The Archive: Celebrating 21 years of Circus of Horrors

Doctor Haze, founder and artistic director of Circus of Horrors, in performance. Photo: SeventhWaveImagery Doctor Haze, founder and artistic director of Circus of Horrors, in performance. Photo: SeventhWaveImagery
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“Taking the extreme to the mainstream” is how Circus of Horrors founder Doctor Haze puts it. And since the show is celebrating 21 years of putting rock music and circus acts through a blood-splattered blender of freak show and theatre, its “undead” ringmaster is clearly doing something right.

profile circus of horrors“Who’d have thought we’d last for 20 weeks?” Haze reflects. “And here we are, still going strong and booking tours for years ahead.”

His secret, he says, is to produce a show that he truly loves.

“I’m a firm believer that if you like something enough, other people will like it, too. For example, I’m a huge T. Rex fan. I also like football, and I’m not alone in that. There are millions of T. Rex fans and millions who like football. So if you believe in what you’re doing and like it enough, other people will probably like it, too.”

Haze was born in a travelling circus. He grew up eating fire and performing fakir acts. When he was 20, he left the big top to form a rock band. But while you can take a man out of the circus, you can’t take the circus out of a man. Before long, he’d added juggling, fire-eating and illusions to his rock show – and the seeds of the Circus of Horrors were sown.

In 1995, Haze partnered with Britain’s leading showman, Gerry Cottle, to stage the Circus of Horrors in a big top at the Glastonbury music festival. “Gerry’s daughters had a show called the Cottle Sisters’ Circus,” Haze recalls. “So we used their tent and all his family, plus my rock’n’roll band. By the third day, we were packed to the rafters.”

Since then, the show has been shaped by public reactions. “We noticed what people liked and what they didn’t like, worked on the things they liked and changed the things they didn’t.”

COH advert from The Stage issue of July 18, 1996
Circus of Horrors advert from The Stage issue of July 18, 1996

Influences included America’s Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and French company Archaos. The former featured cringe-inducing stunts such as performers springing mousetraps on their tongues and throwing darts into each other’s flesh. The latter filled a circus ring with crashing cars, motorbikes and chainsaws, set to rock music.

Over the years, Haze has recruited Jim Rose-style performers such as tattooed sword-swallower Hannibal Helmurto and Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf, who attaches a Hoover to his penis. He also brought in Archaos founder Pierrot Bidon to direct the Horrors.

After four years in a big top, Haze redesigned the show for the extensive theatre tours it undertakes today. “One reason was the cost of transporting everything needed for a circus plus everything needed for a rock show,” he explains. “At one point, we had 20-plus articulated lorries dragging us around the country – more than Pink Floyd. The other thing is the importance of location. Theatres tend to be in the middle of cities, where you wouldn’t be able to put a tent.”

The problem was that the sort of people the Horrors appealed to didn’t normally visit theatres. “We had to persuade that alternative audience that these beautiful old theatres fit the show perfectly, and advertise in places theatres normally wouldn’t, like rock mags, tattoo mags and biker mags.”

At the same time, the Horrors has reached a mainstream audience through copious television exposure.

“Davina McCall hosted a programme called Don’t Try This At Home. I ended up providing a speciality act every week. That was 7.30pm on a Saturday and the television companies suddenly realised you could put these extreme acts on at prime time, people liked them and they weren’t getting loads of complaints. So we did Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, This Morning with Richard and Judy…”

Haze admits he took a lot of persuading to appear on Britain’s Got Talent, where the Horrors became the only circus to reach the finals. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it lightly,” he cautions. “You have to think about it carefully and be prepared for them to say not very nice things about you. But, at the end of the day, 35 million people saw us, and every year they repeat our performance among highlights of the previous seasons.”

Haze is also good at generating press coverage through publicly stunts. The Horrors hold 20-odd Guinness records, including the world’s biggest custard-pie fight and largest human mobile, which comprised 16 men – including Haze – suspended from a crane 150ft above the Thames.

“Give the media stories they’d like to print. Do their job for them,” is the showman’s advice.

5 facts circus of horrorsFor their first theatre tour, the Horrors were helped by an Arts Council England grant. “They liked the fact we would be bringing a new audience to theatres,” says Haze. Since then, the show has been self-supporting.

“We prefer to do it that way because if you get grants all the time, you’re living in a false world. I’ve always lived in the commercial world where you don’t get anything for nothing, and felt that hard work is rewarded.”

The success of the Circus of Horrors has taken Haze to the top of the circus tree. He recently became part owner of the Moscow State Circus and this winter staged Continental Circus Berlin on Ice. Running three shows and performing nightly as singing ringmaster gives him a gruelling schedule. But the 56-year-old in white face paint and top hat takes it in his stride.

“So many people go through life not enjoying what they do,” he reflects. “I’ve lived a charmed life, doing exactly what I want to do. I’m lucky, and I think I’ve done that through hard work.”

Find Circus of Horrors tour dates at www.circusofhorrors.co.uk

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15