Natalie Haynes: They call it the Great British Circus but other adjectives came to my mind

Watching tigers jump through a hoop or clamber on to a stool isn't exciting, it's just unpleasant

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Visitors to the Great British Circus are greeted with plenty of patriotic Union Flags, right in front of an aggressively worded notice about how animal trainers have, "for far too long been the whipping boys of Animal Rights charities". Two hours later, when I'd watched horse, camel and tiger acts marshalled by a trainer flicking a whip, I presumed the phrase "whipping boys" had been used ironically.

That isn't to say that the animals I saw looked ill, underfed or poorly groomed. The coats of the horses and tigers gleamed, and the camels looked a great deal less threadbare than camels usually do, even when their fancy red jackets had come off. The problem with the wild animal acts at the Great British Circus isn't that the animals look as if they are being mistreated the moment the audience leaves, it's that the acts themselves are so demeaning and depressing that they amount to mistreatment in their own right.

When I was a child, tigers and camels were creatures of great rarity – you could go to a zoo or a circus to see them, and that was about it. But decades of cheap foreign travel and expensive wildlife documentaries have changed our tastes: watching tigers jump wearily through a hoop or clamber on to a stool isn't exciting anymore, it's just unpleasant. We know how tigers behave in the wild, and watching their majestic bodies contorted into parlour tricks is like watching a ballet dancer doing the hokey-cokey. That's why PG Tips doesn't try to sell teabags using a chimps' tea-party now: we would find it creepy, rather than funny.

The best animal act of the night, by far, was one using dogs. Ionut Ronescu (God help the Great British Circus if the BNP get a hold of their souvenir programme, most of the acts are from Eastern Europe) does a terrific Charlie Chaplin-style routine, trying to sweep up litter while four small dogs jump up and knock him over and hide behind rubbish bins when he tries to catch them. It's cute and funny, and the dogs look like they're having tremendous fun, which is a lot more than could be said for the four Friesian horses galloping round a tiny ring or walking on their back legs, which opened the show.

The dog act was a showstopper because it was inventive, and not disquieting, unlike tigers climbing ramps or miniature ponies running beneath horses' legs. The children next to me, who had munched candyfloss throughout the tiger act, bored and oblivious, were equally unimpressed by the sight of a camel rolling on the ground, to order. "Is it dead?" one asked, unconcerned. But a man being knocked over by dogs is pure slapstick, and they squealed in delight. The circus is obviously very proud of its wild animals, but if Martin Lacey, the circus owner and tiger trainer, paid attention to what his audience really liked, he might have been performing to a house that wasn't three-quarters empty on a bank holiday weekend.

But at every stage, the circus was making stupid, easily fixed mistakes: don't do a comedy knife-throwing act directly before an actual knife-throwing act, or there won't be any tension for the latter. Don't rig a spotlight behind a pole or it won't illuminate the stage properly. Don't waste good acrobats on a lousy Robin Hood skit. Don't include a ringmistress in sketches when she can't act for toffee. And don't finish your tiger display with a sequence where you hip-bump the tigers out of the ring. It doesn't look like a fearless man at one with these dangerous wild animals, it looks ugly and boorish. And incompetent, actually, since every hip-bump missed the beat in the music.

The Great British Circus is anything but great: it has focused on wild animal acts which have drawn massive negative publicity, and which don't thrill the audience. If it wants to stay in business, it needs to give the tigers to a sanctuary, and invest more time and effort in strong, innovative routines for the human performers.

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