The silent types: Le Cirque Invisible never do interviews. Here they grant an audience, but not an interview, to Emily Green

Le Cirque Invisible is every publicist's nightmare. The founders of the tiny family circus, Jean-Baptiste Thierree and Victoria Chaplin, have been invited for a month-long run to mark the re-opening this week of Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London. But in two decades of performing, Thierree and Chaplin have always refused to give interviews. Until they accepted my invitation to cook them dinner.

'Garbo speaks]' shrieked Le Cirque's producer at the news, 'to a restaurant critic]' I must confess: I, too, found this 'exclusive' an unlikely honour. Thierree and Chaplin are not the types to swap intimate stories for a spot of publicity. Even when Sir Richard Attenborough himself requested their help with the Chaplin film, they gently declined.

One might expect Victoria Chaplin to guard her privacy. She was born in the spotlight, grand- daughter of the Irish American playwright Eugene O'Neill and daughter of Charlie Chaplin. The ever-fading trace of an American accent in her voice carbon dates her family's flight from the US during the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Yet it is Thierree, the prickly French intellectual, who began as a film actor for Resnais, who says he cannot see the point of an interview. He will, however, write for newspapers. I first spoke to them six years ago, when commissioning a series of small articles from Thierree for the Independent. He sent back pixillated little pieces, usually with a cartoon. In my favourite, he marvelled at how the waitresses in a Covent Garden restaurant changed with every shift, speculating that they were kidnapped. And he could not help but wonder at the 'disturbing leaf of mint' always left on his puddings.

When I first caught sight of them, they were changing in a draughty corridor after a performance at Riverside. This seemed mean of the management until I noticed the couple had given over their dressing-room to their rabbits and ducks.

Over our meal they give nothing away, confining their conversation to the said small animals. I can reveal, however, that Thierree is obsessed with a woman called Poilaire, a beautiful half-caste French music-hall artist of days gone by: he seems to travel with a scrap-book full of postcards and clippings devoted to her, some of which he has hand-tinted.

There is probably also a scrap- book in his attic devoted to the great English clown, Joseph Grimaldi. At least this is the theory of David Gothard, the founder of Riverside Studios, who originally brought Le Cirque to Britain. Gothard suspects that Thierree has captured his comic spirit in his 'singing knees' routine. In it, Thierree appears in a padded suit with puppet faces sewn into the knees and chest, which he manipulates so each face sings the various parts of Bizet's Kingfisher. It is as simple as it is funny.

Some who saw the Cirque as children and who are now taking their own children might wonder when the troupe's name changed from Le Cirque Imaginaire to Le Cirque Invisible. This, too, I can answer exclusively: on a tour through Italy they played to full houses until, up north, they arrived to an empty house (the dates had been muddled). Jean Baptiste fashioned a sign to the effect that the Cirque Invisible would play to the Audience Invisible . . .

On stage, husband and wife have visibly different styles. She is true Chaplin beauty with very long black hair and very large blue eyes. Her graceful acrobatics are a complete contrast to the ribald routines of her frizzy-haired, bulging-eyed clown of a husband. It turns out they devise the sketches separately, then sew them together as a series of vignettes.

Ah, exclusive interviews usually require a quote. Mine came after supper. Thierree, who speaks almost no English, said, 'Thank you.'

Le Cirque Invisible: 16 Sept-16 Oct, Tues-Sun, Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London W6 (081-741 2255).

(Photograph omitted)