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."

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wild animals to be banned from circuses in Ireland and maybe Italy

Next year is the 250th anniversary of the circus, a global form of entertainment founded on horseback in London in 1768. But will the future of the big top be animal free?

It was reported this week that the Italian government has announced its intention to phase out the use of animals in the ring over a three-year period. The Senate will debate the issue in March next year, although what animals will be affected remains uncertain. According to industry sources, circuses are negotiating to keep domestic animals, exotics such as camels, and big cat acts, while offering to not use giraffes and elephants.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Ireland's Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, has signed new regulations banning wild animals from Irish circuses from January 2018. Domestic animals such as dogs and horses will be unaffected.

The move follows the Scottish parliament signing off on the principle of a ban on wild animals in travelling shows in Scotland, although the details have yet to be finalised.

So far, a long-threatened ban in England has been staved off by the effectiveness of a licensing scheme introduced in its place - and perhaps the government's preoccupation with more pressing matters, such as Brexit.

But as the circus turns 250, the latest news from Italy and Ireland does not bode well for those who's idea of a circus includes elephants, lions and tigers.

Read about my visit to what could prove to be Britain's last circuses with elephants and big cats in Circus Mania. 2nd Edition available now.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bobbo's Diary of a Clown - Part One: Chovy Shops and Unicycles

How does a clown get his luggage from one end of a bus depot to the other? On a unicycle, of course!

In the first of an exclusive series of extracts from his diary, Bobby 'Bobbo' Roberts Jr, tells us about his return to the circus for a season on Clacton Pier with Circus Fantasia this summer.

When I was younger it was a case of an agent coming to see you work. I remember the likes of Roberto Germain's who was in this business himself as a very renowned horse rider, and Lew and Lesley Grade - although I don't remember them - but there was Bernie Delfont, who I remember as he was also a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and my very own uncle Laci.

“The reason I’m going on about agents is nowadays most acts post their acts on YouTube and Facebook. So although I might have left circus to try some different things from street work to music hall and burlesque and even working and teaching at Clown Gathering UK, I, like many others, like to keep up to date on Facebook.

“There was a post saying how Mathew Wingate, the director of Circus Fantasia, was looking for a clown, and a very kind lady called Tanya Mack, from Planet Circus, tagged me in it. So I sent Mathew, who I've known for a while, a message saying I hear you are looking for a clown. He said ‘Yes, Clacton Pier who I’m doing a show with want a run in clown.’ I said a few names to him and he said, ‘I want you, you prat!’

“I felt very chuffed as I'd been out the business for three years so I went to my boss and I explained that I'd been offered some circus work. He said, ‘Well, you must do it as its all you know.’ So then came the hard bit: telling my wife Gillian and my two boys Logan and Bailey that I’d be away for six weeks and I’d be away for Logan s 14th birthday. But they were all so very supportive. Bailey said, ‘Can you bring me a real Minion back?’

“So I booked the bus to London and with a giant case and a smaller one and a rucksack and a unicycle I got there in one piece. Having my bags checked when got to London I wondered what the lady thought as she brought out juggling rings and a rubber chicken with other bits of my trade like goggle specs and a giant fidget spinner that me and Gill had made a few days before the trip. It wasn’t the most funny prop but it was very topical. So after that I then got to looking at how to get to Clacton and believe me it was no easy task with bags full of props and my own things and my unicycle.

“As I was looking for where to go a good mate called Ed rang me. He was a former spotlight boy at Bellevue Circus when he was a teenager and is now in a very successful jazz/blues band. I said, ‘What line do I get to go to Clacton?’ He said ‘Why?’ I explained that I was In London and he said, ‘Can you wait till 11 and I’ll come and pick you up.’

“I said yes right away as I didn’t fancy struggling with them darn cases and unicycle. So I went for a coffee and, me being me, rode my unicycle to the other end of Victoria bus depot with my cases and stopped off at a coffee house. I can see why its called Costa as should be called Costa lot of money, but sure enough my mate came and we walked to his car. As it was coming to lunch time and the traffic was getting more busy then normal, he decided to go through Westminster and I got to do a bit of sight seeing at the same time, including some of the West End and the Talk of the Town, which was formerly a circus building. We passed the Windmill and saw a lot of buskers, and it made me think - my life really did pass me by in circus, street work and burlesque. Then, after a hour, we got out of the big city and I was on my way.

“In between talking about the business and how the world has changed so much we got to Clacton and I phoned Mathew up and said ‘I’m now in Clacton.’ He said, ‘Oh, can you hang around a hour or so as I’m still on the road.’ I might add here that as well as doing a show at Clacton, Mathew and his wife Anya run a very successful touring show. So I said that's fine. So after saying goodbye to Ed I found a spot to sit. I thought as I've been stuck on a bus and a car it would be nice just to sit outside as it was very rare for the UK to have a hot spell. So as I was getting burnt where I was sat, and I was getting a bit bored, I started juggling 3 balls and some people I was sitting there talking to later on came to see the shows.

“I decided to explore the town I would be in for six weeks, so I went up to a bloke who was selling all the normal seaside stuff: buckets and spades, giant blow-up things and, I’m pleased to say, the funny post cards still. I explained to him that I would be working on the pier for six weeks and how my new boss was still out on the road, and he kindly let me leave my cases with him and even give me an ice cream as he said ‘Welcome to Clacton.’

“I started to explore the seaside town and I knew I was going to like it as there were 23 chovy shops (second hand shops). After a short while, Mathew phoned me back and I got picked up by his advance publicly man, Roy, who as a teenager had worked for my dad. I last saw him when I worked for Charles and Rebecca on Circus Bollywood, so had a good catch up with him as we drove to where the wagons were. We weren’t going go stay on the pier like the circus did in 1982 with all the animals.

“We got there and I met Anya for the first time as we’d only ever spoke on Facebook. Straight away we got on as I've seen her dad do his very funny trampoline act on Zippos circus, plus she made a good cup of tea as Mathew was still on the road. I would be staying in the bunk wagon with some of the other artists, two dancing girls and a BMX man, so I was finding out about some of the other acts who would be working on the show when Mathew phoned up and said the filters had gone in the lorry he was in. In the true circus way, he changed them by using his belt from his trousers.

“In the meantime, a white lorry turns up with a lovely looking wagon. A bloke jumps out and it’s Danny Hasler who I've known since we was both much younger, who does two very nice acts - a juggling act on the back of a quad bike  and a unicycle act of different heights and going up and down steps. So more tea was drank while we looked out for Mathew, and then two vans and wagons  pulled up and out jumped two girls and two boys who I was told do a trapeze act.”

To be continued... 

Click here to read about Bobbo's upbringing in one of Britain's oldest circus families.

For more on clowns and clowning click here to order the updated 2nd edition of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Circus Elephants ban in Illinois

The fate of the traditional circus with animals has suffered another blow with Illinois becoming the first state in America to ban elephants from the big top.

The ban is due to take effect from January 1, 2018, which means the Kelly Miller Circus, currently touring the state, could be the last opportunity for locals to see jumbos in the ring.

The circus blamed campaigners such at the Humane Society for the ban and recently posted a video on its website showing how Cindy and Jenny, the two elephants on the road with them this year, are cared for by trainer Joey Frisco. The 35-year-old Frisco describes in the clip how he literally grew up alongside the two elephants, which are now 45 and 51-years-old. View it here.

"Animal rights extremists put their agenda through without letting the public know," Tavana Brown, general manager of the Kelly Miller Circus, said of the new law passed by the state House and Senate.

The circus insists it will return to Illinois next year, without elephants, but ringmistress Rebecca Ostrof warned the absense of the elephants - which form part of the Kelly Miller logo - could hurt ticket sales as it did for America's most famous circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, which was forced to close earlier this year after withdrawing its elephants in the face of local legislation in places like California that made it impossible to tour with them.

"They're part of our story," said Ostrof. "What did people want to go see at Ringling? They wanted to go see elephants. People really missed them."

For more on the story of elephants in the big top, including my visit to quite probably the last British circus to feature the giant beasts, pre-order the new edition of Circus Mania from Peter Owen Publishers by clicking here.

"A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."
-Mail on Sunday

Saturday, 26 August 2017

God bless the circus animals - Archbishop welcomes Zippos to Brighton

A Zippos horse with ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE

The horses and budgies of Zippos circus were blessed upon their arrival in Brighton and Hove when Jerome Lloyd, the local Archbishop of Selsey performed the formal ceremony in the big top.

The clergyman told local newspaper, the Argus: “My relationship with Zippo’s began in 2009 when I walked the tight rope without any safety harness for the Sussex Beacon. I became a sort of unofficial chaplain for them. When Reverend Roly Bain died – the renowned priest who also performed as a clown – I took over from him as their official chaplain. Every since then I’ve come back to visit the circus – there’s an affinity with the performers.”

According to Zippos owner Martin Burton: “Circus people generally are very religious. People who risk their lives are very spiritual. You’ll often see the performers crossing themselves backstage before a stunt.

“In the circus community the most wonderful thing is that we have people from all sorts of faiths,” Burton added. “They all work together for the common good. It’s a wonderful thing, I often think the world should live like a circus.”

The blessing seemed to work - opening night was completely sold out.

Zippos is in Hove until September 3.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Nights at the Circus Fantasia

What a fantastically atmospheric, magical and inviting picture of Circus Fantasia! As well as presenting a summer show on Clacton Pier until September (click here for more) the show's big top unit is still touring as usual. Catch it on Canvey Island this weekend.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Get the new edition of Circus Mania before anyone else!

Nothing like opening the mail and finding the new 2nd edition of Circus Mania! The book the Mail on Sunday called "brilliant" is back with a new yellow cover (seen here with one of the purple first editions) and a new chapter bringing the stories of Circus of Horrors, Danny and Clive, Circa, Gerry Cottle, Zippos and others up to date. 

Timed to celebrate the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the circus, my continuing journey behind the scenes of the circus world also finds me visiting the traditional sawdust under canvas show Peter Jolly's Circus and meeting Britain's last lion tamer, Thomas Chipperfield

You won't find the new edition on Amazon yet, but you can get it early by buying direct from Peter Owen Publishers on 020 8350 1775 (London) or clicking here to visit the Peter Owen online shop. Be sure to ask for the new edition!

Celebrating 250 years of the circus
with Gerry Cottle and Dr Haze from
the Circus of Horrors
(Pic from the original Circus Mania book launch)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Circus 250 celebrations launched!

A year-long nationwide festival marking 250 years of circus in 2018 was launched this week on the very spot on London‘s South Bank where horseman Philip Astley set out the first circus ring in 1768.

The Circus250 logo designed by Sir Peter Blake - the pop artist best known for the legendary cover design of the Beatles record Sgt Pepper - was also revealed.

Throughout 2018, all over UK and Ireland, contemporary and traditional circuses, museums, festivals, churches, theatres and archives will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of circus in performance, exhibitions, concerts and events.

The full programme will be announced in October. 

Bobbo back in the circus in Clacton

Bobbo returns to the ring

A clown from one of Britain's oldest and most famous circus families is among the stars of Circus Fantasia for their summer season on Clacton Pier.

After a while away from the ring, clowning in other environments including burlesque and the Clown Gathering UK gala show at the Seagull Theatre earlier this year, Bobbo Roberts says he's tickled to be back in the ring with jugglers, a unicyclist and a flying trapeze troupe.

"Having so much fun at Clacton-on-Sea. Come and see the show three times a day. It's better than the NHS," says Bobbo.

Bobbo grew up in the circus, where he learned his craft from such legendary clowns as Jacko Fossett. Click here to read his full story. And for more on Circus Fantasia click here.

Those daring young men and women on the
flying trapeze in Clacton.

Where it's all happening
from now till September!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

New Joseph Grimaldi film The Funniest Man In The World

On the showbiz grapevine...

Vicki Michelle, the actress who came to fame in hit BBC sitcom 'Allo, 'Allo, tells me she's just finished making a new short film about Joseph Grimaldi, the Victorian pantomime star known as the Father of Clowning.

The film, produced by John Conway, was shot in Blackpool and the starry cast includes real life funsters The Chuckle Brothers, with Barry Chuckle playing Grimaldi. Singing star David Essex plays Charles Dickens, who was Grimaldi's biographer; and Charlie Cairoli Junior plays Charles Dibdin - an often overlooked but important historical figure who gave the modern circus its name!

Michelle stars as Grimaldi's wife, Mary, while Jonathan Thomas-Davies makes an appearance as Lord Byron.

The short film is currently in post-production, but if it's successful, could it lead to a full length feature or TV drama?

Watch this space!

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Circus returns to Clacton Pier this Saturday

A great circus tradition returns to Clacton in Essex this month, when Circus Fantasia sets up its ring in the Jolly Roger at the end of Clacton Pier.

Built in 1891, the Jolly Roger last hosted a circus when Chipperfields' appeared there in the 1980s. Since then, the Victorian building has been mothballed.

After a trial run during half term earlier this year, the 300-seat circus will be open every day from July 22 - September 3, with three one-hour performances each day. It promises to add a bit of sawdust magic to a salty day at the sea.

The Jolly Roger as it used to be.
Fantasia is an all-human show. But what must it have been like on the pier in the days of Chipperfields? Jamie Clubb and his father provide an atmospheric eyewitness account in a fabulous blog post here. With an elephant and lions stabled on the end of the pier and waves crashing over the top, it sounds like a scene from Noah's Ark!

For more on Circus Fantasia, click here to see my pictures of their transport.