Classic circus is a multi-sensory world, unique in its mix of sights, sounds, smells; in its history and in the way people and animals work together in partnership.
During a long career in the circus, Chris Barltrop has come to realise that, although everyone knows what is meant by the word ‘circus’, very few know its history or the way of life of the circus community, or understand how a Classic circus works in terms of organisation and artistic practice.
The Centre for Circus Culture is here to try and put right that lack of knowledge.
The CCC offers research facilities, historical talks, show organisation and presentation, and media contact. Its objective – its ‘mission’ - is to promote and foster understanding of all aspects of the circus in all its forms.
A Passion for the Circus
How CCC founder Chris Barltrop and his family discovered the circus.
For well over forty years now, Chris Barltrop has been fascinated by the circus. His involvement began by chance, but quickly became a passion.
Here's Chris's own story:
I’d graduated from drama school and I was looking for work as an actor. My wife and I had a baby daughter, so when an advert in The Stage newspaper offered a ‘long season’ with a travelling circus called Hoffman’s, the thought of working together as a family on the move had a big appeal. ‘Luxury accommodation provided’, the advert said, ‘best terms in the business’.
It wasn’t performing work. I was to become a ‘biller’, persuading shopkeepers to let us put posters in their windows a week or two ahead of the circus arrived in each town. My wife was to sell show tickets in the advance booking office, and it would be our family home. A home on wheels.
We went to Lincolnshire to see what the job- and the accommodation- would be like. The booking office had been a mobile hair-dressing salon for film location work. It had running water from a built-in tank, gas heaters, air-conditioning, an on-board generator, a Calor-gas cooker, rails to hang our clothes, and a padded bench which (with a fold-up flap added) converted to a double bed. Oh- and a built-in toilet with a holding tank. Comfy enough- and anyway, this was an adventure.
We were plunged into a world centred on the circus tent and what takes place there, of activity radiating from the mobile village of caravans and animal stables, where fantasy doubles as our daily reality, where the stars of the circus ring also knock in stakes on build-up and drive show lorries through the night, where the family caravan is the hub of people’s lives and suits of glamorous sequins are our friends’ working clothes.
We agreed together to stick out the season even if things turned out to be awful. They didn’t! Overnight, we were absorbed- totally absorbed in our commitment to this community, artistic but tough, simultaneously very public and very unknown, which had accepted us as new members.
And, quite quickly, we became absorbed into that community. We were amazed at how hard people worked to make the show happen and - in most cases- to carry on their own family tradition passed down the generations, daily adapting to personal circumstance just as the circus adapted its layout to the size and shape of each site it used. Fast-moving and fluid. A world separate from the larger world outside, within it but not of it.
Home for the winter at the end of that first season, I re-lived moments from it in memories and dreams, and took out every circus book from the lending library. I began to learn the fascinating history of the circus, as well as other people’s stories and experiences. We drove to Lincolnshire to take Christmas gifts to one or two at the circus; I asked if we could come back after the winter for the new tour, and someone said ‘Ah-- you’re hooked now!’
I denied it-- but it was true.
Three years after that beginning, I first performed as ringmaster for Gerry Cottle’s Circus in a Christmas production in Cardiff. As well as making announcements, the ringmaster is also stage-manager of the performance, and acts as artistic director, deciding the order of the different acts and choreographing opening and finale sequences and linking material with clowns and dancers. And, traditionally, he’s the manager of the circus- so the job is akin to being the actor-manager of a stage company.
In all those roles and more (stake-hammerer, lorry-driver, sawdust-shoveller...) I’ve worked with many circuses since, and helped their proprietors’ success by organising publicity events, Press photos, and TV appearances. There’s quite a list of circuses on my CV now – Hoffman’s circuses as one-ring and also as three-ring; Gerry Cottle’s, with and without animals; Jimmy Chipperfield’s; Great Yarmouth Hippodrome; Zippo's; John Lawson’s; Circus Berlin; as assistant ringmaster at the Circus World Championships in London; in France for fifteen Christmases; on a winter tour in New Zealand in a show including circus acts and also a Chinese acrobatic company; in Ireland, Holland, Germany; and as ringmaster and general manager for the Moscow State Circus on tour in Britain.
Since my start in 1973, though circus life can still involve sleepless move-nights or struggles against the elements, technology has made the hard work of touring a little easier. The circus has continued to adapt and change, partly to keep up with changing public taste and partly when change has been forced on it from outside. The ’Classic’ style of circus remains the most popular, attracting the largest audiences; but the more ‘theatrical’ styles also appeal, and I’m happy to know that circus holds its place as one of the most enduring and entertaining art-forms.