Brian Viner: A circus true to its roots

Country Life: 'We were by far the most cheaply educated people under the Giffords Circus big top in Cirencester'
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The Independent Online

We have a friend who, when she was a girl growing up in Birmingham 25 years ago, ran away to join the circus. Running away from home to join the circus is a bit like eloping to Gretna Green, romantic storybook stuff that nobody you know has ever done, except that our friend did. And when she recounted the tale to our youngest son, nine-year-old Jacob, I'm sure I saw a purposeful glint in his eye. Certainly, if any of our children are inspired to follow suit, he'll be the one. He already has some impressive party pieces; it's not many people who can give a word-perfect rendition of "American Pie" while reaching up their left nostril with their tongue.

Anyway, if Jacob does run away to join the circus, we have found just the one. For at least the past two years, we have been hearing great things about the Cotswolds-based Giffords Circus, and kept meaning to go, only to find it sold out every time. About 10 days ago, however, we finally went. And it was every bit as wonderful as we'd hoped it would be. Also, I love the idea of a circus based in the Cotswolds. We told Jacob that if ever he does pack a rucksack and shin down a drainpipe one night, he might as well head for a big top on Minchinhampton Common, rather than one located more exotically in Bratislava or Budapest.

We went to a performance just outside Cirencester, a drive of about an hour and a half from where we are in north Herefordshire. We embark on long car journeys these days with trepidation, partly because the cost of filling the Volvo has now pushed past £80, and partly because Jacob and his brother Joe on the back seat do a decent impression of the Israeli defence forces and Hamas, and their 15-year-old sister Eleanor is now too tall to sit between them facilitating a ceasefire.

Yet the three-hour round trip was worth both the cost and the argy-bargy on the back seat. I can't remember ever going to a show that all of us enjoyed equally; normally, there's some boredom either on the children's part or on our part, but this time we were all charmed.

The Giffords charm offensive began even while we were queuing to get into the big top, when everyone in line was handed a pack of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, the sort of thing that middle-class mums put in their children's lunchboxes. This was perfectly in tune with the audience demographic. If the long-legged woman next to me wasn't called Jocasta, and her pink-cheeked husband Piers, and their children Ivo, Rupert and Hermione, then it can only have been because they were called Camilla, Henry, Tarquin, Charles and Araminta. This was replicated all the way round the big top. We were by far the most cheaply educated people there.

The performance itself was a beguiling throwback to the Mitteleuropean circus tradition: incredible horsemanship (notably by a Hungarian called Attila, who also dished out goulash during the interval), great acrobats, a dazzling knife-juggling act, a spot of falconry, and the best clown I have ever seen.

During the interval, I told the children how tacky the circuses were that I went to at their age. I can remember one next to the pleasure beach in Southport at which an emaciated lion arrived in the ring on its backside, having slipped on some fresh elephant dung. Even at the age of 10, I was disgusted. This, needless to add, was a different experience altogether.

The origins of Giffords Circus were explained in the programme. Nell Gifford has a degree in English from Oxford University but fell in love with the circus on her gap year, returned to it afterwards, and some years later found a kindred spirit in her husband Toti. They started their circus nine years ago, intent on making it true to its countryside roots. Toti, meanwhile, also has a landscape-design business. He must be the only man in the world who supervises the building of sluice gates by day, and the juggling of knives by night.

After the show I had a brief chat with him. He told me that the circus effectively represents diversification of agriculture. He should get an EU grant. I have hardly ever seen a better example of European union than a Hungarian horseman called Attila serving goulash to an Englishman called Piers, near Cirencester.

Giffords Circus: 0845 459 7469;