Douglas McPherson

Circus Mania (2010) Douglas McPherson.

Mr McPherson seems quite a prolific journalistic writer. His own promotion says he contributes to the Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian and The Stage and many publications to cover entertainment.

He is obviously a professional journalist with close links to that fraternity. He likes promoting books by fellow colleagues and seems rather obsessed with circus matters, specifically matters circus animal. He claims to love circus but concentrates upon events derogatory to the cause like the latest resurrection of the Ann the Elephant saga (yet another book) by a fellow colleague.  This is made clear in his now long published book promoted online in the Huffington Post blog and Circus Mania. It’s tone or approach is mailny at odds with my personal promotional thoughts (gathered from working for old circus employers) that the best image counts or, ‘lose the negatives and promote the positives’. He complains at one point within his  ‘circus mania’ blog that the press is not really bothered about reviewing circuses. Perhaps the answer is my call for a central circus Press Office. I have not found this strictly true in any case. I have read various reviews of shows like Cirque Soleil in the national press but then Mr McPherson uses the word ‘circus’ to describe as a whole the wide canvas entity of the industry but then claims that ‘diversity’ is the magic that the public want with circuses of all shapes and sizes, contents and approaches. His logic does not always hold. If one is to review a stage play (as Mr McPherson apparently does) then each play is totally different from another with so many factors to consider. Be as this diversity in circus promotion is now the norm then how can one not look at each effort individually and not compare with another different effort? Yet his book constantly talks of ‘circus’ meaning the whole. Even in ‘the old days’ shows had vastly different cultures.

Dissecting personas and selling cheaply for a massage of egos.
Mr McPherson starts his introduction with ‘what is a circus?’ In my youth it was a lovable concept with many variants – I know that the general public liked the word and it was generally respected as I have posted elsewhere. But that was the long past of 50 years ago, I have yet to find anyone within circus itself currently who is openly proud of the past; I would like to hear it and would like to read credible books that paint a nice honest picture – leaving aside the warts as this writer puts it. I sometimes shudder seeing a circus book or a film ‘here we go again!’ I feel. I am afraid this book contains much to shudder about!. It seems to be rather liked by a few in leading places and being a journalist it confirms perhaps why parts of the press like it. One quotation he uses being a Sunday national calling circus a dying art form. He prints this as an accolade for his book. But of course this quote is not a truism but a rather biased view like much of Mr McPhersons book and other items. So it comes down to taste. The public still like the concept of fabulous talent in the round. The question is what is the image concept? This applies to any business but if circus is now to be ‘totally diversified’ then each image of the different show production should tell the true story via the promotion – honestly and separately. The word ‘clown’ for instance, is now almost totally destroyed of meaning to the public because of the image from strange unpalatable interpretations and journalistic writers.

That national press header to describe his book used the old title ‘the greatest show on earth’ as sardonic (and in any case meant Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s combined circuses so hardly an accurate description of Mr MacPhersons book!). The book is constantly repetitive with pass-me-down well out of date philosophies but the writer, like other fan writers have a bad habit of taking one quotation to mean the whole of circus and of the many people engaged when it is just one quotation that could be biased as well. Unfortunately this is a very bad habit of some circus fans and followers. Like supposed slang words (referred to stupidly now as a ‘language!) Mr McPherson thinks this kind of thing is ethnically colourful, rather than nonsensical. Like the word ‘parlari’ meaning speach not to be confused with the theatrical ‘polari’ (He says) so let us also add the word  pronounced mungari mangiare meaning a meal. To my knowlede these are Italian words. In my experience they would be used as fun or community expressions if Italians were on tour – nothing more is it time for some mungary! However, according to the extended gossip or Mr McPherson these ‘special language’ words are from Romany – to Yiddish – to Russian and Italian! (He finally gets there!)

Do fan writers really love circus? Or is it just a money machine for them?
To analyse does Mr McPherson love circus? I know he claims to but examine his approach ‘perhaps you think of a clown face with a red Ping Pong Ball for a nose’ he says. Perhaps the word conjures up darker images; the sinister clowns of horror films, Victorian lion tamers with cruelty hidden behind the curtain’.
This passage is on the first page of introduction, hardly a circus loving? No credible circus clown wears a ping pong ball for a nose, tumbling would cause injury but this fact would escape fan writers. The so-called sinister idiotic ‘clowns’ of horror films are actors but this image to frighten children is loved by the media and persons who know little or care about the art. McPherson has now placed a vile interpretation on his blog (hide your eyes little children!). None of these weird interpretations and clear insult to great clowning and artistes have anything to do with circus or family entertainment – these interpretions are child abusive and I think meant to be so!


(One member of our audience considers a clown looks like this! We loved the innocence of children).

This mystical ‘Victorian lion tamer’ is another inventive persona that he or I have never met and know nothing about. In any case there is no reason why lion training would be any different then to the current incarnation that Mr McPherson seems to find perfectly acceptable when he says that Chipperfields were presenting trained lions in the 17th Century so he destroys his own logic again.

Mythology, gossips, anecdotes and truth stretching

When one deals with some writers of modern circus books one should sup with a long spoon! Most mean well and some parts are good but it is a minefield. Beware the circus fan writer! As mentioned elsewhere, to them the word circus seems a toy, a plaything full of colourful nonsenses divorced from the real world because this is how they wish to paint it or want it to be – no fun following normality or normal people is there?. The truth as I knew it and lived with for many years, were about extraordinary people, with ordinary thoughts, promoting a business to please the paying customers like any shop. Performers are small businesses with constant niggling worries – keeping a vehicle and caravan running is a task in itself. (Again! The book refers to ‘wagons’ no one has ‘wagons’ anymore they are caravans or the American ‘trailer’). It is a strange life but circus as I knew it tried to make it as normal as possible and to engage with the local towns not feel divorced from them. The main advance promotional person would arrange with local shops to deliver to the circus well in advance of its arrival. My experience with Billy Smarts told me (again) that the ring and its performers mattered more than anything else that was looked on as a necessary problem to cope with (I was actually told this by David Smart).

This journal is full of personal prejudices (that a more intellectual book might ignore) and misquotes or out of context quotations and it is also rather childlike in approach. It is also prejudiced to promote a favoured few, leaving aside far more than it claims to represent in circus. It also leaves out the majority of current circus show titles, Mr McPherson clearly has a bias to ‘new wave’ promotions and ‘new wave’ styles (or alternatives) in clowning. Most of which is very rude and unsuitable for children.
The book then refers to ‘the changing character’ of clowning (avoiding the word ‘circus’) without inspiring any details. It also repeats over the much used accumulated (anecdotal) knowledge already circulated in many past circus books with constant reference to Philip Astley again and again several times on different pages. He complains that there are few circus books about yet ignores the fact that circus fans have placed 1,000 books  in the University of Sheffield.  He must draw our attention again to ancient Rome (one several pages) and the origins of ‘circus’ that had no relationship whatsoever to the ‘circus’ following the conceptions of the equestrian Philip Astley (whose name must be repeated over and over) who did not use the word ‘circus’ at all but amphitheatre. The writer refers to this as ‘circus history’. Rome had nothing to do with circus history in modern meaning or any meaning but writers must keep using it – why?

Modern writers like to use expletives in books. Being that children are likely to read this one – why do it? The better shows I toured with would not allow bad words on the tours – who might be crossing a park to hear it Sangers actually said. A circus is using town property. He does not like the old circus tune ‘Entrance of the gladiators’ (that according to my Billy Smarts LP is called Entry of the Gladiators) that he refers to, again, repeatedly. Along with (quote) ‘the smell of the camel pee in your nose’. Unnecessary surely but if one removes most of what is unnecessary it would be a shorter book. He refers to modern circus people as ‘breeds apart from any other entertainers’. This kind of nonsense does circus no favours but secretly I do not think Mr McPherson wants to.
Chapter one starts with his childhood appraisal of ‘old circuses’ a very hackneyed coverage use over in past books – who cares one might ask? Yet more repeated words about old clowns ‘one seemed to be in charge – a straight man maybe and another clown wearing (again!) a ping pong ball!’ Surely the writer should know that most comedy is based upon the bright one and the daft one such as Abbott and Costello. This is old Variety as much as old or new circus. ‘After the show we went back to the animal tent rich with dung and hay’ (he basely must tell us). Any stable manager of merit would never allow a badly cleaned animal tent.

The Hippodrome Great Yarmouth

The 1955 circus programme produced by Billy Russell with the Hippodrome Circus 10 Piece Band Directed by Bernard Weller. The Ringmaster, Mr Roberto Germains. Laughter supplied by Spider Austin and Company, famous clowns. The running order with three actual animal acts with three other acts with equestrian content out of 13 act items. Bernard Weller was the Musical Director with Billy Smarts during the 1970 season,

  • The Grand Circus Parade
  • Poulo’s fast Voltige
  • The Sandow’s troupe of comical dogs
  • Li Chung Zsai troupe from China
  • Richard Sandow’s troupe of Shetland ponies
  • Madam Clarinda Lady Ballerina
  • Billy Russell’s Sea Lions
  • Molins Domini Trio (Tripple bars)
  • The Interval
  • The Mohark fast riding troupe
  • Ray Cotez and Assistant (flying trapeze)
  • The Two Heinkes – unicycles
  • Little Walter and Daughters
  • The Sandow Sisters amazing trapeze
  • The Grand Caribbean water Spectacular produced and Directed by Billy Russell.

Mr McPherson then places 20 pages about the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth and its current ownership. Personally, as you see above, I am well versed with the building having spent a wonderful season there with the family during 1955, a pity that the book fails to mention the then owner and producer a generous kind man Mr Billy Russell. The book fails to mention (in fact no-one in the circus fan area mentions) the many wonderful 16 mm films shot, personally, by Mr Russell to cover every seasons full show programme. One wonders where they might be. The CFA memorabilia collection in Sheffield perhaps? The writer says he was sent by The Stage to review the show (some years ago – not Mr Russell’s) having reviewed many shows (he says) covering stage and pantomime for that paper ‘not knowing what to expect’. Rather strange when the famous rather large circus has been there since 1900? He refers to it as ‘the steamy humidity of a jungle!’ Hardly helpful. Of course that did not occur to me when I was there. He also mentions the swimmers. I might inform Mr McPherson of this joyful memory that during my season the showgirls would sunbathe on the dressing room roof between shows! I was one of those young performing clowns assisting Spider Austin he refers to but without a ‘ping pong ball’! It was a girl’s only area up on that flat roof with much dashing to our youthful hopes.
He says that the current owner producer dispensed with animals 15 years ago ‘as one of the art forms leading modernizers’. The book refers to the deliberately chosen ‘ear-splitting’ chart music. Unfortunately like a virus, in circus if one does something it will spread to others! I have seen two recent circuses where the need is to place plugs in the ears. I fail to see how this is good circus art but the circus fan writers like it. The Hippodrome proprietor tells the writer ‘I used to hate circuses! I had been to the Hippodrome a few times as a child they had terrible lighting and music’. Please see the photos taken of my sisters trapeze and my father’s Shetlands during 1955. ‘And the worst musicians’. I remember a very good band with the band-leader being also the band leader with Billy Smarts Circus 1970, an excellent band of twelve musicians.

It must be Cirque!

According to the writer the media dislike the title ‘circus’, one wonders how friendly is Mr McPherson? What is wrong with the word? It is not a swear word that seems to be used constantly in this and other books, TV shows and films. By suddenly putting the word ‘cirque’ on a poster or a vehicle it is more media friendly. How ridiculous and how totally patronising to the public. How childish. The writer refers much to Cirque Soleil but this is a Canadian arts funded show and the French language is a language of Canada. Again we have this constantly mentioned word josser to ‘mean persons who are outsiders’. Please writers, it should mean persons who are untrained, or not worthy of the task – 90 or whatever per cent of circus performers are not of an historical family – are they all jossers? This is again patronising. In my hearing it meant a derogatory term for anyone performing an amateurish effort. The modern press idium is ‘cowboy’.
He makes a statement on page 44 that animal acts far outnumbered human acts prior to 1955.  However the statement, again is generally a nonsense. The book implies a total alternative to ‘old circuses’ with small companies using different formats. This has always been so. We ourselves toured a small company both on Civic stages and under canvas during the 1970s. Circus need not always be big. This, I am afraid is yet another annoying promotional belief by circus fans, unless it is a huge show then it is not circus. We had a very nasty experience by the CFA during the 1970s about this issue.

He seems to like referring to mud and mud floors! Yet another bias, for even in this country it does not rain that much and green grass would be more the norm. I might advise all FAN book writers (if they must) do mention that on rainy days, during my experience, the cast would be engaged digging a trench around the side walls to keep the water from entering the tent.
He provides a poor impression of one large circus describing ‘an old fashioned style clown’ whatever that might be, with a red nose (Mr McPherson seems to have a thing about red noses! At least avoiding the ping pong ball this time). One wonders why Red Nose Day still keeps the title. ‘This clown is doing the rounds selling things’. (All artistes are doing so now!) Why this passage should occupy the book one might wonder along with the knowledge about a problem seating people and the knowledge that ‘the wood family is attending’ meaning empty seats. I might again remind book writers that this is an old theatrical term also but to McPherson it is only for ‘circus folk’. Yet another reference to the Gladiator march, his opinion this time ‘a modern cirque style show wouldn’t play it in a million years’ (I do think circus may die out in a million years)! ‘They would find it unspeakably naff says Mr McPherson’. One might ask; so what? He then goes on to say how the show was lifted by the music as a start piece. Writers have a good way of making back handed compliments.
‘The advertisement efforts for circuses has always been low key’, he claims. Where the writer gets this is again a mystery. There was huge coverage for shows during my time. He states that few posters are in towns but fails to state how small shops have widely disappeared over years for multi-chain branches who never hang posters for anyone.
There is a chapter on Freak Shows. Personally I have never liked these kind of presentations. Old fairground side booth exhibits perhaps but for circus the mix is wrong. My father would say ‘please the mothers and the children and one cannot be far wrong in circus’. Freak items fail this test. Not circus. At least Mr McPherson does recognize that fact. So, why waste a chapter on it? He states that prior to the 1950s fairs and circuses toured together. I cannot recall any of this. Of course the book keeps wandering from this country to America so perhaps he means America.

Animal Crackers!

The book contains a chapter and much about the performing animal issue (again more historical pages repeating the story about Astley already given) with this heading; circuses and animals have gone together since trick horse rider Philip Astley built the first circus ring in London  250 years ago. But will animal circuses survive? Not very well I am afraid if left to the (I will use the word!) josser approach of Mr McPherson and others who keep stirring the pot of confrontation. These few persons constantly say all animals which is historically nonsensical – many past smaller shows toured a few ponies and pleased the public. He makes much about ‘versatility’ in circus but circus is not a circus without a lion act according to Save U.K. Circus that Mr McPherson supports and publicises along with other Facebook groups. They should understand but doubt that they will, that small circuses were too ill-equipped and recognised the fact to tour wild animals. My father was one and so was the late Joe Gandey who I represented for some years. His small circus was well received throughout the North of England during the 1960s. The book says, during the first half of the twentieth century animal acts far outnumbered human performers. A quite ridiculous statement. Where this comes from one wonders. As I recall, Billy Smarts presented four large animal acts in a show of 18 acts and two large scenic presentations with artistes and animals like the wild west finale. Human acts always outnumbered animal acts. This was assumed to be a balanced circus. The book wastes many pages repeating contents covered in other past books. Most people know the facts other than the children so perhaps it is for the school library.

Please! Do not help me! (The Producers)

It is full of so many contradictions, quoting one propretor past who did not approve of performing monkeys and equally another that all animals love their performances but then goes on to criticise another proprietors manner and public relations. A king canute holding back the tide of change (quote). And ‘there are no protesters or many paying customers’ claims Mr MacPheson. He goes on; ‘having in recent weeks attended near sold out (human) circus shows in large theatres. Its a disappointing turn out. I walk to the entrance across dry mud (He does mention mud a lot). He goes on to describe the circus interior as if no one as ever seen it before – darkness and many poles. Pulled up just inside the entrance is the burger bar like one sees on a lay-by (that is educational!). The warmth from the food stand is a fleeting relief from the frigid air that is a reminder we are not in a cosy theatre but a tent in the middle of nowhere. Yet another mention of the tune Gladiators. (I might add ‘old circus’ toured with bright canvas and the daylight would pass through. They also lifted the side walls for fresh air in the mornings! The new tents are thick plastic).

He is a great ‘name dropper’ throughout the book, but I do not wish to name current people or shows although Joe Gandey was one excellent example for illustrating the past. Why can not these enthusiasts understand that any circus, even the so-called ‘new circus’ could include a fine display of working dogs?  Or a single pony or single dog routine? I think they despise the thought along with the words ‘small circus’. Mr McPherson makes much on two or three different pages about a kneeling pony giving acknowledgement to the audience. This was with one knee. A moment that makes the animal lover in me cringe he says. In my past memory the pony or horse does not put the knee to the ground so a fail to see the bother that must be simple to do compared to the much harder demands made on racing or showjumping or dressage that he fails to mention but one wonders why he does not feel ‘cringy’ about those?

He claims that Britain has a reputation for producing the best animal trainers then makes the claim (elsewhere) that if animals are lost to circus here ‘the rest of the world will follow’ which is typical of the inconsistent message. The truth is; there are fine trainers all over the world and some real josser ones as well. What is needed is a strict register of professional animal trainers and the rest never given a licence.

I will conclude with one circus, Zippos. Its owner tells him; ‘our policy is to use domestic and never wild animals and from this policy we gained thirty London boroughs to allow their better sites to our show. As for animal rights groups, we received some criticism from Born Free and others so I said come and meet me. Nobody from a circus had ever had a meeting with an animal welfare group before. We followed their better advice because it made sense and for the interests of the animals’. It then follows (he said) that animal rights groups have other agendas like the the banning of meat and pets.

I have always argued what has this to do with performing or working animals and why make a problem larger with confrontations? It is clear that Mr MacPherson and a few others (who have no animals!) who are now dominating the ‘wild animals in circus’ lobby are making the problem worse and (in my view) helping to recruit far more to the animal lobby causes that affects the whole of circus. Let us be clear, the majority of circus be they proprietors or artistes and certainly the general public are not that bothered. Surely these people like members of the circus friends who support these online groups should take notice of Zippos and move to the equestrian for the sake of box office? After all only two circuses are touring any wild animals and these are minimal – why all the fuss? But if the vast majority of the public had no complaint it may not sell circus books ?

Final thought

At the start it list all the journals Mr McPherson writes for as a reviewer. My question is this to some fans and writers. Do you venture into the personal thoughts and personas of the actors taking part in plays? Why not micro-scrutinise their off-stage behaviour? What gives you the right to think you can micro-scutinise circus people and their privacy? Perhaps artistes might start micro-scrutinising the personal lifestyle of the Circus Friends! I am sure they would have a complaint about that. Of course some circus people are guilty of providing the gossips.



The local press were not afraid to use circus or clown for our stage shows.










Author: Tom Sandow

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *