Smart's grandson relaunches circus: Wild-animal acts are a thing of the past with revival of the Big Top, Alex Renton discovers

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WHEN Billy Smart, the founder of Britain's largest travelling circus, died in 1966 he was master of a 5,000-seat Big Top and a troupe of 15 elephants, as well as lions, camels, seals and polar bears.

Yesterday Billy Smart's New Circus set up in a field in West Sussex. It has seating for 1,400 in a brand new Big Top (made in Germany), 'quality acts of amazing style', but no wild animals whatsoever.

Times, admits Smart's grandson, Gary, have changed. He was 17, working as the tent-master, when Billy Smart's finally quit the road in 1971, unable to deal with increasing transport costs. But now, says Gary Smart, he is ready to bring back 'quality circus' with 'no embarrassment for audiences from the animal rights question'.

Such embarrassment - including the picketing of shows by protesters - has already driven Gerry Cottle from the ring to turn his circus into a 'travelling theme park'. But Mr Smart reckons he has a family duty - and financial reason - to invest pounds 500,000 to bring this 'Cinderella of the arts' back to the road.

Horses and dogs will be the only non- human performers: 'A circus isn't a circus without any animals'.

However, even that has caused the new Billy Smart's problems with local authorities. 'If we called ourselves Billy Smart's Gymkhana, we'd be all right. The Moscow State Circus and Spanish Riding School can perform in Birmingham, we cannot. But we're doing nothing more than them.

'Our dogs won't jump through flaming hoops - like they do at the Royal Tournament. And we don't make our horses jump Becher's Brook.'

Bournemouth, Hull and Plymouth ('where hamsters can't be sold in pet shops') have already turned them down.

However, other councils, such as Richmond, in Surrey - where the circus starts its tour in October - have relented.

David Hibling, the ringmaster, who ran away to join Chipperfield's Circus when he was 16, sees the circus as part of Britain's cultural heritage. 'It was

invented in this country in the 18th century, yet it's never had the cultural

status it has in France or Russia. And it doesn't get a penny from the Government.'

Billy Smart wouldn't recognise much. A sale of the circus property a few years ago dispensed with such useful items as the sousaphone and the elephant dung shovel.

But the old ring fence - inside which Bruce Forsyth cavorted with the seals, and Birma the elephant trod on Jimmy Young, Tony Blackburn and John Peel in the 1967 Christmas show - is back in place.

It needs a lick of paint, though.

(Photograph omitted)