Britain’s cultural exports range from Shakespeare to the Beatles, but today, the 10th World Circus Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate one of our most enduring contributions to the global stage.
The world has always had acrobats, jugglers, daring horsemen and clowns of one sort or another, but it was Englishman Philip Astley who put all those elements together in London, in 1768, to create the circus as we know it.
Astley performed before royalty and took his new form of entertainment across the Channel to every city in Europe. His rival Charles Hughes introduced the circus to Russia, and Hughes’ pupil John Bill Ricketts took it to America.
In time, the circus spread to every corner of the globe. In each territory it absorbed local traditions and brought them back to Britain: Chinese tumblers, Cossack riders, Wild West displays and animals of every type.
Before television and wide-spread foreign travel, the circus introduced rural Britons to lions, elephants, polar bears and other creatures they would never otherwise have seen.
These days, animal circuses are viewed less favourably, but the big top has evolved to keep pace with changing tastes and thrives just as strongly without its beasts, as epitomised by the worldwide success of Cirque du Soleil.
The circus has always been socially progressive, giving high status to women, ethnic minorities and the disabled long before they attained equal rights in wider society. Victorian horseman Pablo Fanque became Britain’s first black circus proprietor while America still had slavery. The dwarf Tom Thumb became a wealthy celebrity.
The big top has always been at the forefront of technology, too. Circuses were lit with electricity before most people had power in their homes. Circus introduced the travelling cinema and later embraced television. For a generation in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Christmas circus was an annual ratings winner. Half a century later, circus acts remain crowd-pleasers on Britain’s Got Talent and its international equivalents.
The flexibility of the circus format has allowed it to continually update itself with new spectacles, from the flying trapeze to human cannonballs and tightrope-riding motorbikes. In Germany, holographic elephants are the latest attraction at Circus Roncalli.
Immersive theatre and pop-up theatre are modern terms for concepts that the circus has embodied for 250 years. The travelling circus puts world class entertainment within walking distance of the smallest and most remote communities. It builds its own theatre – the big top – overnight and creates a magical world unlike any other where audience participation and the smell of candyfloss are part of the experience.
Today’s circus world is more diverse than ever. Traditional shows with horses and dogs retain a timeless charm while avant garde performances provide a more cerebral experience. There are family circuses and adult-orientated productions such as the Circus of Horrors and Cirque du Vulgar.
In other parts of the world, the lions still roar, as British big cat trainer Martin Lacey Junior proved when he won the Gold Clown at this year’s International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo.
The circus truly has something for everyone, whether large or small, in a theatre or big top.
Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania (Peter Owen Publishers).