A toast to British big tops under siege: Showman Gerry Cottle, left, with author Douglas McPherson and Circus of Horrors ringmaster, Dr. Haze.
Looking for another glorious rehash of Ringling Bros. history? For a blistering account of animal abuse under the big top? For a "study" of nasty sexist bias against female performers in the ring? Go somewhere else, and have at it. Now, if you'd like to know just what the hell has been going on over there, across the pond, where the modern day circus show was invented, here is a wonderful book to check out.
Traditions under attack: You might say the trouble began when pushy pushy Brit animal activists got the government to virtually ban elephants from big tops, the ban lasting for about ten years, until the Lords were forced to repeal their ban based upon evidence to the contrary. Among the losers, the great English circus producer Gerry Cottle, who tried putting on an all-human circus, could not make box office on the "all human" angle. lately, he has partnered up with the founders of Circus of Horrors, which rings in big houses night after night.
The book, Circus Mania, was written with illuminating detail by Douglas McPherson, a literate journalist (think Robert Lewis Taylor’s superb Center Ring), and, while it might not be a page turner, it is for certain a chapter turner. Circus Mania will likely take a place of honor on the highest shelf with Antony Hippisley Coxe’s classic A seat at the circus ---- but for very different reasons. While Circus Mania, perhaps like Coxe, excels in accurately describing various acts, it also advances beyond Coxe’s arguably narrow focus (he was not a lover of production effects or infusions at all) to examine competing definitional claims by a newer generation (and they seem to grow more numerous -- and ominous -- by the hour) of what “circus’ can be, spread across a sprawling UK spectrum. The landscape may be alive with creative ferment, but the crowds, overall, still seem sparse. More about this in a future post. I am taking notes.
We, in the USA, seem to have somehow escaped the same fate. On this side of the pond, circuses that send their animals to the barn themselves end up in the same place, on permanent hiatus. Think Circus Chimera. Think Pickle Family Circus. The vexingly mediocre "all-human" Circus Vargas, still out there playing to a tent far closer to empty than to full whenever I show up, could use at least the redeeming joy of a good dog act, even an amateur dog act.
McPherson’s devilishly detailed chapter about modern freak shows (and I mean the bloodiest, most kinkiest you can imagine ) is so graphic, I, a career wimp, was forced to shun sentences now and then. It also comes with a cool Brit sense of humor. We are not, kids, in the land of the Ringling Bros. We are not sinking into some hyperventilated academic treatise or cultural declaration of war against how women, up until say 10 years ago, were never allowed in a circus tent to do anything other than stand half nude, posing as sexy assistants for male stars (a dreary feminist fantasy). This is a book about the Brit circus scene that puts you right there. And because a lot of "experimentation" leads to humdrum showmanship, you will giggle and you will yawn. I am only sorry for the author that the publisher hatched a rather gloomy and oddly uninviting cover design.
The UK only gave us, in theatre, Shakespeare, in film, Alfred Hitcock, in pop music – have you heard of the Beetles? And in the sawdust ring, heck, they practically invented the damn thing as we know it. So, how ironic it should be that the UK has perhaps been the hardest hit by the activists, who have succeeded in tarring "traditional" shows as "animal circuses." McPherson comes into the tent without any baggage whatsoever (other than fond memories of watching some elephants parade through his town in his toddler years), so you are getting a trustworthy account of what is going on over there. Half way through this excellent read, I can say that he seems to have developed an appreciation for traditional circus, and at the same time is youthfully able to cover the fringe shows, of which there are many.
And here I shall, for now, take a brief break. I will have fun ahead sprinkling bits from Circus Mania in future three-dot efforts.