250 years ago, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley drew out a circle in the ground and filled it with astounding physical acts. This spectacle was the world’s very first circus.
Winning entry – Black & White International Award, 2016
Small travelling circuses visiting regional towns and villages have been an integral part of British life for many years.
In the 1950s there were over 100 travelling circuses – many family run – now there are fewer than 20. In most rural areas of the UK, the circus coming to town provides the only form of live entertainment. For many of us, the first live performance we saw as child was a circus performance – and we hold those memories dear.
But, the tradition of family members following their established way of life is fast disappearing. Eastern Europeans trained in the old communist state circus schools have replaced many of the old-time British family acts. Despite this, the travelling life is still ingrained in most circus performers and circus troupes are still a tight-knit community that supports each other.
The biggest challenge facing the circus in Britain is the recent ban on animal acts. The last of the elephants and lions, that once thrilled adults and children alike, have been sold to other circus’s abroad or retired. Most circus owners claim that their animals were well treated, but tenacious campaigns by animal welfare groups using video showed this was not always the case. After years of battle, the British government relented and passed banning laws – the circus has had to adapt.
Thrills and laughter are the name of the game more than ever now, blazoned with a soundtrack of loud and raucous ‘fairground’ style music. Acrobats, trapeze artists and knife-throwers, joined by jugglers and tightrope walkers offer the thrills and occasional spills. The clowns provide ever-popular tomfoolery and the master of ceremonies – the ringmaster – microphones the commentary that keeps the show running at pace.
Backstage – or back of the Big Top – there’s an electric mix of pre-performance apprehension and tension, of psyching-up, practicing, flexing muscles, toning-up, frenetic changing of clothes, prop-changes – followed by post-performance releases of adrenalin and laughter, camaraderie and fooling around. It’s here that you get to see and appreciate what the circus is all about.