Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Did Anyone Record "When The Circus Comes To Town"?

I recently watched, “When The Circus Comes To Town” with research by Vanessa Toulmin of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive and screened as part of The Time Shift series, (Dir: Francis Welch and Rebecca Whyte). I viewed it on I player and  thought that this would be available on line indefinately. Not so apparently! I am hoping that someone has recorded it as it was an amazing programme with rare archive footage, fantastic interviews and commentary. I would love a copy if anyone has access to it? In the meanwhile I took some notes from the programme  - all credit to the researchers, producers and interviewees in the programme - as I have an interest in circus history. If the footage is not available some of my circus friends might be interested in these notes that I took whilst watching.

I have added snippets from an equally enjoyable book given to me by the ever generous Ringmaster and Actor, Chris Baltrop - The Golden Age of the Circus by Howard Loxton: 

Notes From The Golden Age of the Circus and "When The Circus Comes To Town"
Performers of circus-related skills pre-existed “Circuses”. The skills; acrobatics, clowning, stilts etc have existed since itinerant entertainers roamed disparate lands  “Egypt, Italy and China since ancient times”, pp 10-11, The Golden Age of the Circus H. Loxton, 1997.  The spot by The White Hart Inn near The National Theatre, London (indicated by Chris Baltrop) is appointed with a plaque to the first circus performance. It  attributes the date as June 1768 and Philip Astley is credited as the originator of this British form with his equestrian acts. Former cavalryman Astley horse acts are credited as beginning circus though the definition necessitates “that a mixture of acts” are performed with the circular space. This occurred in a slightly later  equestrian act in September that year at St George’s Spaw, “ Mr Wilton and his lady partner…presented a rope dancer and a tumbler between their own performances”.

“Since then circuses have flourished, failed and flourished again all round the world”.

The waxing and waning noted by Loxton pays reference to the societal changes, and competition from other forms of entertainment that have forced circus to adapt. Circus has departed radically from its equine roots and melded to the demands of audiences and economic necessity since the 1800’s. It was due to the entrepreneurial inclinations of circus originator Astley that allowed his business to expand to “Seventeen amphitheatres throughout Europe and the model was rapidly copied by other economically savvy entrepreneurs”..."By 1800’s 15,000 people were performing in the circus". 

And notes from "When The Circus Comes To Town"...

Circuses success was challenged by the rise and diversity of music hall at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of the permanent buildings closed and circus went into decline. In the 1920’s Bertram Mills lavish circus at Olympia revived the interest, survived The Performing Animals Defence League 1921  - a select committee introduced regulations rather than a ban.
Circus heyday in the 1930’s as an antidote to the austerity of the Second World War.  

Televised circus initially created a new passion and revenue stream for circus but eventually, as predicted by Bertram Mills was linked to its decline as so many television audience members saw the acts simultaneously which required a greater turnover of material. 

And the book...
“ Immediately after the war…all forms of entertainment especially circuses, enjoyed a boom, but in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s they found that they were facing increasing competition for audiences… Appearances on television created new opportunities for circus artists and could be good publicity but did not necessarily help sell tickets to see live an act already shown on TV”.

Indeed circus proprietors often acted on creative flair and passion rather than business acumen.

Ronnie Smart, (son of Billy Smart?) comments on his families’ lack of entrepreneurial  prowess. “We didn’t know anything about it (circus)” … “he always went for the best even though he couldn’t afford it. Everything was invested back into the business”. His success could be attributed to creative intuition – his insistence on quality, and the cultural appropriateness to the zeitgeist of the period.

1970’s Gerry Cottle and Phillip Gandey. Parents who had seen circus in the 50’s brought their children to these leaner circus’ of a “manageable scale”.  They reduced the scale not quality.

The performing animals debate remerged during this period and council refused to allow circuses onto the traditional highly visual accessible and financially lucrative sites near city centres. Canny circus proprietors moved some of their productions to the Middle East and beyond where there was no tradition of circus but aspirations to Western culture.

In 1990 French circus Archoas created a stir with their leather clad anarchic chain saw wielding performers. “It was chaotic, it was mad, it was amazing” Vanessa Toulmin.

Cirque du Soleil brought a new aesthetic “a distinctive artistic approach” and a venue with cultural quodos, The Royal Albert Hall. More enduring than Archaos, with many shows running concurrently throughout the world, Cirque du Soleil has performed to an estimated 100, 000,000 people.

The Millenium Dome Show which trained a employed a new generation of "Jossers" (perfomers that are not from a family circus background), have spawned new companies such as The Generating Company.

Circus now proliferates most forms of art and entertainment from opera, ice shows and television commercials. Two recent  pop concerts tours by Take That and Brittany Spears, both called Circus, featured many circus performers.

Finally, a small thought of my own. Although a great deal of historical research has taken place into circus, I am curious to know how much is known about the economic sustainability for the actual performer and the significance of circus’ contribution to the Cultural and Creative economy?

I am currently analysing the results of two surveys on the creative inclinations and output of aerial performers in the north of England and the ability to make a sustainable living and be in charge of one's creative output. I would like to stimulate more discussion amongst circus performers with a view to improving our ability to be creative and economically successful. Let me know your thoughts...

Post Script
I have contacted The National Fairground Archive and they informed me "When The Circus Comes To Town" will be re-broadcast on BBC 2. I will let all interested parties know when I get the date.

1 comment:

  1. Wow I would have loved to seen this.

    I always wish I could have gone to a circus back in it's heyday. This book http://www.amazon.co.uk/Circus-1870-1950-25-Jahre-TASCHEN/dp/3836520257/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1314958506&sr=8-3 has some incredible photography of circuses if you've not already seen it. I have a copy if you want to borrow it.