In a hi-tech age where many people are plugged into their smartphones and tablets 24/7, there remains an old-fashioned romanticism about a trip to the circus.
From the pratfalling clowns making us laugh, to the acrobats who perform incredible feats of skill and dexterity, or the contortionist that makes you marvel at the limits of the human body, they embody a wide array of talent all gathered under the big top.
But it’s not all laughter behind the scenes – it can be a tough life, full of uncertainty, as the quartet behind Circus Wonderland have discovered.
The Wickham-based circus was formed four years ago by siblings Peter and Grace Arnett with Paul Carpenter and Kriss Freear. Peter and Grace’s father, Pip, once owned the UK’s largest private collection of circus memorabilia and their grandfather, Peter Snr, was the man behind the Crown Bingo halls and a legendary Portsmouth showman, so they were brought up well-versed in the circus world.
While Peter prefers to stay on the managerial side, Grace performs as a foot-juggler and hoop artist, and Paul and Kriss are The Popolinos – the show’s award-winning clowns.
They are currently nearing the end of a five-day stint at Stubbington, before they embark on their annual nine-month tour around the UK.
As Paul, 40, says: ‘There aren’t too many people who can say they do the job they wanted to do when they were a kid.
‘Most people get up in the morning, and they look at the same view, they take the same route to work, seeing the same people, having the same routine every day, and I just thought I don’t want that sort of lifestyle.’
However, Grace quickly cuts in: ‘But I still have to see him every day!’
But behind the joking around though, they take their work very seriously.
Paul says: ‘We used to work for other circuses, so we didn’t have this responsibility. It is a juggling act. By day I’m in the office doing paperwork, dealing with staff, arranging things, and then by two o’clock I’m thinking about the shows.
‘We do sometimes say: “How long can we do the clowning as well as running the business?” But we would be devastated to give up the clowning.’
By circus standards, Wonderland is relatively small, with a big top that holds around 500 people and a staff of about 20.
But some of those staff have come a long way – this year it includes a Spanish couple who are jugglers and a contortionist, a Hungarian hand-balancing act, and Bulgarians flying around the tent as a vampire and an angel.
And as Paul explains: ‘The show is a very fragile thing. You rely on all these performers, and there are no understudies.
‘We had a trapeze artist in the show last year, who was fine doing his act, but then one day he went down to the shops on his motorbike, had an accident and was out of action for six months.’
Wanting to bring over the best international acts can also have its own unexpected pitfalls.
‘I’m now registered as a sponsor, so I can sponsor performers who are non-EU, but they can bring their own problems.
‘Last year we booked some Ukrainians, right before war broke out.
‘They were stuck in the Ukraine, but we had all the paperwork done at this end – I was on the phone to the embassy every day. They eventually joined us halfway through the season.’
With more than 20 circuses operating around the country, competition is fierce. They once found their posters covered by a rival’s who were set up 10 miles away.
‘Because we are seen as “Jossers”, which means we weren’t born into it, they don’t take kindly to a new circus on the road,’ says Paul. ‘We do try to avoid the routes of other circuses, but it can be hard sometimes.
‘We mostly set up in council parks, and the councils can take so long to get back to you after a committee meeting, and when they do it will be with all of these extra rules.
‘The paperwork – the health and safety, the risk assessments – it goes on forever.
‘One council even asked us for a designated morgue on site.
‘Some of these documents are 50 pages long – people think I have a nice break in the winter, but this is what I’m really doing.’
And it can also be difficult to predict turnout: ‘It’s very up and down – that’s one of the things that can stress you out.
‘You have a good week and you think, great I can pay some bills off, but you have a bad week and it can get you down.
‘A lot of people don’t book, they just turn up on the night, which isn’t good for the nerves.
‘If business isn’t good, you can blame it on it being too hot, or too cold, or there was football on TV – there’s always something to blame.’
Even when things appear to be going well though, those you trust can let you down – early on a colleague was caught stealing from them. And there can even be angry misunderstandings when they arrive at a new site.
‘Because we live in caravans people thinks we’re gipsies or travellers,’ says Paul. ‘We’ve pulled up to sites and within a matter of minutes the police have turned up.
‘But there have been times when we have had kids throwing things at our caravans and we phone the police and can’t get them to come down to us.
‘People see how we live, but they don’t realise I have a first class degree, we pay our taxes and go about our business lawfully and legally and we work hard. We’re not sitting around the campfire in the evening, sharing a pot of stew and divvying up the money. We take great care to leave the sites as we find them.’
But despite all this, Paul concludes: ‘For all of the ups and downs, we are living our dreams, and we love it.’
Circus Wonderland is currently at Crofton Manor Car Boot Site on Titchfield Road, Stubbington.
There are performances today at 2p and 5pm, and tomorrow at midday and 3pm.
Tickets cost £10 or £12 for children and seniors, £12 or £15 for adults.
From Wednesday to Sunday, March 1, they will be at The Car Boot Site, in Bursledon Road, Southampton.
Go to circuswonderland.com or call the box office on 07531 612240.