Circus legend announces his comeback as he laments the decline of traditional skills

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The veteran circus showman Gerry Cottle is to set up his own training establishment because he fears traditional entertainment skills are being lost in new "arty-farty" schools.

Establishments such as London's Circus Space are attracting middle-class performers who are unwilling to adapt to the tough demands of circus life, and present acts which are not designed to appeal to mass audiences, he claimed.

Cottle, 61, a stockbroker's son who ran away to join the circus when he was 15 and went on to run some of Britain's most successful troupes, said the art form was in crisis. "I think circus is at a terrible crossroads. Traditionalists have got to get out of their minds that animals aren't ever going to come back - the majority of the public don't want them any more. And the new circuses are trying to impress each other, not audiences."

So although he sold off his Moscow and Chinese State Circuses and settled in Somerset to run the Wookey Hole caves tourist attraction, Mr Cottle has decided he must return to his roots.

Despite clear evidence of the tribulations of the trade in his autobiography, Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus, which is published today, Cottle is ploughing his own money into a new circus school.

He has planning permission for a 500-seater venue at Wookey Hole where he will begin training teenagers in January with a view to providing shows within months. He said he plans to take "young, bubbly, local kids" and give them three months of intense training instead of Btecs that take years and saddle students with inadequate skills and student loans. "I think we should encourage circus to develop and evolve. We started circus, we invented it, and I believe we can do it again," he said.

Circus was founded in 1768 by Philip Astley, a brilliant horseman who set up a riding school in London where he used to entertain the crowds, later adding musicians, a clown, jugglers and acrobats.

There are about a dozen traditional circuses left in Britain and about 1,000 worldwide, but newer forms have emerged over the past couple of decades.

For the past 10 years, the Arts Council has funded a Circus Arts Forum with a view to bringing the different strands of circus together. But the two sides have failed to come up with a common vision and the differences run deep. Even at a meeting of theAssociation of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain on Tuesday, some old-guard members were arguing for the reintroduction of animals. Mr Cottle said that was not the way forward; what was needed was old-fashioned elements, such as "a little bit of fantasy, some humour and things that make you say 'wow'."

The Arts Council has set a January deadline for the Circus Arts Forum to produce a policy statement. But Mr Cottle claimed it was the Arts Council's political correctness and demands for policies on education and disability that were failing to help circus develop. Yet the example of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil and the Australian Circus Oz showed there was potential for merging traditional elements with something more contemporary that audiences wanted to see.

"There is a future for modern contemporary circus," he said. But in Britain there was "a definite divide between those making a commercial living and sponsored circus schools that aren't."

An Arts Council spokesman said it was totally committed to supporting circus as part of its theatre strategy and had increased funding.

"But our role is to fund contemporary practice and develop arts in a contemporary way. We do not apologise for that," he said.

Roll up, roll up

Billy Smart's Circus

Since it first appeared at Southall Park in 1946, the BBC has featured the circus's Christmas and Easter performances. Billy Smart was known for his larger-than-life presence. He led the circus until his death in the mid-1970s.

Bobby Roberts' Super Circus

The Roberts Brothers are a circus dynasty. Their acts have been seen from the Blackpool Tower to the Haringey Arena. Performing before the Queen at the Royal Tournament at Earls Court, London, in 1980 marked the peak of their career.

The Spanish National Circus

John Roberts, one of the Roberts Brothers, has run the Spanish National Circus in partnership with the Biasini brothers since he split with the family circus in 1982.

The Chipperfields

The Chipperfields can be traced back more than 300 years to James Chipperfield. By the end of the Second World War, the Chipperfield Circus was one of the largest in Europe. Today, Mary Chipperfield trains animals for film and television.

The Paulo family

The family circus set up before the Second World War is in its third generation of circus artists. Now based in Cornwall.

Zippo's Circus

The youngest traditional British circus first toured in 1986. Martin " Zippo" Burton and his wife Maureen merited a visit from the Queen. This year they are marking the circus's 20th birthday.

Franziska Wetzel

Comments