‘The way to keep going is to keep it fresh’

IN TOWN Gerry Cottle, and inset, some of the circus performers.  Picture: Malcolm Wells (121185-9381)
IN TOWN Gerry Cottle, and inset, some of the circus performers. Picture: Malcolm Wells (121185-9381)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Stepping into the huge big top on Southsea Common is like entering a different world.

Outside it’s warm and sunny but when you step into the dim tent it’s nearly impossible to see anything.

IN TOWN The circus performers.  Picture: Malcolm Wells (121185-9326)

IN TOWN The circus performers. Picture: Malcolm Wells (121185-9326)

As your eyes adjust it’s possible to see there are people everywhere. Sitting in the gloom they are watching a rehearsal, while sewing machines whirr away on one side fixing costumes, and a bunch of young performers stretch and chat to each other.

But tonight the lights will go on for the opening night of Gerry Cottle’s circus show.

After a break of almost a decade, Gerry has decided to premiere his new show here in Southsea.

‘Southsea is always a nice place to start,’ says Gerry.

‘It always has big crowds and the council let us come in 10 days early to get ready.

‘You get a good mix of people here. A lot of towns don’t have proper circuses but it’s great here. I must have been here about a dozen times throughout my life.’

This year marks Gerry’s 50th year in the business. The 67-year-old has been involved with the circus since he ran away from his middle class family to join one as a teenager.

He’s led a colourful life, going from a millionaire to bankrupt and then building himself back up again.

And he’s certainly seen the business that he loves go through many transformations over the years.

‘Circuses have been going for nearly 250 years now and ever since I ran away people have been saying it’s dead,’ he explains. ‘But it goes in circles.

‘I’ve had some great years, but now there are a lot of rules and regulations.’

He adds: ‘Circus has a fantastic history and there are still 100 circuses in Italy, 100 circuses in France.

‘The struggle on tickets now is VAT. I think it’s a criminal tax.’

One of the biggest changes has been the use of animals in circuses.

Although Gerry hasn’t used animals since 1993, last month it was announced that under new government plans, circuses will be banned from using wild animals in their shows.

Draft regulations for the bill will come before parliament this summer, and a tough regime will be brought in to improve conditions for performing animals while changes in the law are developed.

Speaking about the decision, Gerry says: ‘Animal shows probably should be stopped now, there’s no point going around in circles.

‘I stopped and it’s a shame with some of the animals like the horses, because they’ve always been part of it, but things like caged lions don’t really have a place in circus any more.’

He adds: ‘We’ve got to make changes and change radically. Since I’ve been here the most radical change has been the animals.

‘The question [of cruelty] has always been around but it’s snowballed in just a few years.’

He still describes his new show – 50 Acts in 100 minutes – as a traditional family performance.

But the change of directions he’s made over the years hint at how vital it’s become to offer the fee-paying public something different.

He began cleaning up after the elephants in small family fun shows but went on to become one of the most influential men in the British circus industry.

When he began running his own circus in 1970, it featured all the traditional thrills and spills you’d expect to find.

By the mid-1990s though he was helping to promote the Moscow State Circus and later the Chinese State Circus – both still big names in the business.

It was at Glastonbury Festival in 1995 that Gerry opened the edgier Circus Of Horrors.

Featuring the kind of tricks that make your eyes water, it took circus away from the big top and into theatres.

Gerry recalls one particularly memorable visit to the Kings Theatre in Southsea: ‘I remember they have quite a steep rake on the stage there, so it slightly dips down towards the orchestra pit.

‘We’d finished sawing the man in half and he started to roll down the rake! He nearly ended up in the orchestra pit.

‘I was back stage watching and taking notes and I was like “Stop him, stop him”. He could have killed himself!’

While Gerry’s still very much involved with the Circus of Horrors, for now he’s concentrating on getting his new show on the road.

His daughter is involved with performing, as well as some of his grandchildren.

And although he acknowledges that it’s a tough industry, he’s adamant that the show must go on.

‘It’s a very people-based business and we get a lot of staff workers and six to eight boys doing the publicity,’ he explains.

‘These people need to earn a living.

‘But the hardest thing is trying to get people to come to the show and persuade them that it is good show.’

He adds: ‘The way to keep going is to keep it fresh. No-one really is over 40 and it’s all young and new daring acts.’

After an eight year break he’d be forgiven for wanting to take it easy but Gerry – who also owns the Wookey Hole tourist attraction in Somerset – was keen to make his return.

‘I thought, you know, if I don’t do it now I never will.

‘I’ve had a great career in circus.

‘Maybe it’s the start of a swan song.’

CIRCUS FACTS

· The ring is traditionally 42 feet in diameter. This was established over 200 years ago as the ideal size for horses at full gallop.

· A few circus superstitions include never wearing real flowers in your act, green should not be worn in the ring and a bird flying inside the ring is very bad luck.

· Common acts traditionally used in the circus include acrobatics, gymnastics, aerial acts, contortion, stilts and juggling.

· The popularity of the circus in England can be traced to Philip Astley in London. The first performance of his circus was held on January 9, 1768.

· The word circus derives from the Latin circus, which is the romanization of the Greek kirkos, meaning circle or ring.

· Animals were traditionally an important part of circuses, with over half the acts using horses in the performance.

· The most successful of modern circuses is Cirque du Soleil – the Canadian circus company has an estimated annual revenue which exceeds $810 million.