The circus is going to town

Rumours of the big top's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Ever since 1770, when the young Cavalry officer Philip Astley discovered he could balance on his cantering horse with one foot on the saddle and the other on the beast's head (while brandishing a sword), people have been paying to see circuses. Bertram Mills, who made a fortune from this proclivity in the general public, once said: "It takes four adults to take a child to the circus," astutely exploding the myth that circuses are children's entertainment. The glamour, danger and tawdriness in circuses has inspired artists from Picasso to Fellini, from Angela Carter to Wim Wenders and lured scores of teenagers from drab suburbia.

Captain Jacon Crowninshield from Salem, Massachusetts, was the first impresario to use an elephant as a crowd-puller back in 1796, when touring menageries were considered a more salubrious attraction for respectable folk than the jugglers, clowns, tightrope-walkers and trick riders who usually accompanied them. In the late 20th century, this trend reversed when the animal rights lobby began to frown upon the use of performing animals. Traditional circus fell into decline, and a new circus movement grew up in its place, inspired by the anarchic, radical French circus Archaos, which concentrated on traditional skills but without the use of animals, and used a visual language which referred to the modern urban tradition rather than the pomp and glitz of the big top.

The new circus is so successful in recapturing the collective imagination that the traditional red-coated, top-hatted ringmaster is a rare sight these days. In the words of Chris Barltrop, one of this dying breed who has worked with Hoffman's and Gerry Cottle and is currently with the Moscow State Circus: "Circus people aren't just going to get jobs in factories, so they're changing to survive."

Gerry Cottle, who describes himself as "the original teenage runaway", is another survivor. He ran away from school - "the same school that John Major attended," he boasts, to join the circus at the age of 15. He had a juggling act and learnt to do trick riding, and in 1970, he and his wife bought a tent for pounds 60, joined forces with Brian Austen and his wife and formed the Austen Cottle Circus. Within four years, they were able to split from what became the Austen Brothers to form Gerry Cottle's Circus, which was as successful as Bertram Mills, Billy Smart and the Chipperfield family in previous decades.

By 1991, however, Cottle had to concede that people didn't want to see animals, or at least, local councils didn't want people to see animals. "It breaks my heart," he confides, thinking of his beloved horses and the exotic animals he had to sell. "They won't even allow me a performing duck! But you've got to face it - people don't want the old kind of circus any more," he says.

This year, in a spirit of "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," he has invited Archaos's Pierrot and Bidon to direct a new show - Haze's Circus of Horrors.

The success of acts like Jim Rose's Circus Sideshow and the Tokyo Shock Boys proves that the great British public's squeamishness does not apply to cruelty to humans. Admitted, freak shows have gone out of fashion since the 19th century, when Fineas Taylor Barnum's American Museum exhibited 25-inch tall Tom Thumb, Anna Swan, the 7ft 11in giantess from Nova Scotia and the original "Siamese" twins, Chang and Eng. But you don't get groups of protestors picketing acts like Jim Rose hammering 6in nails up his nose, though some misguided grungies did picket the Cottle Sisters at Glastonbury this year.

In fact, this theatrical cruelty is what sells tickets. Pierrot Bidon has put his inimitable stamp on a show whose theme is blood and gore - the Tanzanian Voodoo King makes his troupe limbo dance under burning poles and running chain-saws, the Human Impaler puts pins and small daggers through the flesh of his lips and mouth and asks members of the audience to remove them and the guy with the wooden leg who works on box office has been roped in to have his leg ritually sawn off by a chainsaw-wielding spook. The kiddies love it.

"The future of circus is in the past," says Bidon. "In the last century, traditional circus would have a theme, like Cleopatra or the Wild West. We are doing the same thing but with a theme of horror. We have vampires and Dracula and Frankenstein, and we refer to B movies, but at the heart, we use the Cottle family tricks."

Bidon the iconoclast has enjoyed an affectionate 10-year banter with Cottle the traditionalist and their collaboration encapsulates the present climate of co-operation and exchange between the camps.Bidon's own work with Archaos is taking a dramatically different direction, described by the publicist Mark Borkowski as "a rock 'n' roll homage to Peter Stein," a vast scale, hi-tech, multi-media parable about the destructive impact of satellite TV and the global technologies on our lives.

Bidon is working on what he calls the Circus of Old People, a bringing together of the old acts with young practitioners who ensure the skills are passed on. The enormous popularity of the traditional but non-animal- based shows of the Moscow State Circus and the Chinese State Circus proves that audiences are as hungry as ever for death-defying feats of daring, while the increasing numbers of young people applying for the B-tech in circus skills run by Circus Space in London testifies to a growing breed of new alternative performers.

The more traditional routes to a life in the circus are still open for the intrepid. Gerry Cottle claims he'll give a job to anybody who dares to ask. "I want the circus to be romantic again, I don't just want it to be a commercial entertainment," he says.

Haze's Circus of Horrors, Brighton Racecourse to 3 December, then The Parade, Crystal Palace 21 December to 7 January. 0836 222232. Moscow State Circus, Wembley to 3 December then on tour March to November 01604 787777. Chinese State Circus, Roundhouse from 20 December 0171 482 7318. Circus Space Cabaret, Saturdays 0171 613 4141.

Freaky or what?

It was Phineas T Barnum (1810-91), creator of "The Greatest Show on Earth", who put the "freak" firmly in the centre of the big top, whether genuine, like the Siamese twins Eng and Chang, or fake, like the dried monkey with a fish's tail that he passed off as a mermaid. Barnum's most popular attraction was General Tom Thumb (born Charles Stratton), a 25in midget so famous that, when he toured England, Queen Victoria received him. Recently, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and Tokyo Shock Boys have reinvented the freak show for the late 20th century.

Nellie, go home

The days when Willy Hagenback mastered 70 polar bears, or "Captain" Alfred Schneider tamed 40 lions at a time, have long since gone. Many local authorities now refuse to sanction shows that feature performing animals. Not everyone is pleased about this. "Pure circus is dead," Gerry Cottle said when he sold up in 1993. "The animal rights people have won. They have thrown so much mud that some of it has stuck." Circus folk, however, are nothing if not adaptable. Out of the animal ban has come a new circus style that is grittily urban and frequently disturbing.

Sawdust and tinsel

Cinema and circus go hand in hand like a trapeze-artist and his trapeze, as Tony Curtis (left) shows in the film of the same name. Two genuinely mass entertainments, both revel in illusion, both combine glamour and tackiness in equal measure. Elsewhere in the arts, the big top has worked its magic on figures as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky, Robertson Davies and Angela Carter, George Balanchine and Mickey (Hey! Hey! We're the Monkees) Dolenz. Not so very different from the home life of our own dear PM.