never tempt Joby to swap his aging AECs and Atkinsons for the luxury of a new Mercedes.
Reluctant to pick a favourite from the venerable fleet, he says emphatically, “They’re all lovely. Every one has its own distinct character.”
Despite their age, the trucks also appear to be more than up to the job of moving the fair from site to site each week.
All the lorries are finished in Carters distinctive two-tone maroon and red livery and many, such as a 1944 Scammell, bear the slogan British & Best... & Still Going Strong. In fact, the fleet’s motto is perhaps encapsulated in a two-word sign bolted to the Scammell’s radiator grille: Why not?
|Living the dream|
The founders of Carter's Steam Fair live in
wagons to match their rides and lorries
Of course, like any vehicles of their age, the lorries have their foibles and have to be treated with respect.
“Sometimes I’ll go off to book a showground,” says Anna, “I’ll come back from the site meeting and go, ’Oh, my God, there’s a hell of a hill.’ Because on a long drawn out hill the engines do get hot. The only thing you can do is pull in as quickly as you can and let the engine cool down.”
“You can’t put any driver into these vehicles,” Joby adds. “They have to know what they’re doing.”
But, when breakdowns do occur, Joby and his brother Seth are more than up to fixing them. Having grown up around dismantled engines and grease, they spend their ‘days off’ from moving and running the fair restoring to their prime lorries that others would find fit only for the scrap yard.
As a biplane buzzes like an angry gnat above the airfield Carters Steam Fair calls home, Joby reveals that he’s just painted the number 23 on his latest restoration, and he’s about to start work on another four that, after a bit of tender loving care, will be “coming into service soon.”
“My sons always liked Meccano,” Anna says proudly. “They can look at a pile of scrap and think, oh yeah, that can be done; we can restore that. They see it as a challenge.”
In Part Two of the Carter’s Steam Fair story, below, we’ll look at how it all began.
|Carter's Steam Fair|
in full swing
Many fairground families have been in the business for generations. But although Carter's Steam Fair operates probably the oldest rides in the country, as showmen and women they are new kids on the block.
The fair began in the 70s, when Anna Carter’s late husband John brought home a derelict set of gallopers dating from 1895.
At the time, the couple were promoting steam rallies, military vehicle rallies and collectors fairs. But John was a passionate collector in his own right.
“He collected everything, really,” Anna recalls. “American cars, gramophones, enamel signs. If it was old or interesting, he collected it.”
The purchase of the Tidman-built gallopers, however, was to be the beginning of a new passion that eclipsed all John’s many others.
Gallopers, incidentally, is the correct British name for what the uninitiated might call a merry-go-round - the kind where the horses go up and down on poles as it turns. According to Anna, the other commonly misapplied name, carousel, is what the Americans call them - and you can tell the difference because the American roundabouts rotate in an anti-clockwise direction while the British fairground horses always gallop clockwise.
|A taste of the 50s|
the Rock'n'roll Burger Bar
By luck they located the original steam engine that had powered the ride and, in the winter of 1976/77, they built up the huge elaborate fairground ride in their front garden.
As the smoke belched, the rows of multi-coloured light-bulbs glowed and the carved wooden horses rose and fell in time to the music, the ornately decorated rounding boards at the top of the mighty contraption missed the gutter of the house by inches.
Initially taking the gallopers to weekend shows, the couple quickly realised that the takings from one ride wouldn’t support their growing family. So, throughout the 80s, they added more and more vintage rides - a set of chair-o-planes from the 1920s, a 1930s ‘ark,’ and a stomach-churning 1945 dive bomber first owned by circus showman Billy Smart.
The fairground today looks like a living film set, every brightly painted truck, ride, wagon, sign, slot machine, burger bar and ice cream van restored to its original period appearance.
The result is that the fair attracts a more genteel clientele than the typical modern funfair.
“We‘re much more family orientated,” says Anna. “I think everyone gets some yobs nowadays, but we don’t get so many, because the families swamp them out, and the music we play - 40s big band music and 50s rock’n’roll - doesn’t attract them. If we do get any yobs in we put Cliff Richard on. That soon drives them away.”
In Part Three of the Carter’s Steam Fair Story, below, we’ll look at the hard work behind the fun of the fair.
For all the fun of the fair, running Carter’s Steam Fair is far from cushy.
Pulling down and packing away the fair begins on Sunday night and continues all through Monday, with around 20 workers involved. On Tuesday, the fair travels to the next town. Typically, the fair has 16 or 17 lorries in operation at any one time, but even with that many vehicles moving in convoy, there are so many loads to move that Joby and Seth often make three or four trips back and forth.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning are spent putting the rides back together, after which the fair is open all weekend, from noon until 11pm.
The fairground season extends from March to October, with additional shows at Christmas and, apart from the sheer heavy lifting and long hours, the weather is a constant enemy.
“The worst thing is high winds,” says Anna Carter. “We dread that, because it can do so much damage.”
Rain is another problem, turning grassy showgrounds into muddy quagmires.
|A taste of the 50s|
“So when the ground’s wet and muddy, we put down plywood boards to make a length of road and move the lorry and the load along that. The plywood doesn’t last very long, and there’s only so much we can carry. So you have to keep taking it up from behind the load and keep moving it to the front. It’s unbelievably hard work, and if its raining, it’s really miserable.”
In one respect, though, Carters’ vintage rides and lorries have a big advantage over their 21st century counterparts.
“Modern machines are unbelievably heavy,” says Joby. “Show them a bit of mud and they sink beyond recognition.”
Carters rides are much lighter. Many of them, after all, were designed to be moved when the only transport was horse-drawn.
In addition to their permanent staff, the fair attracts a wealth of volunteer labour.
“There’s something about the fairground business where people want to be involved,” says Anna. “They love the atmosphere... and they probably think we’re so mad they want to help us.”
For her own part, Anna says, “The best thing about this life is we’re doing something very different - it’s a bit off the wall, isn’t it? The fair is completely unique and I’m very proud of what we’ve all achieved.
“There’s also a lot of camaraderie. We all socialise and have fun together and if anything goes wrong you can always rely on everyone else to help.”
With no thoughts of retirement in mind, Anna concludes, “I’ll probably be doing this until I die.”
Joby feels the same, adding, “It’s a hard life, but if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it.”
Like his father before him, Joby’s a born collector and for the future he plans to add yet more rides - and lorries - to the family’s ever growing collection.
“I can’t help myself,” he grins. “It would probably be better if we stopped and just travelled what we already have. But the thrill of it is there’s still old equipment around that other people have given up on. So suddenly you think, yes, I’d love to have a ghost train!”
For more information on Carters Steam Fair visit www.carterssteamfair.co.uk or call 01628 822221.
Roll Up, Roll Up for a Great Circus Read.
If you like fairgrounds and circuses, you might enjoy Douglas McPherson’s book, Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.
Described by the great showman Gerry Cottle as “A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people,“ Circus Mania retails for £14.99, but you can order it direct from Peter Owen Publishers at the special offer price of just £10 postage-free.
Call 020 8350 1775, or send a cheque or postal order to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP
|Martin 'Zippo' Burton|
- interviewed here
And on Friday... details of a circus for sale!
Friday, 6 December 2013
|Elephant on the Rome|
How do you lose an elephant? Ask the staff of the Amedeo Orfei circus. Their pachyderm called Mia packed her trunk and wandered off for a sightseeing spree in Rome earlier today and was only recaptured after a couple of hours on the loose when residents called police and reported the beast loitering by Exit 11 of the Grande Raccordo Anulare highway. Presumably she was trying to hitch a lift out of town.
This is not the first elephant to escape from a circus in Rome. Just last month a different elephant was found trying to pick up a snack in a market place after escaping from a nearby big top.
By the way, doesn't that elephant have the cheekiest face? Who says they're cruelly confined when, in Italy at least, it seems they're free to wander off whenever they choose.
For more elephant stories, from the famous Jumbo to the infamous rogue Black Diamond, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.
As Diamond Jubilee year draws to a close, here's a glimpse into Sanger's Coronation Circus programme from 1953, as archived in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Read the story of the circus, yesterday and today, in Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson, described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
Coming next week on the Circus Mania blog: An interview with Zippos showman Martin Burton looking back on a fabulous season in 2013
No, that's not Martin, that his strongman Hercules.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
Christmas shopping in Prince of Wales Road in Norwich today, it was hard to imagine Barnum and Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth parading along the same route in the 19th century, as shown in the picture below from the Victoria and Albert Museum archive.
For the story of how Barnum met Bailey, and many others from the circus of yesterday and today, read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson, described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
|Nicky de Neumann|
Riding high with Zippos
When she was growing up, Nicky de Neumann was told she’d have to choose between the horse world and the theatrical world, but she was determined to do both. This year saw her bring the spirit of Astley’s first circus to Zippos with her spirited Roman riding. In the following article, which originally appeared in My Weekly, she told me, in her own words, how she became a stunt rider who these days turns rescue horses into circus stars.
|Why ride one horse|
when you could ride three?
I started trick riding when I was 14. My school wanted me to do work experience in a solicitor’s office but there was no way that was for me. So I found a guy called Rodeo Dave and I did my work experience in his stunt shows at county fairs - throwing myself on, off and underneath horses, going as fast as possible! It was dangerous, but when you’re a kid you’re fearless. I loved it.
Growing up, my two big passions were horses and acting. Everyone told me I couldn’t do both. At drama school, they wanted me to get rid of my horses, because they were such a big distraction and I was always tired. Everyone in the horse world, meanwhile, said I should forget about acting. But I was determined to do both and I have.
I’ve done a lot of fringe theatre, singing and cabaret. But I always seem to be called for more horse work. I played Annie Oakley for five years in a wild west show at Euro Disney. I also created my own all-girl stunt team and toured the country.
|Nicky de Neumann|
demonstrates the love with which
she turns rescue horses into circus stars
I have two rescue horses, including one called Scooby who was going to be shot because he was deemed un-ride-able and out of control. I’m a sucker for a sob story and I took him on with no idea that I’d even attempt to turn him into a stunt horse - I just wanted to save his life. But now I’ve got him in the show and he’s terribly sweet.
To me, horses are like kids. They’re not inherently bad, and if they display bad behaviour there’s usually some reason in their past. So it’s about getting to know their personality and working with their strengths.
The training is all about making things fun and appealing for them. If they become your friend and know they’ll get rewarded with a carrot or a kiss and a cuddle, then they want to please you.
I’m currently touring with Zippos Circus and it’s lovely because I get to be with my horses 24/7. I live in the lorry, which is attached to the stables, so we’re all together. They get loads of attention and fuss and I’m there constantly, as opposed to someone who sees their horse once a day and pays someone else to feed them while they’re at work.”
Interview by Douglas McPherson
Zippos at Christmas
Sadly, Nicky can't be with Zippos during their current residency at Winter Wonderland in London's Hyde Park, because the royal parks don't agree with circuses having animals. But Zippos are nevertheless presenting two fine shows a day until Jan 5. The daytime Christmas Circus is perfect for families and children while the evening show, Cirque Berserk offers bigger thrills including knife-throwing and a wheel of death for adult audiences. For times and prices, visit www.zippos.co.uk.
takes you backstage at
and other circuses of
Click here to read an interview with Zippos owner Martin Burton.