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Traditional circuses fight for survival: It's tough under the big top. But, as Rhys Williams finds, despite animal rights protests, recession and television, the show still goes on

THE BRITISH circus is dead, the impresario Gerry Cottle announced this week. Long live the British circus, screamed 600 children in a big top in Tranmere on Thursday night.

Mr Cottle celebrated his 48th birthday by hanging up his ringmaster's hat and selling his big top. The days of the traditional travelling circus with elephants, lions and tigers are at an end, he said.

'It's just not worth it these days,' he explained. 'We had so many noisy protesters everywhere we went, it was rent-a-mob at the gate. People think it's cruel to travel with animals and that we're cruel to train them. Local authorities wouldn't allow us to pitch our tents on their land and there was just too much aggravation.'

Mr Cottle is an astute publicist. Before Christmas, he declared that British clowns were tired and unfunny - a neat ploy to promote the American clown he had imported for his Wembley shows. Now he believes the future lies in travelling theme parks, not unlike the one he opened yesterday in Wandsworth, south London.

But there is a sense in which the circus magic has faded. Billy Smart's Circus once played to crowds of 4,000 and more. Its extravaganzas were a highlight of Easter and Christmas television. But Billy Smart's last trappings - three tea urns, 18 hulahoops, an elephant dung shovel and a sousaphone - were auctioned off seven years ago. Few children fantasise about running away with the circus these days. But on a wet and windy Thursday evening last week, there was a certain magic in the air when Gandey's, Britain's biggest travelling circus, came to town, or rather to the car park at Tranmere Rovers football ground. Gandey's is battling against all the difficulties that Mr Cottle complained of. Wirral Borough Council would not allow the circus to pitch its tent on a stretch of council lawn in Central Park, Wallasey, so the football club's dark, inhospitable car park it was. Gandey's is forced to seek private land in around half of the 60 towns and cities it visits each year, because of council bans.

Around 30 members of the North West Animal Rights Coalition stood at the entrance next to banners reading 'Your entertainment, their misery' and harangued families as they filed in. A minibus-load of children, who could not have been more than three years old, waved back.

Chris Jones, one of the protesters, said: 'People are quite ignorant about the cruelty, amazingly enough. A lot say, 'We didn't realise, but we've brought the children'.' She claimed that around a third actually turn round for home. Only one mother turned round on Thursday evening, but that was to return the compliment she had just received for refusing a leaflet. 'What's the matter?' the protester asked. 'Can't you read?'. To which the mother replied: 'Dickhead.' Pamela Matthews, of Eastham on the Wirral, said: 'If I did think the animals were badly treated, then I wouldn't bring the kids.'

Around 800 people crammed inside the Gandey's big top. The clowns, two midgets, may have served up the oldest gags in the book - 'C'mon kids, shout if you see a ghost' - but the screams of 'It's behind you' were deafening. Every time Binky, the ring-master, called for a volunteer from the audience, 600 hands shot up.

The Paslea Troupe, a Romanian acrobatic team which operates on a 'Why walk when you can somersault?' basis, spent 15 minutes showing that Isaac Newton got it wrong with the apple. A drum roll here to raise the tension, a failed attempt at a stunt there to send it through the roof. Every leap and tumble was greeted with a gasp.

The feats were as dazzling and kitsch as the costumes worn by a trapeze act, the Sensational Garcias - large silver-foil capes, peeled off with dramatic aplomb to the soaring strains of 'Jesus Christ, Superstar'. High above, Maria Garcia, balancing on her head, spun round on a trapeze while twirling hoops from every available limb.

Mark Austin, sporting gold lame trousers and a leopardskin top, presented his three 'maginificent' African elephants. 'You can't make three tons of elephant do something it doesn't want to,' whispered Peter Massera, the circus publicist. 'They're not doing anything they wouldn't do in the wild.' The elephants rolled on their sides in unison, reared up on their hindlegs and waved goodbye with handkerchieves in their trunks.

One of the women riding the elephants looked familiar. It was Miss Marnie, who, in a different wig and costume, had earlier climbed into her 'Chest of Death' (a Perspex box) with four Indian pythons. She had recovered sufficiently from that to sell hot dogs during the interval.

If you run away to the circus, be prepared to muck in: one of the midgets, Paul Hinton, is the company electrician; Binky doubles up as the programme-seller. Everyone will pitch in with dismantling the show this evening. They have to transport everything to Haydock Park in time for a 2.30pm performance the following day.

(Photograph omitted)