The circus is back, and this time it means business: There's no clowning around when you have a Big Top on the road, reports Simon Pincombe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE CIRCUS is coming to town. Or to be more accurate in these trying economic times, a lean and highly mobile business will set up an Italian-made plastic marquee in a field just outside town. It will get a warm welcome from the farmer, no interference from the local council and can offer customers easy access to the motorway.

Punitive levels of VAT on entertainment, animal welfare extremists and disapproving local councils have combined to change the face of the greatest show on earth. The post-war labour-intensive dinosaurs - famous names like Bertram Mills and Billy Smart - have disappeared along with the traditional village green circus. The customers no longer travel in numbers to the Big Top in Britain, so the state-of-the-art Italian jobs must go to the customers.

'I used to run one big show with 40 horses and the works,' says Gerry Cottle, the circus proprietor. 'But five years ago I split the show into two.'

Watching one of Mr Cottle's shows you would think that he has employed a time and motion consultant. Compared with the extravagance of the shows in Germany, France and the US, it positively brims with efficiency.

The clowns double as car parking attendants and the trapeze artiste came down to earth to show the public to their seats. And when the human canon ball executed his explosive parabola, the projectile bore a passing resemblance to the candy floss seller wearing a faintly resigned look.

Even the impressive troupe of Czechoslovakian jugglers is the model of productivity. The family, signed up for a third year, performs five acts under various disguises including the knife throwing and the trick cycling.

According to Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors, there are 12 large touring circuses with a full compliment of animals and a further eight smaller shows. Most of them are profitable, he claims, although Mr Cottle puts that figure at only three or four.

Not surprisingly, a once-fragmented industry has streamlined. 'The village green circuses have disappeared because they can't find support at that level,' says Mr Clay. 'But while the numbers of circuses are down there are more large circuses in Britain than at any time since 1945.'

A combination of television revenue, ruthless manning levels and an extended season means that profits are there to be made. Such are the opportunities in the market that even Billy Smart is thinking of making a comeback. On the other side of the coin, however, life can be hard for many of the traditonal performers who are finding the demands of the Big Top increasingly difficult to meet.

In contrast to its 18th century predecessors, the modern travelling circus will boast perhaps just one large troupe of performers that will vary from season to season. The rest of the staff are likely to be on the payroll. Mr Cottle, who once asserted that 'you don't join the circus for the pension scheme', now has 100 full-time employees including 20 to 30 artists. 'There are even staff holidays,' he chuckles.

Others' shows, including Chipperfield's, Austen Brothers, Roberts Brothers and Gandeys, can employ up to 1,000 people, mostly on a casual basis, depending on the venue. Wages vary enormously. A top trapeze artist can earn up to pounds 500 a week whereas a less-skilled performer will pocket only pounds 150 a week.

Mr Cottle's shows have just moved to the South from the West Country, part of a 45-week season beginning in February and culminating with a three-week show at Wembley - 'back by popular demand, Ladies and Gentlemen, will you welcome your ringmaster, Mr Jeremy Beadle'.

Demand for the shows can be unpredictable. This year has been up and down with people reluctant to spend money.

Mr Cottle is reluctant to discuss profit figures. But he says that it costs him pounds 20,000 a week to keep his two shows on the road. Of that, pounds 2,000 is spent on printing the all- important posters that announce the circus's arrival.

Food for the animals is not cheap. The average Bengal tiger is unimpressed with a tin of Kattomeat. And when the price of hay goes from pounds 1.50 a bale to pounds 2.50, it makes an impact on the bottom line when you are feeding elephants. However, the food bill is subsidised by inviting the public backstage after the show. For pounds 1 a head you can wander round the cages to gaze at an impressive array of fauna. It is no wonder that London Zoo lost visitors.

Each marquee seats 2,000 people, with the most expensive tickets costing pounds 10 each. With the obligatory candy floss, a family of four is going to be relieved of about pounds 30. Mr Cottle probably only has to fill each tent once a week to cover costs. The rest is profit.

Like other successful circuses, Mr Cottle owes it all to his animals. He has tried alternative circus, including 'Rock 'n' Roll Circus featuring the pop singer, Gary Glitter. The runs were notable for their brevity. To borrow from Mr Glitter's rich repertoire, the tigers are back . . .So too are the lions, two Indian elephants, a llama, a camel and the horses.

The business strategy is simple - try to pack in the punters early in the week so that momentum builds by word of mouth. However, the vexed issue of using wild animals still causes problems. 'A lot of local councils will not let us use their land,' says Mr Cottle. 'But that is not so much of a problem as it might seem. We are building up very good relationships with a large number of farmers who are happy to put us up.'

The animal welfare extremists can be more of a nuisance. 'They throw acid at our lorries and equipment and they will try to take down the posters advertising our arrival,' says Mr Cottle. 'They say if you want to go and see wild animals, you should go to Africa. But I ask you, how many people can afford to go to Africa?'

He is equally incensed about the 17.5 per cent VAT on entertainment. He has just written to John Major and David Mellor, the heritage minister, pleading his case. Surely the son of a trapeze artist will be sympathetic?

'You know,' says Mr Cottle, who owns more than 400 books detailing the history of the circus, 'I can't find any reference to Mr Major's Dad. I think he must have been on the musical side.'

(Photograph omitted)