Roll up, roll up! Bring back the traditional circus
A new initiative to transform circus in Britain threatens to strip the Big Top of its intoxicating magic
Tented circuses have been overlooked by the new initiative
By Dea Birkett
16 Mar 2014
I gasped, I laughed, I howled, I cried. Last week, the National Centre for Circus Arts was launched by culture minister Ed Vaizey, promising to transform circus in Britain. But the trapeze artists that opened the show didn’t swing in a Big Top, but in a converted warehouse in Hoxton, London’s cutting-edge, art-galleried East End. There wasn’t a bulbous red nose or speck of sawdust in sight. And the party food wasn’t candyfloss, but croissants.
This is new circus – sanitised, safe, publicly subsidised. It brands itself as the future of this two century-old art, yet looks enviously back to the fantastical spectacle and physical prowess of the past. But that past was not present at the launch. Not a single traditional tented-circus proprietor was invited.
Yet tented circuses are the soul of Britain’s circus industry, with around 40 still touring the country. For a few nights, village greens, muddy fields and abandoned car parks on the edge of our small towns are transformed into magical, exotic worlds. Each week during the winter, more people queue up to see the custard-pie clowns, liberty horses and the Globe of Death at Zippos Circus than can fill the Royal Albert Hall.
It is this circus, in a red-and-white-striped tent – not a hipster-filled neck of London – that countless children still dream of running away to join. I was one of them. As a child watching the circus on my local recreation ground, I’d marvel at men walking on stilts and wobbling on the high wire, clowns squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs. I didn’t want to do anything in the circus – just be in it, part of that sparkly, secret circle.
But it wasn’t until my thirties that I eventually became a shimmering, frothy, feathered showgirl. Knowing it would soon be too late, I ran away to join the circus.