Gerald Barclay-Balding believes in the joy of the circus (Picture: supplied)
By Amy Dawson
8 Jul 2013
I’m afraid my involvement with the circus came about entirely via nepotism. Clare Balding is my cousin and our family have been horse dealers and trainers for generations. Our mutual great-great-grandfather sold horses to all the circuses in Britain. Then my father’s cousin co-founded Circus Flora in South Carolina. So the family really does have circus history.
My bedroom caught fire at 5am one morning in 1985. I kept all the stock for my clothing business in there – and it burned to the ground. I was at a total loss and my family suggested I go to the circus in Charleston for six months, which turned into ten years. There’s nothing better than sitting on a big top on a starry night, drinking a beer after a hard day’s work putting it up.
Circus is a thing of magic. I realised that for two hours you could take people away from their lives and give them something totally joyful, without any angst or depression. There are darker circuses now but, in principle, it’s a thing of wonder.
I went to the US primarily as an artist, to design props and sets but I ended up training elephants for four years. I spent the summer travelling with Circus Flora then, in winter, worked in Miami zoo. I looked after Flora, the African elephant after which the circus was named, and she’s now a real favourite at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. I haven’t been to the US in a few years but if I did visit her, she’d know me.
I started Giffords Circus in 2000 with Nell Gifford and her husband Totti. I was there for seven years but unfortunately I got arthritis. When you’re on top of someone’s caravan trying to fix the electrics in a strong wind, with your fingers like sausages, you take a break. But now, thanks to the National Health Service, I have marvellous new drugs and can go back to the circus.
The thing about the circus is that you wear many, many hats. For example, when I was the ringmaster at Giffords I was also the stage manager, prop designer, puppeteer, electrician, lighting designer and the rigger. But I make a good ringmaster because, basically, I like people and I like communicating with them. The circus has always been the people’s entertainment.
I’m now married with two children and they will be with us at the Standon Calling People’s Circus this summer. We’ll be looking for everyone’s talents, such as juggling, slackrope walking and setting up some sort of human pyramid thing. If this works nicely, it would be something to take to other festivals.