The Greatest Shows on Earth… and an insight from Gerry Cottle

As part of their 2 week long ‘Warwick Spring’ festival, Playbox Theatre have been hosting Billy Smart’s Circus at the local racecourse, and yesterday closed the fortnight with a celebration of circus history at The Dream Factory.  Classic circus movies were presented by high profile names from the industry, Alan Wilson displayed his collection of Billy Smart’s ephemera and his wonderful miniature circus model from their early days, and circus equipment was available for taster sessions and workshops.

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Scale model of Billy Smart’s Circus circa 1965, created by Alan Wilson, owner of original generator wagon Lord Morrison

My taxi arrived too late to catch Yasmine Smart’s introduction to her film of choice, ‘Beserk!‘, but the grand-daughter of Billy Smart – who rejoined the family named show this year, currently directed by Tony Hopkins – picked an excellent movie that showcased a gripping plot, as well as the setting of her grandfather’s show as the 1967 location for the shoot.  The dramatic story and grisly murders of this whodunit, set amongst the sawdust and glitter, at times exert the same pull of real stomach-churning suspense as live circus.  The pivotal role of Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) also reflects Yasmine’s own position as the circus ringmaster, a powerful female presence.

After the film, I get a chance to inspect the beautifully detailed model of Billy Smart’s Circus, circa 1960’s, that was built by Alan Wilson (who also owns Lord Morrison, one of the original generator wagons from the period).  His collection of photographs and programmes, from the years up until the original circus stopped touring in 1971, is also an evocative reminder of a lifestyle that is rarely seen in the much smaller touring operations of today.

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Inside Wilson’s model circus tent

Impressario Gerry Cottle introduces the next film of the day, ‘The Magnificent Showman‘ (released outside of the UK as ‘Circus World‘). Like ‘Beserk!’, it includes sequences of genuine circus acts amongst the scripted drama, this time provided by the Circus Franz Althoff, masquerading as John Wayne’s ‘Matt Masters’ Circus’.  The slower storyline, based around a long-lost circus love and secret, doesn’t grab me as much as the earlier film (possibly because I wanted to get outside into the beautiful sunshine rather than sit in a darkened cinema for another 2 and half hours!), but I enjoyed the introduction from Mr Cottle very much.

Theatre director Stewart Mcgill begins with a short summary of Gerry’s work, explaining how his development of themed circuses – rock’n’roll, thrills, ice etc – made him largely responsible for the resurgence of circus popularity in the UK after its demise in the 50’s and 60s.  Also sometimes slipping under the radar today is the first circus school, which Cottle toured through 1984-85, training students on the road (in a similar vein to the Zippos ACA today) – and which turned out amongst its alumni aerialist Andrew Watson, currently a creative director for Cirque Du Soleil.  Mcgill reminds us that much of the groundwork for ‘contemporary circus’ production was done during this period of experimentation, and tends to be forgotten.

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Stewart Mcgill introduces Gerry Cottle

When Gerry begins to speak, he produces a phrase that I much prefer – ‘current circus’.  It is less divisive than the traditional/new/contemporary branding, and recognises the range of work that takes place with the UK.  As he acknowledges, ‘the history of circus has always evolved‘.  Cottle recognises the deserved success of Cirque du Soleil, but bemoans the fact that Britain hasn’t anything to match the scale of their shows. ‘Circuses should hit the town’, he says, ‘They should be an event, should be international.’

In comparison, he notes the annual CircusFest at the Roundhouse in London seems to sacrifice ‘entertainment value’ for artistic experimentation.  ‘Each year the programme gets more radical but, without public funding – or being in the capital – it wouldn’t work.  We need another Pierrot Bidon to add twists and turns to circus and give it something special.  We have 30 travelling circuses in the UK, but a lot haven’t evolved.  I get really fed up with poor circus.’

Cottle’s current show, Turbo Circuspresents 50 acts in 100 minutes, playing to the Youtube generation’s desire for speed and variety .  It has been developed with the Wookey Hole circus school that Gerry Cottle runs, and the students want to learn everything, rather than specialise, which has fed into the format of the show.  As Cottle admits, ‘Ours is not The Greatest Show On Earth, but watching the development of the kids is amazing.  People think it’s only inner cities where children need opportunities, but we’ve given a lot of kids a lot of chances.’

TV also has an influence on how circus is perceived.  A long way from the BBC’s weekly Seaside Special, nowadays circus is often belittled – even Simon Cowell announced ‘I don’t like circus’ when a group of Cottle’s artists auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent. Strange, however, that the viewing public still vote performing dogs to the winning spots, and Circus Of Horrors managed to reach the semi-final!  Unfortunately, what TV cannot communicate is the atmospheric frisson that comes from close proximity to live performing artists.   And TV likes to follow fashions.  As Cottle comments, ‘We’re not going to beat the intelligentsia – they run the media don’t they.’  

One major question is always the performance of live animals.  Mcgill tells us that Warwick council were stringent that they would not allow Billy Smart’s to set up unless they guaranteed no animals (even the joke that they only use human animals was met with po-faces); and yet they were to play at the famous race-course – which arguably sees far more animal distress and unnecessary cruelty than a circus!

This is the state of the business within the UK at the moment’, sighs Cottle, looking around at the tiny audience of 15 who have gathered for his presentation.  The final showing of ‘Trapeze’, to have been introduced by Tony Hopkins, is cancelled due to lack of numbers.  Nevertheless, we are all convinced that the evolving nature of circus will ensure its continuation and hoped for revival, as long as artists continue to train, and shows maintain the age-old desire to push forward, and present at every turn something new and exciting.

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  1. A tragedy so few turned up and that Trapeze wasn’t shown. I’d urge anyone to buy the DVD which came out recently. Probably the best flying trapeze action ever filmed – it really makes you feel like you’re up there. Fabulous backstage atmosphere, too. Every frame is packed with colourful detail. Even Carry On star Sid James makes a cameo appearance as a snake seller!

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