Dylan Jones: If you ask me

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The Independent Online

If you ask me, Giffords is probably the best circus in Britain. Theatrical, whimsical, exotic, celestial (in places) and even rather glamorous, it shows that there is still a place for the travelling circus in the 21st century. And as they're playing all over the country until the middle of September I urge you to seek them out. It is bonkers, and you will love it. In some respects, Cirque du Soleil has raised the bar in terms of what we expect from a circus these days, and having seen their "Love" show in Las Vegas recently, in which they re-imagine the Beatles' back catalogue in a genuinely original way, I am now a devotee.

At a local level – and by this I mean the people who just pitch their dilapidated old tent slap bang in the middle of your local common – circuses still have a terribly bad rep. And they conjure up many unsavoury things, even though they probably aren't true: poorly treated animals, drunk and overweight clowns, slightly malevolent-looking ancillary staff, and of course the nagging feeling that the performers are all under the big top under a certain amount of duress.

But Giffords gives off a completely different feeling altogether. I came across them by accident, one weekend when we were wandering round the Hay Literary Festival a few weeks ago, and when I'd finally got tickets – I soon found out it's never easy getting tickets for Giffords – I had one of the best afternoons I'd ever had. Or at least one of the best afternoons I'd ever had in the company of men dressed up as Hungarian horsemen, a Parisian brass band, two Harris hawks, a brace of 19th-century sirens, a Russian acrobatic troupe and a bunch of chickens.

Nell Gifford produced her first circus in Hay in 2000, and since then her baroque gang of athletes, minstrels and designer vagabonds has appeared in Italian Vogue, been feted by – of all people – Jeremy Clarkson, been the centre of its own educational programme, and provided the backdrop to the Circus's own mobile restaurant.

During the interval, I devoured their programme, discovering that in 2006 their show "Joplin!" was a psychedelic boogie-woogie extravaganza celebrating the life and work not of Scott Joplin, but Janis. Like I said, bonkers – and very, very brilliant. Oh, and by the way: the bear's not real.

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'