5 days in the life of ... Gerry Cottle

The lions and tigers might have gone, but a circus boss's life is never dull
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Indy Lifestyle Online
MONDAY: Every week is different, but this morning I was helping to supervise at the Moscow State Circus at Barking Park in east London. A big group of 50 Russians has only just arrived. When you put a tent up, 30-odd people all get involved somewhere. It's very, very big and seats nearly 2,000, with the latest state-of-the-art middle poles. I'm not very old - 53 - but I made a vow when I was 45 that I wouldn't be putting up tents for the rest of my life. Everybody thinks circus bosses don't do that.

I ran Gerry Cottle's circus until 1992, but found it was getting more and more difficult. We still had the lions and tigers and I got fed up with the anti-animal rent-a-mob spitting at us. I franchised it out and thought I'd try a travelling theme park, but I didn't like the people it attracted. So I said to my girls - Sarah, 28, April, 25, and Polly, 21 - "I'm giving this up", and they set up Cottle Sisters Circus.

TUESDAY: Back at home at my farm near Chertsey, with my wife of 30 years, Betty. She comes from a real old English circus family, the Fossetts, and wherever you arrive in the world there's always a relative. There's three of us work in the office, and Anne, my assistant, has been with us for 15 years; she's marvellous. Everybody thinks that Gerry Cottle's is an old family circus, but my father was a stockbroker.

The Bertram Mills circus at Olympia used to be a 6,000-seater for six weeks over Christmas, and my father used to bring back these marvellous leaflets. I saw them and said, "I'm going to be a circus boss". My parents took me when I was eight, and the next day I got my mates together and we formed our own circus. As a kid, I helped at Chessington Zoo in the school holidays, and went and saw Billy Smart's. When I was 16, I ran away from school and went to join the circus.

WEDNESDAY: This week's a funny week. I was at the farm again, looking over the tent for the Circus of Horrors. We've had it for two-and-a-half years, and it's rock 'n' roll, very radical, with a little bit of nudity; it's the only circus in the world not for kids, with an age limit of 14. Last year we spent four months with it in South America, and this winter it's been in Camden at The Roundhouse. Now we're making it all fit back in a bigger tent, which we're getting ready for opening on 1 May at Brighton.

THURSDAY: In Chiswick, setting up the publicity for the Moscow State Circus. The Easter dates are so important, and it's a fabulous position, a prime site right in the middle of Chiswick High Street. The council was so worried about upsetting the neighbours that they sent an environmental health officer round, asking, "Do you think you could try and make the audience not clap so loudly?".

I do miss having the animals: I've always liked the horses. You used to have 24 of them, beautifully groomed, with feathers on their backs. Now, everything is celebrities, but in those days, everyone in London used to go to the circus. It was big business.

FRIDAY: It's the beginning of the year and I'm exceptionally busy. I've never had a week like it. I don't like working where I have to be in six places at once, but when they're all rolling it won't be a problem - and I don't have to be there when it's muddy and raining.

I go and see 50 different circuses a year, and still enjoy it. They have a tremendous atmosphere. I'm not a circus fanatic - and there are some really crap ones, little family shows where the kids haven't got any talent. Some of them think it's their birthright. My daughters are all good performers and we have worked hard as a family. Circus is starting to take off again - this year I have got alternative cabaret and a guy on a pogo stick who can turn three somersaults.

Interview by Rachelle Thackray