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Martin Burton: ‘Circus is not just a job, it’s a way of life’

Martin Burton. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

Like moths to the flame, people are surging towards a big neon sign saying Zippos Circus in the wide open space of Blackheath in south-east London. This is not a theatre crowd, it is mostly people who think theatre is a bit posh, families who have been coming to Zippos for years. It’s more like a panto audience, with added candyfloss, popcorn and luminous flashing wands. Whatever kind of audience it is, there are plenty of them; the 1,200-seat Big Top is positively bursting at the seams.

The founder and director of Zippos, Martin Burton, an imposing figure, sits in their midst like the headmaster in a class of unruly children. For the most part jovial, he looks like somebody you wouldn’t want to cross. Seated next to him, I am treated to his running commentary on the unfolding show, the very first of Zippos’ summer season.

“He is the fastest knife thrower I’ve ever seen,” he says of Toni, who is hurling custom-made knives in rapid succession at a smiling woman strapped to a revolving wooden circle. “That’s his wife. It’s even more exciting after they’ve had an argument.”

When we come to the mind-boggling climax of the show – four leather-clad guys on souped-up motorbikes riding round what is billed as the Globe of Death, a cylindrical metal cage, criss-crossing each other at high speed like hornets in a jar – Burton admits that it is the only circus act he would never attempt.

A trained drama teacher, Burton took up clowning as a stopgap in the 1970s when he couldn’t get a job teaching drama. He joined a mime company in Winchester to get some performing experience. He found he could earn £70 an hour as Zippo the Clown, busking in Covent Garden. At the same time he started doing more edgy physical comedy routines with a company of clowns at a nightclub in Bournemouth.

“I was doing this stunt where I had to extricate myself from a locked trunk in which I was bound and chained. We used aircraft distress flares for added dramatic effect. Unfortunately, it all went horribly wrong and I set fire to myself. I spent a year in a military burns unit in Salisbury, having skin grafts. It was only the thick clown make-up that saved my face. You think you’re invincible in your 20s.”

The Globe of Death motorcycle stunt. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

Told he would never be able to do acrobatic work again, Burton teamed up with the veteran acrobat Johnny Hutch, who helped him restore the elasticity in his limbs and taught him many flame-free physical comedy routines.

“Johnny was a real mentor to me and he kept on at me to start my own circus. So I recruited an administrator and sent her along to Battersea Arts Centre where BP was staging an event to promote arts sponsorship,” he shares. “She didn’t know anybody there and when it came to the lunch break all the other arts admin people were sitting in a huddle. It turned out the man from BP didn’t know anybody either, so my girl said to the man from BP, ‘Do you mind if I have my lunch with you?’ and that’s how we got sponsorship for our first Big Top.”

That was 30 years ago. Zippos is now one of the UK’s top three circuses, touring from April to October with the spin-off Cirque Berserk!, which started out at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland in 2012, touring UK theatres from January to March.

If you are a theatregoer but not a regular circus-goer, it is easy to play along with the idea that circus isn’t what it was, but in fact there are more circus companies touring the country now than at any other time, albeit many of them are scaled-down versions of the circuses of our youth. Burton estimates there are some 50 touring companies working now, though only three that would fall into the big top category. “A circus is a circus,” he says firmly. “I don’t like all these sub-divisions, making the distinction between contemporary and traditional. The one true thing about circus is that it is always evolving.”

Was the arrival of Cirque du Soleil a big game-changer for traditional UK circus, I ask nervously.

“When Soleil first came here, it worried a lot of British circus people. It reminded me of when the Moscow State Circus came here in the 1950s. Everyone said that was it, big top circus was finished, but actually it beefed up the home-grown circuses. Raising the profile of circus is no bad thing. Soleil was certainly a different style of circus – they had a very clear vision of what they wanted their shows to be – but I’m not convinced history will see it as a lasting turning point.

“While we all admired Soleil and took things from it, it was basically a variation on what we’ve always done. Internationally now there seems to be a movement away from Soleil back to something more traditional.”

For the circus impresario there is always another headache or anomaly round the corner, from government inspectors to animal rights protesters to the ‘killer clown’ fad. The latter must have been especially irksome for Burton since he built his whole career on the back of Zippo the Clown. But even before last year’s spate of killer clowns, the whole red-nosed clown thing had undergone a sea change.

Toni Novotny and his wife Nikol’s knife throwing
routine. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

“British clowns wear very little make-up now, no red nose, no painted mouth,” he says. “When I started out as a clown in the 1970s, I wore a lot more make-up than when I finished in the late 1990s. They became unpopular because there were a number of Hollywood films that painted them as scary, which I think was unfortunate. I suspect last year’s outburst was a publicity stunt dreamed up by some marketing agency to publicise the release of yet another clown horror film.”

Currently Zippos has one extremely hard-working clown, Emilion, who is more Lee Evans than Coco the Clown. “Basically, the audience still wants to see someone fall over,” says Burton. “Circus audiences never get tired of slapstick, but the old-fashioned painted clown in costume has had its day.”

Animals, it would seem, have not quite had theirs and this year Zippos is presenting an elaborate horse act from Kazakhstan at one end of the scale, and an act featuring performing budgerigars at the other. Last summer, Burton featured an act with performing cats, that is to say the domestic variety not the big, growly kind. “It upset the animal rights people more than anything else,” he says with a hint of relish. “On the plus side, we had bigger audiences than ever because everyone loves cats; on the negative side, we had more objectors than ever.”

Neither wild nor domestic animals are banned from UK circuses, but they are subject to stringent regulations and regular inspection – “the toughest of any country anywhere in the world”, says Burton.

For the first 10 years of Zippos he got by without animals, but he says he was constantly asked by his patrons when he was going to introduce some wildlife. “I’m a farmer’s son, so I was used to being around dogs and horses. When I did eventually bring in animals, ticket sales went up by 25%. I bought 35 acres in Berkshire as winter quarters for the horses and we grow our own hay.”

He says he is regularly picketed by animal rights protesters. They don’t threaten him physically, but three years ago in Herne Hill they did £100,000-worth of damage to one of his tents and equipment for which they were prosecuted and imprisoned.


Q&A: Martin Burton

What was your first non-circus job? Working in a timber yard.

What was your first paid circus job? Busking as a clown in 1975.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Jonathan Kay and Johnny Hutch.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t play with fire.

If you hadn’t been a clown and a circus owner, what would you have been? A drama teacher.

What’s your best advice for auditions? I’ve never auditioned anyone for Zippos. I travel the world to see acts performing and then decide if I’d like to hire them.

Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions? The circus is full of superstitions – never sit with your back to the ring, the colour green is bad luck, so are tin trunks, it goes on and on. I try to ignore them but I’m not always successful.

In 2012, Burton launched the smaller, animal-free Cirque Berserk! at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland event, and it has been successfully touring UK theatres during the winter months ever since. The Stage’s Mark Shenton gave last season’s show four stars. Four days after Berserk closes, Zippos opens its spring-summer season.

“Berserk is basically a circus made for the theatre,” Burton says. “It arose out of a conversation I had with Bill Kenwright about co-producing a circus-type show. That didn’t happen but a lot of the technical people on Berserk are from the Kenwright stable. What we’ve learned from Berserk has been fed back into Zippos. Our audience consists of 37% of people who have never been to a theatre before, so we’re bringing people into the theatre who wouldn’t otherwise have come.”

In 2010 Burton launched another big top touring circus, Phoenix, with a view to expanding the business. He brought in a top circus manager to run it but the strain of overseeing two big tops simultaneously proved too much and Phoenix bit the dust after three years.

Martin Burton with the Rastelli Clowns. Photo: Piet-Hein Out

“It’s a very, very tough life. I’m at my desk at 6am, answering emails, doing paperwork, and when the circus is on the road I probably won’t finish until 11pm. Luckily, my wife enjoys the circus way of life. The people who work for me (there are 110 on the payroll when Zippos is touring) are committed not just to their own act, or even to the show, but to the way of circus life. You have to be. They will work themselves to death to maintain that way of life. I have five young Brazilian men happily risking their lives on the Globe of Death motorcycle stunt at every performance. It’s not so much a job as a way of life.

“The deal is that, when they have a problem, be it medical or visa or whatever, they can come to me and I will sort it out. The circus manager is there to look after his artists and that is what I do.”

If Burton is the troubleshooter-in-chief, then his esteemed ringmaster, Norman Barrett MBE, a circus legend in his own right, is the company mascot, still cutting a dash in the ring and keeping a grandfatherly eye on the younger members of the company, many of whom have honed their talents overseas. Barrett was a fixture at the Blackpool Tower Circus for 25 years before he defected to Zippos. His performing budgies act, which he has been doing for half a century or more, still delights audiences at every performance.

Burton says there will be a job for Barrett as long as he wants to continue. “The most important thing for me is that someone fits in to the company,” he says. “When you are on the road, you get to spend a lot of time together, so everyone has to get on. It’s a big family thing as well, passed on through generations. A lot of circus people learn their skills from mum and dad.”

Norman Barrett and his budgerigars

In 1993 Burton set up the Academy of Circus Arts, a vocational course, running from May to September each year, which attracts wannabe performers (mostly aerialists) from all over the world. The students tour their own show, Zippos Festival Circus, to galas and county shows, learning practical circus skills as they go. “You need the adrenalin of an audience if you’re going to be a circus performer,” he says. “When I started out I never used to learn anything unless I knew I was going to be doing it in front of an audience.”

As with pantomime, circus not only has to inject new life into a well-worn format but also please a wide variety of ages. A skilful trapeze act is probably going to impress grandpa rather more than it will the children he is treating. Burton is acutely aware of the need for new blood infusions and this year’s Zippos is an exhilarating mix of acrobatics, brilliant horsemanship and breathtaking daredevilry, although I could have done with less audience participation, which is always so hit and miss.

For all the headaches and anxieties associated with running a circus, Burton isn’t planning on giving it up any day soon. “Wherever we go, people think it’s their circus, whether it’s a southern Asian audience in East Ham, or the white middle classes of Twickenham Green. That’s what makes it all worthwhile: how much people of all ages and backgrounds still want the circus coming to their town. It’s hard work and you’re constantly problem-solving but I absolutely love it. I wake up every morning thinking, ‘Fantastic. Another day.’ I have the best job in the world.”

CV: Martin Burton

Born: Oxford, 1954
Training: King Alfred’s College, Winchester, BA (hons) in drama
Career highlights: Zippo the Clown’s debut in Brighton (1975), Established Zippos Circus (1986), Named clown of the year by Clowns International (1992), Established Academy of Circus Arts (1993), Presented inaugural London International Circus Festival (1995), Zippos Festival Circus first circus to perform at Buckingham Palace (2003), Zippos receives the Variety Artistes Centenary Award (2006), Cirque Berserk! debuts at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park (2012), Cirque Berserk! tours for first time (2014), Elected president of Clowns International (2016)

For details on Zippos Circus events, visit zippos.co.uk

Part of The Stage special edition focussing on circus. For more circus coverage click here

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