Circus Days, Circus Nights - accompanying article
The Show Must Go On
The Guardian - Saturday February 6, 1999
When Mary Chipperfield was convicted of cruelty to her
baby chimp last week, the most famous name in British circus was
But animal protestors have been targeting circuses for years, regardless
of how they treat their animals. Hounding them out of business
is no answer, argues Dea Birkett, herself, fleetingly, an elephant
Once upon a time, a little girl saw the circus parade past the
end of her street. Within hours, the park where she played was
transformed into a world of wondrous, exotic people and beasts.
She saw men walking on stilts and wobbling on a high wire, clowns
squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs, and an elephant
strolling around a sawdust ring. She longed to run her hand over
the deep ridges of its trunk, to feel the rhythm of its stride,
to be transformed into the shimmering lady who smiled down from
its back. Then, the next day, the magical world was gone. There
was nothing but swings and slides in the park.
I was that little girl, and as I grew older fewer and fewer elephants
paraded past the end of my road. Soon, there was no magical kingdom
springing up overnight in our park. The rhythm of suburban life
was no longer interrupted by fantastical eruptions. The circus
had left our town forever.
There are now fewer than half-a-dozen circuses with animals left
in Britain. In less than 20 years, an extraordinary two-century-old
art form has been near-obliterated. Animal-rights groups have waged
a war against circus in Britain, and circus people have been indiscriminately
denounced as animal abusers. The opponents of circus have clearly
won the propaganda war. Now, the most common image of circus is
not the magic, but the misery. Instead of fabulous feats by human
and animal, we imagine elephants chained to pallets, incarcerated
big cats and horses trapped in tiny stalls.
It has become accepted wisdom that all animals in circuses are
treated cruelly. A whole art form is condemned and threatened with
extinction because no one has effectively challenged this assumption.
More than two hundred councils in Britain now ban circuses with
animals from their parks.
Horse shows and dog trials still pay annual visits to commons
where circuses are banned. The Olympics and the Horse Of The Year
Show hold a number of highly publicised competitions for performing
horses. Pet owners may train their dogs to do tricks, but a labrador
scampering around a sawdust ring is considered an outrage. Diane
Westwood is a press officer for the Captive Animal Protection Society,
which vigorously campaigns against circuses with animals - any
animals at all. "We don't differentiate, and are totally opposed
to [the use of] all animals," she says. "We never get
to see training in circuses. We don't know exactly how animals
are transported. We don't know how they live." I asked Westwood
whether she'd be content if circuses opened their doors and showed
how their animals were trained and transported. "No, I wouldn't.
I wouldn't. Nothing they do will convince me that there is any
place in a circus for animal acts."
There is no negotiating, no appeasing the protesters. Everywhere
circus people pitch their caravans, they are met by protests, bans,
obstruc-tive officialdom, and even violence. Incendiary devices
have even been sent to circus proprietors' homes. The small circus
community has no supporters. No politician, no artistic director,
no prominent personality speaks out in defence of circus people.
A cultural icon has been transformed into a cultural pariah.
When animal trainer Mary Chipperfield was convicted last week
on 12 counts of cruelty against a baby chimp, Trudy, including
beating her with a riding crop, the most famous name in British
circus was irrevocably tainted. To a public already steeped in
tales of whip-wielding lion tamers, this case seemed to show the
true face of circus in Britain. The cry to outlaw circuses - every
and any circus - was renewed.
The All Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare came under pressure
to take action. A little over two years ago, the group had established
the Circus Working Group to examine the management of circus animals.
Initially, there was not a single member of the circus community
on the working group, and the secretariat was provided by the RSPCA,
which agitates for a total ban on animals in circuses. Other organisations
represented included the Born Free Foundation. In February last
year, the group finally invited David Hibling, artistic director
of Zippo's Circus, to join them, but by then the majority of circus
visits had already taken place. The group could not reach agreement.
In December last year, it published its divided report. There were
three alternative recommendations: that existing legislation, in
particular the 1925 Performing Animals Act, is adequate and nothing
be done; that new legislation should be introduced specifically
to cover the operation of circuses with animals; that there should
be a total ban on animals in circuses. Parliament has yet to act
upon the report.
Operating a circus that uses performing animals is a perfectly
legal profession. And, despite 20 years under fire, circus people
refuse to lie down and die. Perhaps their strongest asset is the
dream - that vision of a magical world mushrooming at the end of
your street. The circus is an unquenchable fantasy. Many stores
have china, sheets and curtains celebrating the circus coming to
town. My daughter's schoolbooks still have sea lions balancing
striped balloons on their noses, although she has never watched
such a spectacle. There are no sea lions left in Britain, no balancing
balloons. We can still read and dream about the circus, but, most
likely, we won't be able to see one.
It was hard to find Circus Harlequin. They were several miles
out of town, on a derelict building site. I had been travelling
with circuses around Europe for several months before joining up
with one of the few remaining circuses in Britain. Their faded
blue-and-white big top was planted on the outskirts of Rotherham.
Yet still they transformed this puddled ground into a glittering,
magical spectacle. This vision of an exotic world was as fleeting
as a dream. I followed them as they moved from building site to
muddy farmer's field, and, on each pull-down, even the holes left
by the giant tent pegs were filled in. We were hunted animals that
left no tracks.
Animal trainer Martin Lacey is Circus Harlequin's proprietor.
Twice a night, he would pull on his red ringmaster's jacket and
enter the ring, introducing, with a sweep of his heavily be-ringed
hand, Larry Osca on the cloud swing, Miss Toni, who hangs by her
hair, Tommy Pinder and his eight liberty horses, and the Mongolian
contortionists. Then he'd present his own bactarian camels. Called
Ralph, Winston and Clifford - as if they were golfing chums from
the Home Counties - these two-humped beasts trotted around the
ring, lay down and answered to their pedestrian names. Between
the acts, because of a bad knee, Lacey sat at the edge of his circular
kingdom on an old school chair, surveying the ring and the sparse
audience. He is old, overweight, crushed but unconquerable - a
lion in winter on his plastic throne.
The big top seated 400. But, on some nights, the trapeze artist
risked his life for a wide-eyed audience of fewer than 50. It's
impossible for a circus to attract the crowds it once did when
relegated to such eyesores of sites. Most circuses still rely on
traditional methods - putting posters up around town, and asking
shops and factories to display them in return for free tickets.
But billing has become a Sisyphean task. It takes only two or three
animal-rights protesters to clear a town of posters, pasting cancelled
stickers over them or simply pulling them down. Lacey says that
one day is a good street life for each poster he puts up.
Protesters realise that if people don't know the circus has come
to town, the circus will die. In his trailer, Lacey keeps scrapbooks
of Circus Harlequin cuttings going back over the past ten years.
The earlier books are stuffed with amusing stories from the local
papers - Auditions For Knife Thrower's Assistant, Army Searches
For Mine Lost Inside Hippo. But, in the later books, the cuttings
are not so funny. One Peterborough paper tells of the circus's
arrival in town: Lacey had had a special poster printed, boasting "First
Ever Visit"; the Animal Liberation Front sent shopkeepers
a message made out of letters cut from newspapers. The message
read: Take down the circus posters or we will take your windows
out, signed, ALF.
The speed of Lacey's fall from respected artiste to persecuted
pariah is startling. Less than ten years ago, he was presenting
his big-cat act in the centre of Britain's major towns, billed
as the King Of The Cage. I remember going to see "The One
And Only Mr Martin Lacey", and being entranced by the bow-tied,
be-whiskered tamer. Lacey and his big cats appeared on television
shows and made TV commercials. His trailer, where he spends nine
months of the year, is hung with photographs, not of his sons,
but of his lions and tigers - his former glory.
The King Of The Cage's favourite feline companion was a lion called
Kasanga. "Kass was quite a character," says Lacey. "He
was always interested in anything that was going on. Nosey is probably
a good way of describing it." Kass and Martin were a team,
a partnership. Martin has a heavy gold casting of Kasanga hanging
around his neck. Together, they attracted audiences in their thousands.
Martin rode on Kasanga's back, kissed him with puckered lips, and
put his head in his mouth, earning himself a new nickname - The
Man That Fear Forgot. For the few winter months when the circus
is off the road, Lacey stays at home in Kasanga Manor in Lincolnshire,
where Kasanga, who lived to 19, is buried in the garden.
When I visited Circus Harlequin, there were no more lions. As
circuses were driven off central sites, there seemed no point in
investing in an industry under siege. Some of the biggest names
in British circus tossed out their top hats and gave up. Gerry
Cottle stopped presenting animal acts. Circus was dying in Britain.
But circus, like Harlequin, was born in Britain. Two hundred years
ago, in the centre of London, Major Philip Astley rode a horse
around a sawdust ring. He discovered that, if the ring was exactly
42 feet in diameter, the centrifugal forces allowed the rider to
stand upon the horse's back. Now, every circus ring, anywhere in
the world, is 42 feet across.
Ironically, the Greatest Show On Earth has proved one of Britain's
most enduring cultural exports. In Germany, circuses Roncalli and
Krone, with a full complement of animals, are huge, flourishing
businesses. In Switzerland, Circus Knie is as important a cultural
phenomenon as our Royal Opera. In France, there is a national circus
archive, library and magazine; French television regularly broadcasts
acts, and the Centre National des Artes du Cirque is an established
part of the French educational system. Charlie Holland, programme
director of Circus Space, a London circus school, has had a struggle
to establish the first circus arts degree, to be launched in September
in conjunction with the Central School of Speech and Drama.
The British artistic establishment ostracises and looks down on
circus. Less than 0.05 per cent of the Art Council's capital Lottery
awards - £500,000 out of nearly £1 billion - goes to
circus projects. "Circus here is seen as the Entry Of The
Gladiators, a ringmaster and a leaky big top, something sad and
pathetic," says Holland. "It's a shame it isn't respected
as a part of our culture, as a living art form, rather than a pickled
Circus people may appear relics of the past. They're a nomadic
people, who live in conditions that would appal the protesters
who want to eradicate them. And, growing accustomed to being attacked,
they've become defensive. Tommy Pinder, a softly-spoken 28-year-old
who presented liberty horses for Circus Harlequin, was born into
"When I go to the hairdressers, I say I'm a truck driver,
or a bricklayer, or some sort of labourer, something like that," he
says. "You're frightened that they're going to start, ?Oh,
I don't believe in circuses with animals', and all that sort of
stuff, and stick the scissors in the back of your neck. So, I just
say I'm a truck driver."
As their traditions came under attack, so circus people became
more entrenched. In Britain's few remaining circuses, you see the
same red ringmaster's jacket, hear the same stirring music, see
the same pedestals for the few remaining animals to stand and twirl
about on. Innovation in the ring is rare. The old traditions were
all the circus had to hold on to.
David Hibling is an animal trainer who dared to act differently.
Once, he skated with chimps, and trained hippos, giraffes and even
storks to do tricks. Today, he heads Zippo's Academy Of Circus
Arts, which trains new talent, as well as acting as artistic director
of Zippo's, an all-human circus that three years ago introduced
horses. Now, he regrets that elephants were once painted pink. "Circus
in this country failed to re-invent the animal act," he says. "Bears
in tutus and dogs in knickers walking tightropes lingered too long.
The moustachioed lion tamer cracking the whip, being all macho
and brave - it didn't have to be like that. At Zippo's, we aim
to present our horses as naturally as possible." It still
took years of protracted negotiations and repeated lobbying of
individual local councils before Zippo's horses were allowed to
perform on their commons - the same councils that unquestioningly
welcomed dog shows and horse trials. Yet audiences clearly want
animals: since introducing horses three years ago, Zippo's business
has increased by 25 per cent.
It is near-impossible for circuses without animals to be commercially
successful. So-called New Circus is restricted to a few large operations,
such as the internationally-renowned Cirque du Soleil, which performs
in major theatres. It does not come in a tent to your small town.
Archaos, which replaced horses with motorbikes and cars, did well
but has now closed. Traditional touring circuses - with the exception
of the Moscow State Circus - seem to flourish only with an animal
content. At Zippo's, the crowd roars when the huge palomino rears
up on its hind legs, towering above them.
Animal-rights protesters claim that such tricks are demeaning. "You're
controlling the animal and reducing them to just pathetic caricatures," says
Diane Westwood. But there is nothing unnatural about a horse standing
on its hind legs. Outside in their paddocks, Tommy Pinder's eight
Welsh cobs, young stallions, continually toss their dark, messy
manes like teenagers and rear up in play. The only difference is,
in the ring, they do it for Tommy. When he is all dressed up in
his sequinned tuxedo, it's as if he's dancing with his horses,
as if they were partners in an intricate pattern of steps. When
Tommy moves, however slightly, they move. Their eyes lock. "You
got a bond," he says. "There's a connection. It's hard
to explain unless you're there with them. You feel and breathe
the same as they do."
Tommy is bewildered by the blanket attacks on his gentle art. "People
can't identify different circuses. They say, ?The cruel circus'.
But why can't they say, ?That circus is cruel, but this one isn't'?
They don't realise that it's all individual families who run these
The business rivalries and generational feuds among circus people
are legendary. Such splits make them poor advocates in their own
defence. When Animal Defenders, a "youth" wing of the
National Anti-Vivisection Society, produced a report and video
last year entitled The Ugliest Show On Earth - on which evidence
Mary Chipperfield was convicted - there was no vocal opposition,
no suggestion that other animal trainers might behave differently.
Circuses throughout Britain were indiscriminately condemned. It
was like condemning dog owners nationwide because a man in Aberdeen
hits his Alsatian. "Circus is full of sensationally caring,
very creative people - and it's got a handful of cowboys," says
Charlie Holland. "To judge the majority on the actions of
a few is not helpful." Even the Association of Circus Proprietors
of Great Britain, which represents a dozen circuses with and without
animals, did not issue a statement in defence of their trade. Martin
Lacey is a lone warrior. Most circus people simply hoped the furore
would blow over.
The enemies of the art of circus are powerful in comparison with
the divided, unconventional circus people. The greatest opponent
is a huge, £54-million charity, the Royal Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that has devoted a great deal
of its considerable resources to dispossessing Britain's last nomads. "The
RSPCA has had a policy of opposition to use of animals in circuses
for a very long time now," says a senior figure in the RSPCA. "There
are a number of factors which cause us great concern, and many
of them are things which we can't see can ever be corrected within
the circus environment. As far as we can see, there's no way that
they can ever achieve the kind of standards that we think are needed
for these animals."
On most opening nights, protesters distribute RSPCA leaflets outside
the circus gates, and the local RSPCA office displays posters, "DON'T
GO TO THE CIRCUS". The local press is fed stories about the
cruel conditions in which circus animals are kept. These stories
are almost always generic to any circus. Martin Lacey recognises
the picture in the RSPCA leaflet as his tigers, even though they
don't name him and have never brought a complaint against Circus
Despite its call for a boycott, the RSPCA inspects (or "visits",
in its words) Harlequin - and every other circus with animals -
when it arrives at a new town. Lacey permits RSPCA inspectors to
assess his animals and check their exercise pens, food and water,
and beast wagons, even though they have no legal right to do so.
He collects and displays their visiting cards in his programme,
calling them his head-hunting trophies - Inspector Scott, Inspector
Groake, Inspector Trickey and, his most prized, Inspector Nice. "And
he was nice!" says Martin. "The inspectors on the ground
are usually very sensible people. They come along, look at the
animals and compliment us on the way we care for them. And they
go away saying, ?Well, you know, our policy is that we don't like
the circus.' It's head office that's the problem."
Circus has been singled out by the RSPCA. An uncompromising clarion
call to abolish circuses with animals is a guaranteed fund-raiser.
Other forms of animal husbandry remain free from such censure.
The RSPCA's response to last year's Grand National, when four horses
died as a result of the race, was to talk to and advise the Jockey
Club. The RSPCA has no policy to outlaw horse racing; instead,
it negotiates for better conditions with those responsible for
the horses' welfare. Its position on circuses, however, is non-negotiable.
"It's ludicrous. They're hypocrites," says Tommy Pinder,
in uncharacteristically strong language. "If I took my horses
and - God forbid - just one died in the ring, there'd be an outcry.
I'd probably be sent to prison. But because a big event like the
Grand National, or steeple chasing, or the Derbies and all this
sort of stuff, is sponsored by the upper class and royalty and
all that, nothing's said about it. But we're easy targets, we're
very easy targets for the RSPCA."
The RSPCA's attack on circus has been conducted on the streets,
in the press and through academic research. In 1989, it commissioned
animal behaviourist Dr Marte Kiley-Worthington to write a report
into the conditions of animals in circuses. "They thought
that I would support their case," says Dr Kiley-Worthington, "but,
of course, I'm a scientist, so I went and measured everything I
could think of that might give me some clue as to whether or not
animals in circuses should be banned because there was no way they
could have a good life." After 3,000 hours of scientific observations,
she did not conclude that circuses are, by their nature, cruel. "There
is no more reason to ban animals in circuses than there is [to
ban] people [from] having pets, or horses in stables, gymkhanas,
racing, zoos. All of them need improvement within what they are," she
But Dr Kiley-Worthington went further: she found positive benefits
in circus for the animals themselves. "I think we're doing
a great disservice to these animals by believing that they're robotic
creatures which only behave in instinctively natural ways, and
that's all they should ever do," she says. "All animals
learn. And just as education enriches lives for humans, so it can
for animals. They can have more exciting lives as a result of learning
different things and having different experiences. And one of the
things they can have experiences of is interacting with humans
Dr Kiley-Worthington's findings were not what the RSPCA's leadership
wanted to hear. "If I were the RSPCA and wanted to ban animals
doing something so I could get a high profile, I would choose some
minority group who everyone else thought were a bit iffy. The circus
fulfils that, because they don't have mortgages and they don't
always stay in one spot. They don't necessarily want bigger motor
cars and good schools for their children. Their first and central
thing is - the show must go on. Even if your father's been killed
that morning, you'll go on and do the show. It's dramatic how important
and central that is."
Outside Britain, the show does go on. In France, Switzerland,
Germany, Italy, Spain and all over Scandinavia, circus flourishes.
Sweden's flagship circus, Cirkus Scott, was founded in 1932. With
almost 300 people working for it, and dozens of animals - from
goats and chickens to elephants - it still parades from town to
town on one-night stands. Adjoining the big top, in a smaller tent,
is their Internet cafe, sponsored by IBM. Robert and Henry Bronett,
inheriting the circus from their father, run this mighty enterprise
and act as ringmasters. Born in the continental circus, they are
national stars, feted by royalty. Henry had a leading role in the
Swedish equivalent of EastEnders.
Ironically, for Cirkus Scott, finding suitable sites is a problem,
too. "It gets harder and harder," says Robert. "We
seat 3,500 people, so need a very big site. But we get a lot of
help from towns, because they like it when we come. We're a big
attraction, we bring people to their hotels, so it's money for
Circus - real, vibrant, living circus such as Scott - assaults
your senses. It has not only a look, but a sound, a touch, even
a smell. The scent of human and animal sweat is intoxicating. Sawdust,
that essential ingredient in this heady brew, thickens the air.
You literally breathe in circus. It has a sensuality shared by
no other form of performance. And it stirs every emotion. Circus
makes you cry, laugh, feel anxious, be awed. "The most stubborn
old man, forced to come to the circus by his grandchildren, can't
help but smile. It makes him feel alive again," says Henry.
There is no shame in being an artiste and animal-trainer for Cirkus
Scott. Marco Althoff, from a family as old as circus itself, presents
four African elephants for the Bronetts. In the ring, bedecked
in black-and-white studded leather, he is a fairytale elephant-trainer.
In his trailer, with its brass elephant-head knocker and fake zebra-skin
cushions, he was soft and self-deprecating. Each morning, he rehearses
with his elephants in the ring, talking to them, bribing them with
nothing harsher than chunks of stale bread, and boasting that they
are, "closer to me than my wife! My elephants don't like women,
because they were brought up by me. They're jealous."
As the Ukrainian tent team rhythmically brushes the sawdust, he
told me I could ride one of his elephants. Mounting Kitty was like
clambering on to a mountain swaying in the wind. Then she began
to walk, throwing her weight from side to side. It was as if I
was in a small boat in a storm. Fight the movement, and you suffer;
go with it, and you feel like a partner in an exquisite dance.
The thrill of riding her made me speechless. I just gasped, continually
catching my breath. That night, smothered in sequins, I entered
the ring. The crowd roared. Eventually, faraway, the little girl's
dream came true.
The circus people I met were not elephant-beating barbarians.
They were a small, disenfranchised people, struggling to survive
against odds that would have defeated almost anyone else. Animal-rights
groups - including the RSPCA - should negotiate with people who
travel, live and work with their animals. Instead of shouting outside
the circus gates, instead of leaning on councils, they should sit
down and talk. They should argue for better conditions in circuses.
They should treat circus people as they treat all other people
who keep animals - not as freaks, but with respect. Our last travelling
players should be cherished.
Once upon a time, at the end of my road, there was a parade of
elephants. Today, I imagine holding my daughter's hand as we stand
on the pavement outside our home, staring up at these fabulous
beasts. It happens all over Europe. It can happen here.
View the clips: 56k or Broadband
Circus Days, Circus Nights, written
and presented by Dea Birkett, was broadcast at 11.35pm, February
9, 1999 on Channel 4. A Night
At The Circus, with a showing of the film, a debate and live circus
acts was held at London's ICA at 7pm on February 20, 1999.
Circus Days, Circus Nights is available from:
Force 10 Productions, PO Box 20479, London SE17 3WF
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