Beneath the Big Top by Steve Ward

‘Beneath the Big Top’ by Steve Ward – 2014. But first an opinion of Memorabila, where it is and reliability.

It would appear that very few circus people, if any of late, have concerned themselves with the writing of journals or books. This area is well covered by enthusiasts and academics. I do wish to be totally fair, there would not be any books if not for ‘away from circus’ writers. One or two efforts from circus people over the past thirty years. The problem is, that such writers may angle the book to their particular slant and re-tell past old stories that may be different retellings over time. The truth is then liable to be fogged. Of course circus persons are no better! Most of these embroideries are relayed by them and willingly repeated as facts. Recently a well known circus artiste, who failed to find a credible publisher, was encouraged by a self publishing circus friend to publish his memoirs, or rather, ‘misery memoirs’, heavily criticising persons no longer with us so were unable to defend themselves, a very colourful stretched storyline of real events.

The British Circus Fans Association has amassed many hundreds of books over years along with historical photos and memorabilia. Some time ago it was deposited in the Sheffield University.

The current somewhat out of date mix of fairs with circus art.

If one goes back to around the 1830s we would find that travelling fairs contained circus type shows. Later large circuses toured under canvas, the most notable being Lord George Sanger during the Victorian era. Then many more including Barnum from America. It is well known that the original circus conception is awarded to Philip Astley (see other pages) who commenced his equestrian shows in London to include a stage with actors and pantomime. We may gather that the original link between circus and the fairground – as an art – has grown wide, yet the whole collection is under the main heading ‘fairs’.

But that is not the real issue. The whole placement of this, our website and its content is to reach the general public to see the truer nature of circus demands and skills. I said this to the leaders of the C.F.A. years ago, at the time they deposited the memorabila, to make it easy to view online. This would mean careful vetting and editing by the C.F.A. The association apparently shows no interest and the stock is left within the library of the University.  Why would the University wish to be botherd sorting it? So it is now exceptionally hard to locate for the general public. Under search headings ‘memorabilia’ circus photographs’ ‘circus history’ this stock is not currently listed but to academic writers it is available as the book ‘Beneath the Big Top’ will shows.

How good are circus books?

I am somewhat reticent about books covering circus and the same applies to films covering circus. (The great Benny Hill produced one so true sketch, he being a film producer being interviewed. ‘I loved the way you embroiled that little black dog crossing in the background and the sudden change from colour to black and white. Fantastically artistic’ (Benny Hill) ‘actually, that dog was a pest on the set and should  not have been there and half way through the shooting we ran out of colour film!). I feel that unless the subject is written via personal experiences it could be biased in certain ways. One exceptional good circus book was written by the grandson of Lord George Sanger, George Sanger Coleman entitled of course The Sanger Story. I have just placed another excellent book telling the story of Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus. As for the films these are not ‘circus friendly’ to me. The film Trapeze for instance with Burt Lancaster was a strong story pressed into two hours to cover a full season of many weeks. Personally I would have Directed it much differently! For most subjects a film may suggest ‘a gap of days here or there’. (Examples ‘Casablanca is set in less than one week). So a circus plotline, in contrast, seems very frantic and eccentric which is not fair for most of any season must be predictable and rather repetative out of the ring.

Beneath the Big Top

So to the book ‘Beneath the Big Top A Social History of the Circus in Britain’ by Steve Ward.

He acknowledges quite a number of areas for research including the British Museum but so much of the data is from this C.F.A. National Fairground Archive with a large mention for the Circus Friends and their magazine. Mr Ward thanks them for advice, perhaps the first piece of advice they may have given is the correct title! ‘Big Top’, this  is an Americanism, for circus in this country always refers to the main tent as ‘the tent’ and tours are called ‘tenting seasons’ (to be fair tenting seasons are also in America). The book is well written of course but this is a book for dedicated enthusiasts or fans because 90 per cent of the content has already been well covered within other books in this referred to library of books. So writers do produce – repeat – some mystical image of circus so they themselves promote this image. I would plead with them to grasp the reality and stop dredging warts of the past to represent the present. The truer picture (like any professional stage show!)  is 5 per cent tragedy and 5 per cent chaos and upheavals with the rest – as stated – predictable and unchallenging.


Mr. Ward packs the book with ancient stories and quotations with one going back to the 14th Century to microcosm 2000 years into 200 pages so it is bound to be sketchy. He tells us himself that ‘the only connection between Circus Maximus (Rome) and modern circus is in the title. One may wonder then why chapters were spent upon the connection with so little meaning to Philip Astley. The book seems a little critical about the Variety Artistes Federation without giving any real insight to why it was involved with circus. The advisers should know that Actors Equity was set in motion by actors to confront the then appalling treatment by some managements at that time and the Variety Artistes Federation (now a part of Equity since the 1960s) was likewise set in motion against certain managements who left artistes stranded in theatres that engaged hundreds of Variety performers including circus acts. Prior to 1950 at least 500 Variety/Circus artistes were on tour and the V.A.F along with Equity were also involved to try and keep a good quota of home produced talent for stage and the British cinema screen.

‘Josser’ ‘Flatty’ ‘Outsider’ lables.

Mr. Ward says in the book’s forward that ‘I am a Josser’. Unfortunately such a term is well out of date. It is supposed to mean someone not born of the circus (perhaps credible 60 years ago) but so much of circus past and almost totally now is made up of persons not born of circus. Surely it is time that writers and advisers moved away from this nonsense. It infers that circus as a business, as a collection of artistic people are insular backward or out of touch. Not good for selling a product. When I heard the word in my youth it was a general term of criticism against anyone making a mess of something! ‘He is a right Josser’. the term then meant ‘unprofessional’ in any job capacity. (I was actually called that myself on some occasions! I always took it as constructive criticism to learn from). The reality of circus on tour must mean professional management, to ensure that engagement with each town played is with empathy and not isolation, the reverse message put forward by some writers and circus friends who seem to like circus to be a kind of fantasy !

The acceptance of Grotesque clowning (should not be so!)

The book refers to some ‘groteste costuming of modern circus clowns’. Most clowns I do see in circus are wearing little make-up or are dressing down with most circuses touring one single clown to appear between acts. Very few are now touring the old fashioned troupe style. What the public wish to see are happy personas to please the kids. The book also wrongly claims that circus clowning is an ‘affliction’ (where did this nonsense come from!) It is not an affliction it is a pure art supposedly childlike humour best exemplified by the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or even Tom and Jerry. The word ‘affliction’ would not occur to the general public unless it is fed to them by (josser?) circus friends and writers.

The book says much about performing animals and overmuch perhaps about escapes and tragedies but being that the history is over 200 years the proportion of occurences, as bad as they might have been, occurred in circus no more than anywhere else. Much is said too about the hardships suffered. Fact; that during the two world war periods due to the loss of manpower to the forces they were terrible struggling periods for circuses and a shame perhaps that the persons who filled the spaces were not mentioned – the ladies and girls of the circus who did most of the huge workload left behind. The book refers (without qualification) to circus being conceived as ‘a vulgar form of entertainment’. Perhaps, but Mr Ward should have made clear how great later proprietors managed to lift this image with George Sanger having words with Queen Victoria. It is not true from my experiences or via the classy promotions of the 1950s. With Sangers for instance, patrons would arrive in cars wearing evening attire. Full velvet coverings on all the ring-side chairs (not so currenly with circuses. I must admit that some modern shows are deliberately ‘low brow’ in places and some promotions have been less than classy.


EPSON scanner image

ring master

In contrast how Billy Smart would look upon ‘in touch’ promotion. This was the General Election of 1970 where a Manchester press call was arranged to co-incide with artistes posting there ballot papers! (I was the ringmaster on the left). The Postman is quite genuine and appeared quite by accident to the astonishment of the photographer! See circus Administration and the placed arrangements made for each town.

Author: Tom Sandow

born into showbusiness - full life entertaining, management, agency, engager of acts and artistes - show producer presenter.

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