Barry Walls

Versatile circus performer and master of disguise
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The Independent Online

Barry Walls was one of the most intriguing and versatile of circus performers in Great Britain in a career spanning over three decades. He was a fakir, illusionist, fire-eater of great talent, a master of disguise and a sign-writer par excellence for the fairground and the circus industry.

Barry Walls, fire-eater and illusionist: born Huddersfield, Yorkshire 1 July 1937; married (two sons); died Grantham, Lincolnshire 25 June 2004.

Barry Walls was one of the most intriguing and versatile of circus performers in Great Britain in a career spanning over three decades. He was a fakir, illusionist, fire-eater of great talent, a master of disguise and a sign-writer par excellence for the fairground and the circus industry.

On one occasion, to amuse fellow performers he displayed a macabre talent, swallowing razor blades, slitting his stomach and producing the blades from within. It ranked with his abilities to swallow and blow flames, to lay on a bed of sharp nails or walk on ladders made of sharp swords.

And on the occasions when you sat at Gerry Cottle's Circus and spotted Kojak, the American television and film star Telly Savalas, sitting in the audience and sucking on a lollipop, it was actually Barry Walls, brilliantly disguised. He would quietly take his seat and sit there watching the show, and managed to fool all of the people all of the time, in true Barnumesque style.

Walls brought great professionalism to his characterisations in the circus ring, whether as a garrulous old Red Indian "Otaki", or the mystic fakir "Prince Kheper-Re" or "El Hakin", or the old-fashioned ringmaster complete with twirling moustaches and monocle. He would spend hours working out the make-up and appearance of each character, breathing life and energy into each personality portrayed.

Barry Walls was born in 1937 in Huddersfield, and his earliest essay into show business was in performing a Punch and Judy show at the seaside when he was 14. After leaving school, he went into the Royal Air Force for National Service, and then went on the fairgrounds with the showman Wally Shufflebottom, where he became the "spieler" for the parading shows, as well as working as a fakir, sticking sharp needles through his face and body.

With Shufflebottom he worked at many of the most prestigious fairs in the country, including the Nottingham Goose Fair and at the Derby race meeting at Epsom. Between seasons with the funfairs, he would work in the winter as a bus driver or coal-miner.

His first appearance in the sawdust ring was with Billy Smart's Circus, performing fire-eating stunts in the show's big Western finale, and then in the early 1970s he joined up with the short-lived Embassy Circus. There he met up with two young performers, Gerry Cottle and Brian Austen, whose aspirations to become circus directors in their own right were swiftly blessed when they acquired the Embassy tent and equipment and created the combined Cottle and Austen Circus.

Walls worked with Cottle and Austen and later, when the two split their resources to form two separate shows, he remained with Gerry Cottle's Circus throughout the 1970s, performing his fakir number as Prince Kheper- Re or later as El Hakim, and introducing his Red Indian fire-eating character Otaki.

A typical circus "jack of all trades", he also became valuable to Cottle as a sign-writer, decorating the show's wagons, and designing programmes and posters, with a typical circus showman's flourish. When Gerry Cottle ventured abroad with his circus, Barry Walls was always a member of his company, appearing in Hong Kong and in the Middle East.

In the 1970s he appeared in the BBC television series Seaside Special and had a feature role in the BBC's Circus serial for children, produced by Bill Sellars and directed by Bill Slater.

On 2 January 1973, Prince Kheper-Re created a record by laying upon a bed of six razor-sharp swords whilst supporting upon his chest a bed of nails (points down!), with Gerry Cottle's wife sitting on top, making a grand total weight of 11 1/2 stone. This feat was endured for a total of 31 minutes and eight seconds and was submitted to the Guinness Book of Records. It was later found that the nails had left holes a quarter of an inch deep in Walls's chest, and one of the swords had left a mark an inch deep into his back, but none of these marks had broken his skin, an astonishing feat which, he claimed, was achieved purely by "mind over matter". In 1974 he broke the world record for laying on a bed of nails, clocking up 26 hours 35 minutes.

He worked for a number of other British circuses, with Circus Hoffman, and in 1982 was with Robert Brothers' Circus Bonanza and at Great Yarmouth Hippodrome before going to South Africa for the first of two stints. In Ireland he worked with Duffy's and Courtney's circuses, and here for a short while in Matthias Cimarro's short-lived venture JLK Circus.

Walls appeared in South Africa for the first time in 1983 with the Boswell-Wilkie Circus, and stayed on for several years, creating new characters like "Lee Wong" in a Chinese scene, the monster in the illusion of Frankie Stein, and the ringmaster character Baridini. On a second visit to Africa, for the Boswell-Wilkie management again, he created new clown numbers and the Walenskis' illusion act, and the Great Vulcan, with the "burning of a human sacrifice" illusion.

In recent years, Barry Walls returned to the Gerry Cottle management, where he found himself in his element in John Haze's Circus of Horrors, produced by Pierrot Bidon, creator of the French circus Archaos. He was able to develop even more macabre skills there, including a hair-raising "electric chair" illusion. He was performing virtually to the end, his last show being a cabaret appearance in Nottingham two months ago.

Walls's two sons, Richard and Tony, followed their father into the circus ring, making their performing débuts in Africa as stilt walkers (another of Barry's accomplishments) and rope walkers.

Barry Walls died from emphysema, the result of many years of the fire-eating stunts he had pursued from childhood after first seeing a fire-eater perform at the Edinburgh Palladium.

D. Nevil