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Monday, 21 July 2014

Don't Turn Your Back on the Sawdust Ring

 Circus Mania” is a much needed dispassionately written book on the British circus scene. In order for this institution to survive, thrive and regain mainstream respectability in the media it needs journalistic appraisal, insight and critique.  The author, theatrical journalist Douglas McPherson, explains in his introduction that he had only a “fragmentary” memory of his time watching the circus as a child. After that he had no connection with the circus whatsoever, admitting to the common middle-class prejudice of believing that circuses were bygone vestiges of animal abuse. Therefore, when “The Stage” newspaper asked him to review The Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus’s 100th anniversary show, he came to the current British circus scene with fresh eyes. It was here where he met and interviewed the lovely Eva Garcia who would fall to her death at the very beginning of her cloud swing act just one day after his review was published. His experience at the show and meeting those who worked there inspired him to further investigate the British circus scene. McPherson had noticed that beside the behemoth institution that is Cirque du Soleil, it was rare for the performing arts world to take any notice of this very British showbusiness institution outside of the negative publicity targeted at animal circuses by their protesters.

McPherson’s book combines historical research on circus with interviews with circus owners and artists as well as his own reviews of their shows. Each chapter centres on one particular show or institution, covering the aforementioned Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus, The Great British Circus, Circus Mondeo, Circ Panic, The Circus of Horrors, The Circus Space circus school, Zippos Circus and the TV show “The Big Top”, Circus Hilarious, The Chinese State Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque de Glace, the recollections of George Pinder Snr and Gerry Cottle’s Wookie Hole circus school. The narrative running through the book links the chapters smoothly, taking the reader on a journey through McPherson’s own education in circus history and culture. His own life comes into play, but only with regards to the way he and his wife reacted to the various shows. The writing never strays from its focus, and McPherson compares and contrasts styles of circus he has seen whilst reflecting on circus history.

Unlike the author, I certainly don’t come to this sort of material with fresh eyes. My earliest recollections are living in a wagon with the smells of diesel, sawdust, candy floss and animals taking turns in my infantile nostrils. My mother comes from an unbroken three centuries old circus family. My family were performing circus acts a century before the modern circus ring was created. My father ran away to join the circus, and my parents set up their own circus for six years. So, as you can imagine, I know most of the people McPherson interviews and reviews. It is always interesting to hear from an outsider’s perspective and to find out new things about people you have known all your life. I also discovered new pieces of information on circus history, particularly its early days in Britain.

McPherson’s reviewing style is very fair in most respects. Grasping how wildly different circus has become, everything is kept in context, accounting for budgets and target audience. He is not afraid to call the world’s largest and most successful Cirque du Soleil on its pretentiousness and the pretentiousness of many other “new circus” or “cirque” outfits, such as the immersive NoFit State Circus. Yet he shows a complete understanding of its artistic bent praises its strong points and how these points shown to be truly innovative in the circus/ice skating hybrid that is Cirque de Glace. His interviewees are candid in their criticism of the old and the new in the circus world. 

The book has its errors. . For example, the real name for the Paulo family is Butcher and not Thompson.  Given the tangled web of circus families and apocryphal tales, I am very surprised he got away with so few. He was lucky that one of his interviewees was George Pinder, a member of the circus world who is passionate about his own circus family history and I was delighted to see an entire chapter dedicated to him.

I am curious about his distinction between circus palari and theatrical/gay polari. Palari is the slang of circus people with related equivalents in the showman (fairground) and gypsy cultures. It was always my understanding that the slang was brought into the theatres by circus people and then adopted by the then illegal gay community as a code language. Although noticing similarities between the two, McPherson contends they are two separate slang languages.

I also found that although, on the whole, I agreed with the author’s opinion on circus, he didn’t completely shake off animal rights influence. He didn’t like the way horses bow in circus acts, which is actually a very commonplace behaviour that runs across horse training outside of circus. In the same chapter he criticized the elephant pyramid, arguing that such a trick need not be performed, as the presence of the elephants was enough. Neither trick is a cruel behaviour. Elephants have been recently pictured in the wild standing on their hind legs to access high branches and the positioning is very similar to mating. If it is an exploitation argument then we are really into a deep philosophical question outside of animal welfare and in the murky realm of animal rights. If a trick isn’t proven to be harmful to an animal under scientific conditions then why should it be pulled? This is a debate for another day, but I am interested to see it being present in McPherson’s opinion when he shows a lot of self-awareness regarding the middle class seduction by animal rights ideals.

Sadly Gifford’s Circus is missing from the book. They would have fitted perfectly into the mix, representing perhaps the newest face of circus, something referred to as “Heritage Circus”. I would have loved to have heard the author’s view on this particular brand of circus, which turns its eye back to traditional circus with a theatrical eye and fresh imaginative perspective. Maybe, if this book receives the response it deserves, the author will consider writing a further review on their circus and their respective clientèle.

The author and his publisher clearly couldn’t resist going with the traditional circus archetype in its design and it is wonderfully creative. When it comes to books, I am an anti-minimalist and circus rarely fits into a modernist art mode. Circus is always big, glitzy, loud and varied. This is reflected well in Nick Pearson’s design work and Douglas McPherson’s vision for the overall presentation. True to his personal persuasions, there is nothing stuffy about the way the book is put together.  The fonts to the chapters and front cover are of the typical clichéd circus poster style. The front cover displays an image from the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome Circus with a curious very small insert of “Doc” (John) Haze at the bottom and the back has an image from the Circus of Horrors. This is a very clear intended juxtaposition of the different styles of British circus. The beginning of the book is set out like a traditional circus programme with the contents page titled as “The Programme”. McPherson is cast as “Your Ringmaster” and the index of names at the back are headed “The Cast”. Each chapter has a small introduction line to explain the subject matter and presented as a sales blurb. It made it all feel very episodic and kept my interest even when I was tired or not reading in the best of conditions.

The world of circus needs books like “Circus Mania”. I would say it is the most important insight into British circus since Nell Stroud’s “Josser”. Nell, who is now co-owner of Gifford’s Circus, touched upon the problems with modern circus journalism, which was often either shamelessly partisan or written from the views of those with a personal agenda against traditional circus. However, Nell’s beautiful book only provided a view from an outsider living on British shows. McPherson’s work, written over a decade later, compliments this with the other side.  He is the much needed objective, academic reviewer that can bring the world of circus outside of “Cirque” and “New Circus” to a wider audience again.

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