Circus brings Billy Smart’s tradition to Portsmouth

Kevin Porter

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In an age of computer games and 3D technology, some might think the traditional entertainment provided by a circus has had its day.

But Gary Smart definitely doesn’t agree.

A trapeze act at Billy Smart's Circus

A trapeze act at Billy Smart's Circus

As grandson of the legendary Billy Smart, he jointly runs the famous circus named after his grandfather - and has now brought it to Southsea Common as part of its first full tour for more than 30 years.

Although Billy Smart’s Circus was in the city 10 years ago, it hasn’t been on a proper tour since 1971, when it stopped because of the huge cost of transporting the crew, performers and animals.

Now animals are, of course, not included. But the appeal of the kind of old-fashioned family entertainment provided by the circus is becoming more and more popular.

Sussex-based Gary, 58, says: ‘It’s live entertainment, so it’s not just being sat on your Xbox and seeing an image on a screen. It’s got a modern spin on it and there is plenty for the audiences to see. They can also get up and take part in sections of it now.’

He hopes the circus will attract a new generation, adding: ‘There are kids who haven’t been exposed to this kind of live entertainment before. There is no image trickery – what you see is the skill of that person performing. You only have to watch the kids’ faces so see how impressed they are.’

Until Thursday, April 7, a range of artists and performers will take to the stage inside the 1,200-seat heated Big Top on the Common.

Gary says: ‘There’s a lady that shoots a bow and arrow with her foot and she’s from a circus family, and there is comedy with the clowns too. We stopped using animals years ago. The last circus we did with them was about 1993 – it’s all traditional acts now.’

Other parts of the show include aerial performances from Alex The Fireman, springboard acrobats from Romania, hand balancing from Desiree, comedian and clown Angelo, The Flying Aces on the trapeze and solo star Caroline.

There’s also Mathieu the clown, juggler Eddie and Josie who performs with aerial silks (pictured on the front of Weekend).

Gary, who runs the circus with Tony Hopkins, says: ‘This programme has been put together over the past year. It’s good to get it back on the road.’

Gary explains: ‘We did television shows until 1990 and we also did a touring show without any animals, but this is the first full tour for over 30 years.

‘It’s about time the tour was back on the road and we’ve worked hard to get it there. I lived with the circus when I was younger, and Tony was involved in selling balloons. His is the typical story of the boy who ran away to join the circus and ended up running it.’

As a child, growing up in the circus was always a family affair.

‘My father was Billy’s oldest son, so it seemed natural that the circus passed to me. I used to look after the Big Top when I was younger, which seems mad now because it probably housed about 5,000 people.

‘It was an experience and I feel like I had a very privileged childhood. I spent my life on the road. We moved week to week and it’s kind of strange to think that I spent my time travelling around the country.’

Gary adds: ‘It was quite something because I had a childhood that many didn’t have.’

Billy Smart’s New World Circus began in 1946 when the highly successful showman (known to his family and staff as The Guv’nor) bought a Big Top and added circus attractions to his travelling funfair. Over the next 25 years, the show became a household name across Britain.

A TV show, Tribute To Billy Smart, made history on BBC2 as the first-ever colour programme and the circus was known for its Christmas and Easter broadcasts that took place after the Queen’s Speech.

In 1977, the circus performed in the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

There was even a junior version of the show which featured young artists.

Gary says: ‘We would attract something like 20 million viewers, which is unbelievable really. It’s incredible that we were on TV three or four times a year and we would do a major tour and travel the country.’

One of the circus’s favourite places to stop and pitch up was always Southsea Common.

‘I remember standing outside the Queen’s Hotel with all of our living trailers and watching the big naval ships go by in the Solent,’ laughs Gary.

‘It’s always a great destination to take the circus to because Southsea Common offers so much space. When Tony suggested a southern tour again, it was obvious we had to go there.

‘We’re hoping the weather won’t put people off because they tend to forget that it is a heated tent.’

Gary adds: ‘My mother-in-law is from Portsmouth and she remembers us taking the elephants for a swim on Southsea beach. We did it after we walked and paraded them through the town. It was a big deal then and circus performers were like the rock stars of the age.’

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