Film which uses the University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive to explore the history of the circus, from Billy Smart to Gerry Cottle and Archaos to Cirque du Soleil.
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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
I introduce to you, the circus!
As the Second World War passed into history,
Britain looked to an old friend
to cheer itself up.
There is something quite amazing about that corner in the park,
that suddenly has a circus arrive on it
and becomes something like Las Vegas.
The travelling circus brought some much-needed dazzle to an age of austerity.
For a generation brought up on war,
the Big Top was the stuff of dreams.
They would come in so excited, looking everywhere. Everywhere.
They didn't know where to look next.
The circus was pure magic to young eyes.
The atmosphere, the smell, the artistry.
It was beyond belief,
it was an explosion of delights.
Exotic people. At that time, we never saw people from other countries
and other nations who spoke other languages.
I'd think, "Who are these people, where were they yesterday,
"where are they going to be tomorrow?
In the immediate post-war years, circus rode the crest of a wave.
With big operations such as Bertram Mills and Chipperfield's
travelling the length and breadth of the country,
to meet the growing demand.
It was into this bright, sequinned world that a new circus
came to town.
And it seemed to arrive from nowhere.
My father always wanted to own his own circus.
When we started the circus back in 1946,
my God, we didn't know nothing about it at all.
Billy Smart was a showman by instinct,
a big man with big ambitions.
My father always went for the best, you know.
When he wanted something, he went for the best.
And quite honestly, he couldn't afford it,
but he managed it and he did it.
Any money that we made in the business was always poured back into the business.
Smart's Circus quickly became very successful
and Billy Smart gained celebrity status.
He would go on to be the face of circus for the next 20 years.
Although Billy was most definitely the governor, he had the support of a wider working family,
including his son, Ronnie.
It is the only way you can do it, with a big family.
We had a very large family.
They didn't all perform in the ring. Only one person performed in the ring, and that was Kay.
But it had to be a family concern, there is no doubt about it.
Kay Smart, Ronnie's wife,
had been a performer in the music hall,
but then trained to become a trapeze artist.
The hardest thing I had to do was to learn to walk up this rope ladder.
It was 30 foot up and it just was terribly hard
trying to walk up a rope ladder, in the middle of nothing,
with not a wall near to hang on to.
But I got it.
You look down and you can see how full the house is
or if they're enjoying it, and all that sort of thing,
and you know the trick you're going to do next is a good one,
and you do it better, if you see they're all with you.
Of all the thrilling and dangerous spectacles in the circus,
the aerial acts are perhaps the most glamorous.
I fell in love with the high-wire act ladies,
I definitely did. I think my first erotic stirrings were caused
by watching women 30 feet above me.
And they had their hair done fancy,
so they were something else altogether.
As a young trapeze artist, Laci Enrdresz enjoyed all the attention.
It is a wonderful thing, the flying trapeze.
You are the star act, normally, in the show.
When you're 18 or 19 years old, the girls, pop-star status, the girls all over you.
You can live with that when you're 18, 19, 20 years old.
There's something about the high wire
and its blend of grace and danger
that taps straight into the realm of fantasy.
When I was very tiny, we went to Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia.
I was completely entranced. The aerial acts were just wonderful.
We went back to school
and we started hanging upside down off the wall bars
wanting to be trapeze artists.
But the one that sticks in my mind
was a girl on a crescent moon in a sparkly costume. Gina on the moon.
And, you know, all our lives, we say, "Oh, remember the girl on the moon."
The things in the circus for me are the skill and the beauty.
The whole act has to be aesthetically pleasing.
But if they're sparkly -
in the traditional circus, sparkle is everything.
If they open an umbrella and glitter falls out,
it's just so special, every time.
It doesn't matter how many times you've seen it, it's wonderful.
But behind all the glitz and glamour lie years of training.
One mistake, and the consequences can be devastating for the performer.
I was twice paralysed, from the neck down.
You know, my right hand side was completely paralysed,
I was hung by the neck by the doctors in Austria for days before they gone back in place
and many, many bones in my body.
I mean, one fall, we had 14 bones broke in my body,
falling down from 40 foot high without a net.
I fall in the net and I broke my neck in the net.
The circus thrives on the elemental appeal of danger,
and aerial attacks push human ability to the extreme.
For the first time in your life, as a child or even as an adult,
you were faced with something, which was a matter of life or death.
And it's a wild, crazy emotion, to be observing somebody
taking their life into their hands. And this is what circus performers
appear to be doing.
The idea that somebody is actually, for a split second,
in mid-air, doing a somersault,
to catch hands with somebody else that they trust.
That's life and death, and it's an incredible, visceral thing.
You have to have the danger in circus, it's part of it,
it's part of their lives.
You have to have the beauty and skill.
Britain wasn't alone in rediscovering the power of circus.
The Big Top was big business in post-war America too.
Ever the entrepreneur, Billy Smart headed across Atlantic to see
what he could pick up.
He was mainly looking for new acts, but he ended up
with a tip from a Hollywood film director.
We went across to see the Barnum And Bailey show, actually.
I think they'd just made the film The Greatest Show On Earth.
And they had a blue big top.
The blue big top was something new
because Cecil DeMille, who was the producer director,
he wanted to film during the day, so therefore he had to have a blue tent
so he could get all the colours and all that sort of thing.
So we came back and we said, "We're going to buy a blue tent."
And we did. Blue big top, never been heard of before.
The blue canvas meant the acts looked just as spectacular
during the day as they did at night, drawing ever bigger crowds.
There was a regular, say, 5,000 people twice a night, anyway.
A huge operation like Smart's required a great deal of organisation.
By the '50s, they had to employ a large staff.
We had tent masters, second tent masters,
electricians, second electricians, you know.
We had a complete, good, working thing.
But everybody had two jobs. A shirt-sleeve job and a spangle job.
When it's going up, in it goes, the circus ring,
it was the clowns' job to set this exactly right
so it didn't part and all the pieces joined together like a good jigsaw.
And then it was, say, the acrobat who did tumbling.
It was to their benefit that there wasn't any stones.
So that was what they did.
And when the stones were all gone,
then the good sawdust went in and a bit of glitter on top of it.
So that where you were working was really some place you wanted to be.
As well as being a trapeze artist, Kay orchestrated the music for the acts.
This was a crucial role.
In a circus, everything was choreographed with split-second timing,
and that included the animals.
We ended up putting the music
to the horses and to the bears, to the lions and different things.
The elephants knew it, they all know the music, the animals, the horses,
every animal knew its music, because if its music started
there was "Rrrruuurr" behind the curtains, you know.
Performing animals were
a key draw for the circus back in the '50s,
when attitudes were very different to those of today.
For many, it would be the first time they had ever seen a wild animal.
It could be a terrifying experience.
There's a great clattering as men in overalls arrive
and start erecting a cage all the way around the arena.
And then inside the cage these stands are put and then we can see a tunnel
and then a man with a very large whip and a gun arrives.
And it's, "Haiich! Haaich! Hi!" And then in come the lions.
Now this is frightening.
I know what these things can do and there they are,
growling and snarling and this guy is poking them with his whip
and they're jumping up and they're doing this, that and the other.
But then he brings in a tiger, as well. Lions and tigers.
Surely this cannot be?
And I'm absolutely staggered,
captivated and can't believe there can be any life more glamorous
than having a whip and a gun and a lion.
The threat of danger was never far from the surface in the circus,
both in the minds of the audience and the performers.
This element of risk gave rise to some unusual beliefs
among circus people.
They are so funny, the old superstitions.
A bird flying around the tent is unlucky.
Never sit with your back to the ring.
You'd never put your circus ring directly on top of the circus ring
where the previous circus had been. You'd move it a bit to one side.
You should never whistle.
You wouldn't see circus artists wearing green.
Circuses are full of superstition. It's a nightmare!
This deep-rooted folklore goes back to the origins of the circus.
Its history is over 200 years old
and it was born out of very tumultuous times.
Circus started in the United Kingdom in 1768,
when an equestrian horseman called Philip Astley
set up Astley's Amphitheatre in London.
This was a period of fierce nationalism and imperial conflict.
In 1763, the Seven Years War came to an end,
which led to the discharge of large groups of former British cavalrymen and horse grooms.
Philip Astley was one of those veterans.
He had embarked on a career in trick riding,
which was popular at the time.
He had the idea to rope off a piece of land
and put a wall around it.
The creation of the ring was just the starting point.
Astley was an entrepreneur, a showman,
who started out with a simple aim but quickly spotted an opportunity
to create something truly unique and innovative.
Astley's initial remit for himself
was to show the expertise on horseback.
Astley could see that there was an appetite for trick riding
and no shortage of skilled people to take part.
But he wasn't the only one,
and so he decided to try something new.
He introduced other performers, such as acrobats, jugglers and clowns,
acts that he found in the fairs and marketplaces of Britain.
This was a defining moment.
By combining all these different acts in one circular ring,
Astley became the father of the circus.
It wasn't long before his show was in demand far and wide.
He travelled all over Europe, built 17 amphitheatres.
So his roped-off piece of land with a wooden wall
turned into an amphitheatre
and he then built 17 amphitheatres right across Europe.
But the horse acts still remained the driving force for the shows
and Astley made them spectacular.
He loved to sort of re-enact.
He re-enacted the storming of the Bastille.
I can kind of imagine that being like the News At Ten,
so people in London could hear what's just happened in France,
hear about the revolution, and then they could go to Astley's
and see it performed, see what was happening, almost like a newsflash.
Astley had lit the touchpaper.
His circus spawned many imitations and the circus
was soon a hugely popular and established form of entertainment.
Right from the beginning,
entrepreneurs realised the huge potential audience
and wanted to take the circus beyond the fixed venue
of the amphitheatre building.
What they would do was to find wasteland, or an available space,
get an architect to draw up a plan,
take the plan to the local wood yard, buy the wood,
hire a builder to put the building, put the building up.
Stay there for as long as an audience would pay to come and see the show.
And then, when they'd exhausted the audience,
dismantle the building, sell it back to the wood yard,
and move on to the next town and repeat the process.
For now, circuses were either open air
or confined to makeshift or permanent buildings.
But as the circus moved into the 1800s, it continued to develop.
And thanks to Victorian ingenuity,
it took on many of the aspects we are familiar with today.
Circus in the Victorian period really was one of its high peaks.
There was 15,000 people performing in the circus. That's extraordinary.
More and more variety was introduced.
Certainly the horses were still there
as the sort of focal point,
but with sort of exotic animals and animal trainers,
which had started to come in as well.
The idea of performing wild animals was born out of the menagerie tradition,
which may have held a fascination for Victorian audiences
but dated back as far as the 12th century,
when royalty and titled gentry kept exotic animals.
In 1842, this very British creation benefited from the arrival of an American import.
The Big Top had arrived.
This and other technological advances of the period,
like steam power, allowed travelling showmen
to take more and more elaborate circuses out on the road.
The most celebrated of these was "Lord" George Sanger.
He travelled around towns and villages
with at least ten wagons loaded with equipment
requiring 150 horses to pull them.
In a convoy that would stretch for miles.
Sanger took the circus to the people.
And everyone flocked to see it.
He boasted that there would not be a town in England with a population more than 100
that a Sanger's circus wouldn't have visited.
He was so successful that, in 1871,
he purchased Astley's thriving amphitheatre in London.
Permanent shows were still drawing the crowds
and the Victorian period saw more and more intricate and glamorous buildings
spring up to showcase the circus.
Every major city in United Kingdom had a permanent building.
And the giveaway is in the name.
When you see something called the Hippodrome,
you know its roots was a circus building.
The word "hippodrome" comes from the Greek words, "hippos" for horse,
and "dromos" for race or course.
One of the most impressive circus buildings was created
in the seaside town of Blackpool.
We are now in the Tower Circus, which is the oldest continuous circus
in the United Kingdom in continuous use. It was founded in 1894.
The wonderful interiors that you see now are 1899, 1900.
And this is still the permanent site for circus in United Kingdom,
always has been and always will be.
But this Victorian heyday was not to last.
By the end of the 19th century, the circus faced a rival for the public's affections.
Music hall had been growing in strength
and audiences in large towns suddenly had a more diverse choice of entertainment on offer.
As a result, the circus suffered a decline in popularity
and some of the permanent buildings were forced to close.
It was years before a showman came along who would turn the fortunes of the circus around.
In the '20s, you get Bertram Mills,
who comes in and takes over the circus at Olympia
and turns it again into something that Londoners see as part of their everyday holiday.
Bertram Mills put on the most lavish circus shows
that the capital had ever seen.
He made circus a real event again
and became renowned for showcasing performers of the highest calibre.
I think the thing about Bertram Mills was that he really was
interested in quality.
He would bring people in from all the big international shows
and made British circus again a truly international phenomenon.
And people considered it a very prestigious thing
to be able to work for Mills.
He had established his position where it was awfully good for your prestige to have worked for him.
Bertram Mills presented the circus at its best,
combining glamorous, highly skilled performances
with comedy and exotic novelty acts audiences couldn't find anywhere else.
-'Now for the piece de resistance...'
You had things like the tight-walking lion.
'Walking along a tightrope looks easy, but the animal knows
'it's the directing eye and hand of his trainer that will see him safely over.
'One slip and the whole act will end in pandemonium
'and perhaps injury to man and beast.
'It's a fine act that will earn great applause.'
He had this amazing female magician called Koringa,
who could actually mesmerise crocodiles.
'The crocodile looks fierce but watch her quietly.
'See how stiff it's gone, proving that it's completely under her control,
'and will do anything she willed it.'
Bertram Mills managed to reignite the popularity of the circus but he,
like other circus proprietors, faced a new adversary.
An organisation called the Performing Animals Defence League
had been lobbying Parliament to pass a bill prohibiting the use of performing animals.
A select committee was set up in 1921 to investigate.
Although a resulting bill in 1925 did introduce regulations,
it did not call for a ban.
So, the circus was able to continue as it had always done.
Over the coming decades, it was to prove more popular than ever,
thanks to the new medium of television.
TV pioneers were quick to recognise
the visual richness of circus
and used it to demonstrate the new medium in 1946.
Then, in 1950, the BBC deemed it important enough
to take centre stage in the first live outside broadcast from France.
-'August 27th, 1950.
'As our filmed pictures end, and live sound and vision
'reach out across the dark waters of the Channel...'
'Probably you'll realise that should the girl
'miss the edge of the table as she comes down,
'with her hands, it would be her neck that would hit it.
Broadcasters saw that the circus worked well on television
and were excited by its potential to pull in viewers.
So, in the early '50s,
the BBC made overtures to Billy Smart.
And the showman embraced the opportunity with both hands.
# Come to the circus
# Come to the circus
# See the circus... #
I think they paid us a large sum of £200 for a one-hour show.
We were glad to do it.
Smart's signed to the BBC in 1952,
for a deal that would go on to last over 20 years.
Chipperfield's were courted by ITV and took the plunge in 1955.
But not everyone was quite so easily seduced.
The Bertram Mills Circus had had to be rebuilt
after the impact of music hall.
They steered clear,
fearing that television could have a similar negative impact.
The arrival of television actually was a boom period for the circus in the '50s,
because the Smarts allowing the circus to be filmed,
it actually got it to a wider audience.
So in some ways it was their best advance publicity they could get.
They didn't need someone to fly the town any more
because they had the television.
The love affair between television and circus was rewarded with massive viewing figures.
One Christmas I think we had just over 20 million viewers,
and we got what they call the Silver Camera Award,
which you get - when you've got 20 million viewers, you get the Silver Camera.
But, you know, it wasn't a true story,
because, quite honestly, it was more than 20 million
because they went to 30 other countries at the same time.
So you imagine, you add all that 30 countries to the 20 million,
I don't know how many millions we'd be talking about, but would be a lot of people.
I actually loved it on TV.
Almost as much as I loved it in the flesh.
It was in black-and-white,
so you are deprived of perhaps 70% of what was actually the splendour of going to the circus.
But the fact that in a circus you are in a fixed vantage point,
you're watching at one angle.
The TV did have that advantage
of three or more cameras,
which bring to life the circus from all sorts of different viewpoints.
For Billy Smart's and the BBC, it was a partnership made in heaven.
The next day you had a queue at your box office, if the show was good, and it was good.
As result of their success, the Smart family
began to mix with Hollywood stars.
Billy's son, Billy Smart Junior, became a celebrity in his own right and a tabloid favourite.
He appeared in gossip columns which hinted at liaisons with well-known starlets.
He certainly was the playboy of the circus, there was no doubt about it.
Among his rumoured conquests was Jayne Mansfield.
I don't think Billy got that friendly!
But she did get particularly up close and personal
to one of the star acts of Smart's Circus, Burma the elephant.
She would lay down, and Burma would come in to the special music.
And she was so scared, she kept calling for her husband,
"Mickey, Mickey, I can't do this, I can't do this!"
But she did do it! She got up
and she was very pleased she did it, actually.
The link to the wider entertainment world
helped circus appeal across all classes.
When you had a big gala show, a lot of stars used to turn up
and they'd want to take part.
Even the Bertram Mills Circus allowed the cameras in
to capture the Queen attending a performance in 1952.
All the ambassadors used to go,
all the celebrities, the celebs of the day.
I remember going one year, Field Marshal Montgomery was there, and Winston Churchill was there.
It was very interesting.
Television pushed circus to the forefront
of our popular culture, but with the success came pressure.
Proprietors had to work harder and harder to seek out fresh acts
to keep a mass audience interested.
But circus had long been a global phenomenon.
There was a whole world of acts out there to choose from.
Even at the height of the Cold War, international borders
were no barrier for circus people, as Ronnie found out when he went to Russia.
I was booking a programme for the BBC,
and the BBC had the entry to get into the eastern zone, you know, the other zone.
And I remember getting in the cab and getting across the border.
I was so surprised to get through,
the word "circus", we're agents for the circus and BBC,
and they just let us through, actually.
But anyway, we did get there, we did see some sensational Russian acts,
which were outstanding.
They quickly snapped them up for their show.
The Soviets had long valued the cultural importance of the circus.
There were over 70 circus buildings in the Soviet Union,
as well as a network of specialist training schools.
Thousands of circus performers were employees of the state.
In the years following the war, they were so keen to show off
the advantages of their "people's culture", that, in 1956,
the Moscow State Circus was dispatched to London.
The fruits of the Soviet system were to be seen by all.
The British, it seemed, couldn't get enough of the circus.
Demand was such, up and down the country, that all the major circuses
did their best to satisfy it by taking their shows out on tour.
They took them to every town, even the UK's most northerly city.
In that time, Inverness was a smallish town.
It had one very, very small theatre,
but here was a West End show from London
that came and parked and it was absolutely fabulous.
I was blown away with it.
And they came every three years after that.
The arrival of the circus was a hugely exciting event for the locals.
And the circus proprietors made the most of it,
putting on spectacular parades to announce that they were in town.
People, I think, have forgotten how important a part of social ritual it was in this country.
And the parade would be clowns preceding them, giving out flyers.
They'd be followed by ladies on horseback.
Occasionally, if you were very, very lucky,
a lion would be in a cage, pulled along by horses.
The elephants would go up Market Street
and it happened in winter, in the bleak, miserable greyness of winter.
Watching the parade lived long in the memory.
But one lucky teenager in 1962 was given the opportunity to take part.
Way back when I was 16, we saw an advert in the local newspaper,
when the circus - Billy Smart's Circus - came to town,
and they were asking for girls to ride the elephants
from the local train station where they arrived to where they were performing.
There was a catch -
you had to be wearing your bathing suit
and it was the middle of winter.
16th December, to be exact.
So my mother decided that I should volunteer.
So we went down to the auditions.
Well, it wasn't really an audition - it was just whoever was brave enough to do it.
And I got picked.
So we had to turn up at the station, and it was freezing!
We all had our coats on but underneath... Oh, and we had to wear high heels as well.
And then the elephants arrived.
It was like, "Oh, my gosh, how are we going to get on top of them?"
So the one that I was stood next to, he just put his leg up like this,
and the man said to me, "Put your leg up."
So I hauled myself up.
He had, like, chains round his neck, so I got hold of the chains,
and just hauled myself up.
And then we set off through the streets.
It must have been well advertised because there was hundreds of people watching and cheering
for the circus.
If you put your animals on the train, they have to walk back from the station to the circus site
and that's the best publicity you could have.
I mean, the girls, we'd have about six to eight girls,
and they'd ride camels
and do elephant riding, looking gorgeous
and all that sort of thing.
It was fantastic. Something that I've obviously never forgotten.
I've loved elephants ever since.
I mean, where are children going to see 20 elephants walk along the street,
amongst tram cars, etc? Which we did.
If a circus parade walked through Oxford Street now,
I think it would be just as mind-blowing as it had been 60 years ago.
But the parade wasn't all about animals.
Taking a lead role would be the clown -
an important figure in every circus.
You could say that the clown was the linchpin of the circus.
He will fill in. He will tell the jokes that keep the audience amused
whilst one act goes off and the other act comes on.
Whilst a lot of the focus of the circus is on exceptional human ability
and consists of performers at their physical peak...
the clown is portrayed as the opposite -
clumsy and silly.
He wears big shoes and, of course, the idea of...
the grotesque parts of the body are enhanced,
so the big shoes and a big nose sort of signifies a fool.
One of the most famous clowns of all time was Latvian-born Coco.
You like that one.
-'Here's Coco to say hello.
'And not being able to raise his hat, does the next best thing.'
But in fact, he wasn't technically a clown at all.
The clown is the white face.
A lot of people think the clown is the guy with the red nose.
The clown is the white-faced clown with a sparkly costume.
Coco was an auguste.
The auguste is usually the one with the red nose,
which people class as the clown.
I think technically it comes from the German word "a fool" - "August."
And he's the red nose - he's the one that gets everything wrong.
Clowns are one of the few circus acts who have become celebrities in their own right.
This may be do with the fact that clowns generally served long residencies in individual circuses,
allowing them to build up a lasting relationship with their audience.
Coco worked for decades for the Bertram Mills Circus.
With the advent of television, Coco became even more popular,
a friendly face with a familiar sense of humour.
In the 1960s, he appeared in a campaign to teach children about road safety.
But whilst TV was kind to the clown, the exposure it brought
was devastating for other acts that relied on the element of surprise.
Once their act had been seen by the massive TV audience,
it lost its novelty and was difficult to repeat.
And this wasn't the only problem that television created for the circus.
As broadcasting came of age,
the choice of programmes on offer increased, and with television
becoming a much bigger draw, live entertainment took a bashing.
The fears of Bertram Mills were proved right. The circus began to lose some of its appeal.
Business did drop off during the television times, of course,
when television got stronger and people were staying at home and not going out to shows.
I mean, we were doing OK but not as good as we would like to have done.
The television was now a rival to the circus
and this spelt disaster for some of Britain's biggest circuses.
One of the first and most dramatic casualties was the Bertram Mills Circus in 1965.
'And now the Rolls-Royce of circuses, the greatest road show of them all,
'has ground to a final halt here at Ascot, and is selling up.
'This is only one tiny part of the vast wardrobe which,
'for 35 years, has gaudily clad the Bertram Mills Travelling Circus.
'They're all coming under the hammer here at the Bertram Mills Winter Quarters at Ascot.
'The Big Top, the really Big Pop, just doesn't pay any more.'
'The tented towns are disappearing,
'forced out of business by the sheer economics of the 1960s.'
So, ironically, the Bertram Mills Circus,
which had refused to be televised, was one of the first victims.
His son had to suffer the indignity of a public auction.
Mr Mills, you're one of the joint managing directors of Bertram Mills Circus,
and how do you personally feel about the end of the travelling circus, your own travelling circus?
Well, having been at it for about 35 years,
naturally, I'm sad that it's over.
Does this mean the death of all travelling circuses, do you think?
Good heavens, no. Why should it?
Well, if it was very costly and uneconomic for you to run,
why should anybody else be able to do it?
Maybe other people are cleverer than we are. I hope they are because I don't want to see it die.
They weren't alone.
Sanger's Circus closed in 1962
and within a couple of years, another of the circus giants,
Chipperfield's, emigrated to South Africa.
# And away went my very last day as a child
# The day that the circus
# Left town... #
Even Billy Smart's parked up their caravans
and gave up regular touring in 1971.
The overheads, you know,
cost so much money to move from town to town.
It was a sad time, actually.
It looked as if circus might be over for good.
But all was not lost and the departure of the big circuses actually opened up
new opportunities for smaller circuses to get a foothold.
The spirit of Bertram Mills would live on, thanks to a young outsider
who, like so many before him, had fallen in love with the circus.
The first circus I saw was Bertram Mills' circus in Olympia.
And... I just don't know - from that day I just wanted
to be the boss, and that was it.
And I never really wanted to be the world's greatest juggler
or flying trapeze act or an animal trainer. I just knew I wanted to be the boss.
At the age of 15, Gerry Cottle ran away from home,
and after a few years of working for other people,
achieved his ambition and started his own circus in 1970.
He went into business with his friend, Brian Austin,
but in order to make it work, they would have to do things very differently.
-'They're an odd pair to be in partnership.
'Gerry Cottle is the outfit's tycoon. An ex-grammar schoolboy, the son of a stockbroker,
'he is the business manager, the public relations department,
'the publicity and advertising division.'
-I'll put it in the corner.
-Tell everybody about it, won't you?
-I will do.
-It's a very good show.
You'll enjoy it.
'We took a show out.
'We had an old tent that we bought in Ireland.
'We had a limited budget.
'We didn't have any facilities.'
They were determined to make a go of it.
'There's still a lot of heavy work before the show can be put on.
'Seats to be carried in and put up, cables to lay, lights to fix,
'the amplifier to rig, the props to check, the generator to service,
'a trailer wheel to change and diesel oil to fetch.'
It was very hard work.
Yeah, it was difficult, but I just think we just did it.
We had to do it, and we went out...
Circuses traditionally never started till Easter,
but we needed the money, we needed the turnover, not always a profit,
so we'd start late February, half-term in February.
The weather was terrible. I've got pictures of us knee-deep in snow!
Tent about to collapse. We didn't think of anything else. It's what we wanted to do.
Life on the road for a small circus was tough.
Unlike the big circuses that had come before,
they did everything themselves to make ends meet.
It was relentless work.
When we did the one-day stands in the early days,
you'd get up about five o'clock, drive to the next town, you'd put the tent up.
You'd get ready for letting people in the door,
selling tickets or starting the generator.
In-between, you'd practise if you wanted to practise.
Are you ready?
And then you'd do the shows at five o'clock.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
and welcome to the circus.
It's on with the show. Here come the clowns!
Keeping the string in the magic bag...and they come out Tide!
I'd better get off.
Ta-ta, boys and girls.
Ooh, I say!
Even after the show, there wasn't any rest.
-What've you done with that bulb, Brian?
-It's over the back there.
Everything had to be packed up before bed,
ready to move on again in the morning.
It was non non-stop. I must've been a terrible husband because I just worked,
you know, I wasn't really a great father in that respect.
Hello. Ooh! Good morning.
For small circuses, moving around from site to site
on a daily basis, living conditions were fairly basic.
There's no electric on all day.
You have to run generators for that, and there wasn't the silent generators like there is now.
There wasn't washing machines.
Every town you're in is different. You've then got to find the shops or the supermarket.
Another crucial aspect of life on the road
was ensuring the children were able to get an education.
If you were born into the circus, life was anything but ordinary.
Typical day would be the circus would move in the morning,
so we'd get up at six o'clock, drive through to the next town,
probably only moving 15 or 20 miles,
we'd arrive in the town and my mum's first job was to find the local school.
You arrive in Coventry on a Sunday night,
you've got to find a new school at 8.30 in the morning on Monday morning in a city like Coventry,
and there is some kind of help for it, but it's not easy.
And I actually went to some 350 different primary schools!
Schooling often had to be fitted in wherever it could.
They're usually very hard workers, circus kids. They're used to kind of erratic hours.
And in-between performing and schoolwork, there was practising.
Mum would pick me up at three o'clock,
then it would be straight back, I had a sandwich and a glass of milk,
and then I'd have to get changed into my clown clothes,
and we'd have shows at five o'clock, I'd do the five o'clock show, the 7.30 show.
-'Invariably, children born on the road have the wanderlust in their blood,
'and stay in the circus game all their lives.'
Children often follow their parents into the same act.
When you're born into clown aristocracy,
the boots are very big to fill.
My father was Charlie Cairoli, Carletto, as he was known in France.
My mother was Violet Fratellini from the Fratellini clowns.
Charlie was born in Milan to a travelling circus family of French origin.
He began his performing career at the age of seven.
He went on to become an international star.
In due course, his son, Charlie Junior, joined him in his act.
I did laugh with my father.
I had nine years with him
where I started off as a stooge
and ended up doing the white face, and I laughed.
He would do things like...
His noses were made out of putty, and he used to varnish them and redden them every day.
Some days, he would get a dead fly, cos there was animals there, and stick it on his nose.
Then he'd walk in the ring, nobody could see it, but when you're working very close to somebody,
he'd be going, "Ph, ph, ph!" Like that.
All you wanted to do was pull this fly off!
Oh, I got the other one now!
He just did joke after joke after joke.
Charlie Cairoli had a long-reaching career
and performed every summer season at Blackpool Tower Circus for 40 years.
Many circus performers lead much more transitory lives.
Acts from all over the world come together for maybe just one season, and then go their separate ways.
But for the time they are together, circus life is all-encompassing and international.
'You can have this extraordinary sense'
of an extended family and a small supportive network,
and it's great, and really good fun,
and very sweet to see lots of different nationalities
and people who might, you know, be culturally, politically
opposed to each other just all getting on and having a nice time.
You just think, "Why can't the world be like a circus? Just get on!"
Circus people are a distinct community.
Over the years, they've even developed their own means of communication.
We have a proper language, a circus language.
I can speak to my kids in front of you
and you haven't got a clue what we're talking about.
So, you know, you have this own language,
which is a mixture of Italian, a mixture of Latin.
Romany, a bit of Romany in it, I don't know why.
A lot of kind of Army slang.
For instance, you would call dogs buffers.
Mangiare is food.
Kind of nanti parlari, don't talk to that person there.
The ground where the circus sets up on is called the tober.
Dinari is money.
Women are mozzies.
These jags are the Noah's Ark, which means that person's a miserable sod.
I could go on and on.
There is a complete glossary of circus terms, which only circus people would know.
If you had an outsider, they used to go, "He's a josser."
A lot of times, the jossers had to prove themselves more.
If you were from a circus family, you were accepted. "He'll be all right."
If you were a josser, you had to really prove yourself, and it was hard.
Yet it was often the jossers, or outsiders,
who would come in and turned around the fortunes of the circus.
Whether Bertram Mills or Billy Smart, and now,
Gerry Cottle too was reaping the benefits of all of his hard work.
The Big Top was paying again.
Those children who had grown up in the golden age of circus in the '50s and '60s
were now eager to take their own children along to share the experience they'd had.
A whole new generation were experiencing the thrill of the circus.
But proprietors like Phillip Gandey tried not to repeat the mistakes of the past
by keeping the circus on a manageable scale.
'We actually made a conscious decision never to buy wild animals.'
We didn't want to be stuck with very expensive animals that we couldn't move on, or wouldn't want to move on,
because they come part of the family, so we hired them in and because the bigger circuses had closed,
we were able to hire Billy Smart's elephants, we hired Mary Chipperfield's lions and tigers,
so we didn't have to have that expenditure, which enabled us to buy property and invest in other things.
Success bred competition, and circus owners found creative ways to make sure they gained the upper hand.
Oh, the rivalry was...quite nasty, really, but good fun.
I don't mind that at all.
We had absolute what we called billing wars,
taking each other's posters down and all that nonsense.
I remember another time, my nephew...
We were having trouble with this other circus.
They'd had a day off and they came over to us
and Bo took them out drinking and got them completely paralytic.
He got them arrested and the next day, they missed the show!
The police didn't let them go till mid afternoon. They had a long way to go back.
But those things don't happen very often, but they do make it fun, but it was quite nasty.
In the coming years, Gerry and the other showmen
came up against a problem that was not so easy to deal with.
The debate about performing animals that had little impact back in the 1920s would resurface.
Reacting to mounting public opinion, some local authorities
stopped allowing performing animals on their land.
Animal circuses did survive, but this unofficial ban began to spread.
One by one, all the major circus sites in the centre of the towns were being closed to us
because the local authority would pass a ban saying no performing animals,
so gradually, the big animal circuses were being forced out of the towns,
onto sites which probably weren't as lucrative, weren't as visual,
they just weren't as good for business, and I think people's taste was changing as well.
An official ban on wild animal acts finally surfaced in 2011.
As much as I loved seeing bears on bicycles,
it's not what bears are designed to do.
In the '80s and '90s, the traditional circus in Britain was suffering.
It had become uneconomical yet again.
Being the entrepreneurs they are, circus showmen looked for new opportunities elsewhere.
Times were pretty tough, and I was quite adventurous. We went off to the Middle East, Bahrain and Oman,
then a bit later we went off to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.
Phillip Gandey also looked for untapped markets.
We identified that where we wanted to be was where there weren't circuses,
so we looked at the Middle East, which didn't have a tradition of circuses,
but had this culture, which was becoming westernised,
and we had a huge contract for the royal family in Saudi Arabia
and we took not one but two circuses simultaneously to Saudi Arabia.
We took a 4,000-seat Big Top in one city for one prince,
and a 2,000-seat Big Top in another city for the second prince.
Whilst the classic circus still appealed to international audiences,
the British had grown disenchanted with it.
But in 1990, audiences in the UK were treated to something altogether different.
I'd never seen anything like it.
It was men wearing leather jackets
and basically having huge chainsaws, dropping down on steel wires.
Archaos was created in France by Pierrot Bidon.
He took the circus and reimagined it for the modern era.
Archaos was dangerous, very dangerous.
But in this new world, it was the chainsaw
and not the lion that would strike fear into the audience.
-'The globe of death billed as one of the most dangerous acts in the circus world.
'Two motorcyclists pass within inches of each other at 60mph.
'The last time it was performed in Britain, a man died.'
This edgy, all-human circus embodied the idea of a circus
where physical ability was pushed to the extreme.
It appealed to a new audience of young adults.
Archaos toured throughout the UK,
culminating in a sell-out residence on Clapham Common for 12 weeks.
It was chaotic, it was mad, amazing.
Archaos had succeeded in transforming circus into a new kind of spectacle.
But it wasn't until 1996 that, thanks to the arrival of another foreign production,
this modern version of circus would itself be refashioned for a mainstream audience.
State-funded Canadian circus Cirque du Soleil had a distinctive
artistic approach, which combines street entertainment with traditional acrobatics.
They came to the Royal Albert Hall in London,
and that's when people started to take notice of contemporary circus.
The fact that this circus appeared in the Albert Hall
gave it a theatrical stamp and put it on a par with the other arts,
raising the status of circus in many people's eyes.
People who would not go to a tent to see a traditional circus,
suddenly there was Cirque du Soleil, and it was everywhere.
This was performance theatre and an unashamedly grown-up experience.
All the papers, all the colour supplements had massive picture spreads on them.
Cirque du Soleil has been phenomenally successful, expanding rapidly.
They have now performed across the globe to an estimated audience of close to 100 million people.
Cirque du Soleil have had a massive hand in creating a global circus
that everybody finds very enthralling.
And that was almost the start of a huge explosion in interest in circus.
Circus is riding the crest of a new wave.
In a world of computer-generated images,
it seems the thrill of watching what real human beings are really capable of achieving is stronger than ever,
and its impact is being felt right across the arts.
You see circus absolutely everywhere.
I don't think there is a performing art now, which doesn't have circus art,
be it ballet or be it rock concerts.
The demand for circus performers is at an all-time high.
# Everybody let go, we can make a dancefloor just like a circus. #
There were two big pop tours out recently,
Take That and Britney Spears.
Both called Circus, both with a huge amount of circus artists.
# Just like a circus, don't stand there watching me
# Follow me show me what you can do. #
Alongside this corporate entertainment market,
there's even room for the emergence of local small-scale heritage circuses,
like the one run by Nell Gifford.
Once again, a new circus is the brainchild of an outsider, a josser.
Oxford graduate Gifford, who first ran away to join the circus at 18.
Just like the creation of Astley's first circus back in 1768,
it's her passion for horses that started the whole thing off.
The whole kind of notion of horses in theatre, I just find it really, really interesting.
A horse's presence, it really creates a sort of sense of occasion,
like a sense of adventure.
It's probably exactly what a small family circus in the 1930s was like.
Heritage circus tapped straight into a deep-rooted nostalgia
for our rural past, and for communal experience.
I think that the excitement of the circus arriving in a village is completely undiminished.
I mean, still now, you get people who'll come out and have picnics
and watch us putting the tent up and watch us taking the tent down,
or like children standing on doorsteps watching the circus wagons arriving.
It's genuinely exciting.
The success of Gifford's brings the story full circle.
It proves that people are just as keen as ever to traipse over muddy fields to see the circus.
The circus has got an incredible future.
It's part of a whole enthusiasm and appetite for exciting live stuff,
and I think that the more sort of digital our experience of the world is,
then the more that that live experience will also be sought after by the public.
Circus has managed to fight off every threat that has come its way,
from the music hall to the television and the digital age.
Incredibly, it has survived to leave its magical mark on all our imaginations.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Roll up! Roll up! Join Timeshift under the big top for unique access to the University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive which tells the story of the circus. From Billy Smart to Gerry Cottle and Archaos to Cirque du Soleil, the documentary captures the appeal of this enduring mass entertainment. Find out what a josser is, discover why clowns are one of the few acts to achieve lasting celebrity and marvel at the sheer spectacle of some of the biggest circuses of all time.
In an age when almost every form of popular entertainment owes something to the circus, this is a nostalgic journey into the origins of one of the ultimate expressions of human athleticism and showmanship.