The International Spectacle Vol. I, No. 4




 By Stewart McGill

 The world famous Gerry Gottle’s Circus returns to the UK for a 31-week tour with a promised outstanding new production… 50 acts in 100 minutes!

 I must confess to feeling a slight vested interest in the re-launch of Gerry Cottle’s Circus, as it was on the stage at our own theatre, The Dream Factory, Warwick,  in October, 2011, that Gerry told an audience of young people and guests from across the industry that 2012 would see the long hoped for tour of the show. It came as a surprise, especially after an earlier projected revival had not happened and, of course, there was the fact that we were in the midst of economic gloom providing fairly lack luster conditions in which to mount a large scale circus from scratch!

Arriving at Gerry Cottle’s expansive Wookey Hole complex deep in ruralSomerseton a beautiful spring day one discovers a youthful energy rigorously harnessed under director Willie Ramsay in the training hall. A first run of the all-British themed finale shows the talent of the Wookey Hole circus trainers now embarking on their first professional engagement as the core ensemble for the show. A melange of cycling, trampette, aerial silks, illusions and tumbling suggests that the new Gerry Cottle Circus will fill the ring with the dynamic force of a new, young, circus troupe.

Gerry Cottle, fifty years a showman since he ran away from his stockbroker middle class family to embark on a quest to rediscover, after the heyday of British circus in the 50’s and early 60’s, what circus might be to a new generation of audiences. His apprenticeship with both Robert Brothers’ Circus and veteran Joe Gandey taught him all aspects of the business from grooming, clowning and juggling to tenting and publicity. This was a real hands-on experience into what was the right stuff for making a new circus.

In 1970 Gerry and his business partner Brian Austen set out to take a show on the road, the Cottle & Austen Circus using an ex-flower show marquee. This was the subject of a television documentary and when the Cottle/Austen partnership was dissolved in the mid 1970’s the all-new Gerry Cottle’s Circus emerged and grew to become a household name reaching audiences in many locations across the globe. Productions in Asia, the Gulf States, multi-units in the UK and, of course, the weekly television show from 1975-1979, Seaside Special made the Cottle brand as large and dynamic as the Smart’s had been a decade or so earlier.

Gerry Cottle captured the public’s imagination with a never predictable approach to the development of circus. His vision enabled the tours of the Moscow State Circus, Chinese State Circus and other entertainments. He was directly instrumental in creating the cult success Circus of Horrors in 1995 atGlastonbury heavily influenced by the French circus Archaos. He never tired of circus as its forms, styles and modes of presentation changed and after retiring from travelling on the road, re-launched Wookey Hole inSomerset as a mixed entertainment complex including a circus museum, circus school with daily shows and an ever increasing range of family attractions. As one walks into Gerry’s office it is unusual, but oddly appropriate, to move through a hall of mirrors reflecting the many facets that Gerry Cottle brings to circus.

To celebrate fifty years in the circus business by opening a new show not only demonstrates a life-long love of circus but also a determination to bring it to the widest possible audiences. It’s not an easy task, “Wookey Hole virtually runs itself now. I have a strong management team in place and, you know, if I stand still I get bored. Willie and Lesley have done wonders with our circus school and it seemed right to give the students a real opportunity to work after training and, hopefully, reward the rigorous process they have undertaken. Really in this part ofSomersetthere are few jobs going and apart from going into retail not a very exciting set of options. I felt full of ideas, as I always have, and wanted to explore how some of the production ideas we developed here at Wookey, for example, 60 acts in 90 minutes could work on a tour,” he outlined.

The Cottle rule―no boredom for the audience― is top of the agenda in planning the new show.  “I really want to bring variety back but in theatres it is almost impossible. The building designs vary from narrow proscenium openings to vast orchestra pits with large gaps between audience and artist, so the new circus does place speed and variety at the centre of the idea with a direct audience contact possible in the round.”

Much of the equipment and tenting structures have been bought from Gerry’s old partner Brian Austen and formerly used on the tour of the Chinese State Circus. A 38-meter big top comfortably and individually seating 1,200 enables 50 acts to be presented in 100 minutes.  Now, that’s fast!

Watching rehearsals it’s unusual to see so much happening at once on ground and in the air with Gerry and his creative team ensuring that every act is playing at three to four minutes even if the full routine is eight minutes the decisions are very selective on content to keep a swiftness and a ring full of color throughout each act.

With the running order finally being sorted Gerry reveals a thematic sequencing to the show, opening with a “Happy Days Are Here Again” grouping before journeying to “Carnival inRio, Pirates Party” and moving to the “Great British Street Party” finale. Within each collection Gerry has mixed fine speciality acts from circus and magic alongside ensemble dancing, illusion, presentation and, was he joking… the arrival of Zumba to the circus? Some familiar circus names arrive at Wookey Hole as the show gears up to move out to Southsea Common for its opening stand including the Folco Family returning to the UK having first appeared here with Billy Smart’s Circus in the 1960’s. David Folco takes on the challenging mantle of tentmaster for the tour. The entourage is a company of 35 in the ring with 50 on the road. At this time in theUKthe venture is high risk, but Cottle is determined to re-establish circus as a core popular entertainment for everyone. Here in theUKthe Arts Council now recognises circus as an art form. A long overdue decision. Yet the emphasis remains on circus-theatre conceptual works that tend to appeal to arts-goers rather than the general public. Traditional circus still finds it hard to rediscover its core audience.

One of the biggest innovations in the planning here has been the decision to charge one price for all seating in the Big Top, a mere £10 a ticket [approx. $15] . Gerry believes, “at this price I hope we can make it very popular again. Our souvenir programme will cost £2.00 where others charge £4.00, I am determined to be available to all families wherever we go on the tour,” he stated.

There is no lack of support putting Gerry Cottle’s Circus back on the road. The programme has letters of goodwill from MP Tess Munt and no less a spiritual figure than the Bishop ofBathand Wells. I have to admit that in my recent experience it is rare to come across such positive enthusiasm for an artistic venture in an economic climate of restriction and closure.

Whenever Gerry Cottle’s Circus hit the road it presented a strong visual treat from the initial approach.  I am very impressed with some beautiful proposed transport designs. Gerry has startling visual conceptions for the outside appearance of the circus, but is cautious and does not plan to introduce streamlining visuals and a much desired foyer tent immediately. As the tour develops and, hopefully, box office proves successful the additions will arrive in time for the back end of the first season. We both agree that there is nothing like a packed big top for atmosphere and this has to be the priority as a 31-week tour sets off on the road.

In the training hall the artists work to backing tracks to get timing and rhythm in tandem. On the tour there will be a live band directed by Robbie Lupusni and, again, Cottle’s demands for authentic circus atmosphere require the live sound. Gerry Cottle is no dreamer and his new show is rooted in the harsh realities of entertainment today, “We’ve got to make it pay. That’s the bottom line. We move swiftly, pulling down on Sunday and opening on Tuesday at the next town. In midsummer moving intoCornwallsome of our stays are only for three days. I want us to rediscover the circus audience everywhere we go, and I’m a great believer in the ‘wow’ factor! What has been very positive in planning this return is the wonderful support of my family who are fully involved and very excited by the ideas. I am thrilled to be back with a magical and joyous circus at the same price as a cinema ticket. I’ve put together some of the greatest acts from around the world and a troupe of high-energy youngsters to ensure everyone sees live entertainment at its very best,” Gerry stated.

There is every reason to feel optimistic for this tour, and watching the rehearsals, I sense a rethinking of what a totally popular circus can be in these difficult times. Gerry Cottles name has built a huge reputation for making the very best family entertainment and this exciting new venture bodes well for the continued energies of British Circus.