In 1768, Philip Astley stood atop a galloping horse. With one foot on its back and the other on its head, the former cavalry officer brandished his sword as the stallion thundered around England’s first circus ring – a roped circle in the open air on fields just south of London’s Westminster Bridge.
Jump forward nearly 250 years and I’m in a big blue tent just outside Norwich. Perhaps nowhere better exemplifies the past, present and future of circus than in Britain’s oldest purpose-built circus building, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome It’s an enormous space, with twice the seating capacity of the average provincial theatre – and it’s packed. At its centre, three Chinese girls are pedaling pushbikes furiously around a shiny, wooden-floored ring. As one, they suddenly leap from the pedals and stand atop their bikes, one foot on the saddle, the other on the handlebar, their arms held aloft in a star shape as they continue in a circle. The image is so evocative of Astley that I can almost hear the pounding of the hooves.
When Earl Chapin May wrote his 1932 survey of American circuses, From Rome to Ringling, he described the art form as “ever changing, never changing.” When I embarked on a journey through Britain’s circuses for my new book Circus Mania, I found the world of circus as ever changing and never changing as ever. The word circus itself dates from ancient Rome where the Circus Maximus and Circus Flaminus played host to chariot races, gladiators, staged battles, jugglers, acrobats and exotic animals.
To walk into a big top is to enter a timeless world where the past and present co-exist. I could be right back in the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, in 1861 when French trapeze pioneer Jules Léotard (after whom the garments are named) – immortalised in George Leybourne’s song ‘The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze’ – made his London debut above the heads of astounded diners.
In one ring, I find two of the funniest comedians in Britain. Former Tiswas star Clive Webb, dressed as a ringmaster, and his son Danny Adams, who sports the red nose and multi-coloured suit of a clown, have a seaside audience in stitches with their razor-sharp verbal sparring. But when they launch into a comedy boxing match, I recognise their outsize, disc-like gloves from a photograph in From Rome to Ringling. The routine was described as “an old and sure-fire routine,” even in 1932. Many of Clive and Danny’s slapstick routines have their roots in the work of Joseph Grimaldi, the 19th-century pantomime star regarded as the Father of Clowning. Clowns are still nicknamed Joeys in his honour.
Today, the word ‘circus’ is synonymous with the big top. But once circus pioneer Astley became famous, he progressed from an open-air ring to a wooden amphitheatre and then a grand brick theatre on the site where the Charing Cross Hospital now stands. The circus tent was an American invention that only came to England in the mid-nineteenth century, and before the big top took hold with the circus community, most British circuses took place in buildings. The most famous was Hengler’s Grande Cirque, on the site where the London Palladium stands today. The last still in use for its original purpose is the 108-year-old Hippodrome. Its centrepiece remains a ring that transforms into a swimming pool, surrounded by fountains, mid-way through the show. “It’s hard to imagine what it would have looked like by gaslight,” says the Hippodrome’s owner, Peter Jay. “It probably wouldn’t have smelt very nice, considering they had horses and elephants performing directly above the water.”
In days gone by, hunting scenes were re-enacted with horses, stags and hounds plunging through the 50,000 gallon pool. The audience was invited to dive for sovereigns in the interval. A century on, the animals have been replaced with Las Vegas-style synchronised swimmers, while the trapeze acts and jugglers perform above raging fountains to the accompaniment of the latest chart music and nightclub-style lighting effects. Astley revived some of the Roman elements in the eighteenth century, when he augmented his trick horse-riding displays with a clown, a strong man, a human pyramid and novelty acts such as a ‘Learned Horse,’ which could count with its foot and answer questions with a nod or a shake of its head.
Former ringmaster George Pinder, retired from the road but is still living in his ‘jigger,’ as old school circus folk call their living wagons, told me the fortune-telling horse routine was still popular when he was a boy. “The clown would come in with the ringmaster and the pony, and the clown would pick a young lady in the audience. The usual routine would be, ‘There’s a young lady sitting here. Is her coat blue?’ The horse would shake his head. ‘Is her coat red?’ The horse would nod. Then you’d say, ‘How many buttons are on her coat?’ And the horse would count with his foot.” Pinder’s family have been circus folks since the days of Astley and his nieces continue the family tradition at Circus Mondao, a traditional tent and sawdust show where I found blonde matriarch Madam Gracie still presenting an ‘Educated Mule,’ which can count and pick the right colour handkerchief, just as Astley’s ‘Learned Horse’ did, two and a half centuries ago.
Should circuses still have trained animals? Like many people I was brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals is cruel or distasteful. It was the daredevilry of the human performers that attracted me to the circus. I took my prejudices with me to the few remaining animal shows that I saw but came away swayed by the magic of plumed spotted horses galloping through the sawdust. There is an almost indescribable poignancy in being able to smell the camels as you sit in a sparsely populated tent and listen to Julius Fucik’s 100-year-old circus theme tune Entrance of the Gladiators.
Watching Britain’s last big cat trainer Martin Lacey tap a stool with a stick and have a tiger jump onto it in return for a titbit of pork, I was reminded of a domestic cat jumping onto a table in return for a stroke. It’s hard not to believe Lacey’s claim that the animals enjoy their ‘organised play.’ As to the suggestion of cruelty, one needs only hear the story of how he accidentally stood on a tiger’s paw during a training session. A second later he had a tiger on each leg using him as a wishbone. It was six months before he could walk properly and only thanks to his partner Helyne, who risked her life to enter the cage “without so much as a rolled up newspaper,” that he’s here to tell the tale. Yet Martin still talks lovingly of his “pets” and Helyne gets up in the night to give them warm milk when it’s cold.
Death in the circus is never more than a heartbeat away. Eva Garcia, a stunningly beautiful aerialist whose family has been in the circus for a hundred years told me of her tough and lonely existence, travelling the world with all her possessions in the caravan behind her. “It’s very tough, mentally and physically. You really have to love it to live in the circus.” The following week, Eva fell 30 feet during her act and died in front of a stunned audience. Dr Haze, the flamboyant ringmaster of modern day freak show the Circus of Horrors revealed how his godson died in similar circumstances in a fall from a huge revolving piece of apparatus aptly called The Wheel of Death.
Yet, for all its hazards, the circus continues to draw new generations into its otherworldly world. Gareth Ellis didn’t just run away with the circus, his whole family did. His father became a circus handyman and his mither became the showman’s secretary so that their son could live his dream of growing up in the big top. Today, as Bippo the clown, the 21-year-old appears inseparable from his red nose and Ronald McDonald boots and speaks the centuries-old language of the sawdust circle fluently.
Perhaps the most famous circus runaway is Gerry Cottle. At fifteen, Cottle swapped the life of a suburban stockbroker’s son for the mud and toil of a circus apprentice. He went on to run Britain’s biggest circus, which was popularised in the 1970s by the Saturday night TV variety show Seaside Special. When he turned 60, he sold his shares in the Chinese State Circus and Moscow State Circus. Cottle intended to put his circus years behind him but, proving the truth of the line from Cecil B. DeMille’s film, The Greatest Show On Earth, that you can shake the sawdust off your shoes but you can never shake it out of your heart, he recently opened the Wookey Circus School, hoping to turn local eight to fifteen-year-old children into the next generation of big top stars.
And so the wheel of the circus rolls on through the decades, just as the wheels of the caravans roll from town to town, as ever changing and never changing as it was 200 years ago or 2000 years ago, and as it will likely continue to be 200 years or 2000 years from now.
Circus Mania – The Ultimate Book For Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus by Douglas McPherson is published by Peter Owen Publishers at the RRP of £14.99. Exeunt readers can purchase it for £10 with free postage by sending a cheque to Peter Owen Publishers, 20 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3QU