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Thursday, 22 June 2017

Memories of Clacton

My memories of Clacton in 1982 are a hazy mixture of imagination, Spider-Man, Superman and Batman costumes, the smell of jacket potatos mixed with the salty air, a huge amount of freedom that would shock today's helicoptor parents, a videogame arcade, fairground rides, Dracula ice lollies, adventures around a caravan site, losing at least one milk tooth and many, many other things that concern a five year old turning six. I was a circus kid and our circus had stopped touring.

Around me raged drama, anxiety, laughter, conflict and all the trappings of the great traditional circus in its last valiant death throes; spectucular live performances juxtaposed against a world set for change but not quite there yet. My father's dreams and my mother's nostalgia.

We were working in buidings now, like our cultural ancestors in the Victorian era. Back then temporary circus buildings were replaced by permanent structures like the Hippodrome in anticipation of ever-growing circuses. Now we had swapped in our canvas to work in ice rinks, theatres and pavillion buildings. We arrived just two years into the pier being bought by a consortium of businessmen who sought to bring back the dolpinarium and renovate the old Jolly Roger building. Apparently this would be the last performance given at the building. Now,  in 2017, the old structure is about to host a circus again.

My father recently discussed our time at Clacton. Here are his words:

We were approached by the owners of Clacton Pier, who I think at that time were a consortium of four people – Francis (Franie) McGinty, John Treadwell, Denis McGinty and David Howe. We worked in a building at the end of the pier called The Jolly Roger. It was completely open-span inside with a reasonable height, but in very poor condition. We arranged to clad the outside of the building with specially made red and white plastic wallings,. Tom Fossett (Professor Grimble) was our company manager at that time and also headed the advance team at Clacton. He arranged the refurbishment of the building. We installed the seating from the tenting show and used our own coconut mat for the ring surface. This mat was my own design with liberty horse imprinted in the centre. We seated about 800 people when completely full. We gave 3 x 1 hour performances during the day and 1 x 2 hour performance at 7:30. The daily shows were included in the admission charge to the pier, but they charged an addition fee for the evening show.

That year they had a brand new rollercoaster installed on the right hand side, as you entered the pier, which was a big attraction. They also had 2 x killer whales, sea lions, penguins etc. in what was the old swimming pool. They gave performances with the sea lions and killer whales throughout the day as well. Most of the attractions were at the front of the pier and sometimes it was difficult to get the crowds to the end to see the circus. They asked me if we could have an outside attraction, working periodically before each show to draw the crowds down there.

We arranged for a Swedish fakir, Mr Swing, to work on the stage that had been erected at the front of the circus. He definitely attracted the crowds. He would start off doing a straightforward fire-eating act, which wasn’t very successful due to the wind. He then went on to walk on broken glass, which was an improvement. This was followed by the real fakir act, sticking daggers through his arms, legs and face. The people in the audience used to feint. It was definitely a great attraction and succeeded in getting people into the circus. He regularly had accidents and often had blood poisoning. We had an American ringmaster, Jim Royal, who I brought over especially for Clacton. He had worked in American carnivals and was great at spieling on the front. He made a big point in telling the gathered crowds that Mr Swing had an accident at one show and was taken to the local hospital.

We had a very strong show that year with plenty of animals. Lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, black panthers, pumas – three cage acts in total that alternated throughout the day. We also had our elephant, Arab liberty horses, Shetland ponies, exotic act with camel, llamas, zebras and cattle, and a dog/monkey act presented by Sally. We also had Gina Giovani, which was an outstanding hand-balancing act, and then she then did a low-wire act with her sister. There was a hair hanging act, Irma Tabak, and her family did a Russian bar act, which was in the Guinness Book of Records. We had a Romanian perch-pole act, which was world class. Professor Grimble did one long entrée and his son, Tom Tom, did a juggling act. Jimmy Scott did the clown run-ins. We had a four-piece band and Jim Royal was our singing ringmaster.

When I think of it, I don’t know how we did it all. We took the animal wagons down the pier and I remember the floorboards creaking. Keeping the animals at the end of the pier was extremely difficult and unthinkable today. All the artists lived at a caravan site out of town, and commuted in. The animal grooms and Jimmy Scott lived at the end of the pier. On a rough evening the waves used to come over the top of the building and through the floorboards. I can remember waiting to go in with the elephant and almost got soaked.  That part was quite an experience that I don’t think I would want to go through again. We did negotiate to go back the following year with a smaller show, but it didn’t happen. In hindsight the evening show was a waste of time and the hour shows were too long, even though they were all different. We should have just done 45 minute shows, 3 or 4 times during the day. Nevertheless, given the programme and production, we really gave good value for money.

Some related links

My reminiscences of Clacton lead me to think of the forgotten British superhero "The Leopard from Lime Street"

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Douglas McPherson said...

And now there's a circus on the pier again, albeit without the animals. Thanks for posting this description of what it was like back in the day. Must have been like Noah's Ark to have all the animals back there with the waves coming over! Are there any pics you could post.

Jamie Clubb said...

Hi Douglas, Yes, there is a link at the bottom of the post to a Flickr site with pictures from Clacton. I also have a few private pictures that were sent to us a year or so ago.

Steve Jacks said...

Really interesting read

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks, Steve. I am glad you enjoyed it.