This is a story about my daughter, Nell Gifford, creator of Gifford’s Circus, who died of cancer last December. Nell was in love with the circus all her life. As a small child she got her sister, Clover, to dance on the pavement while she, Nell, spun the wheel of her upturned bike. Beside them was a white top hat into which they hoped money would be thrown. Later Nell said she wanted to be a monkey trainer. After leaving school she went to America to work for Circus Flora. On her return she went to New College Oxford and got a first in English Literature. Then she went back to the circus and spent her early twenties doing every job, from muck-shifting, riding elephants and stallions to driving circus trucks all over the country. She became the ringmaster for Santus Circus, and spent a year in Germany working for the enormous Circus Roncalli. At this point she wrote her first book, Josser, which is a circus term meaning ‘outsider’.
Nell’s next move was to create her own circus, Giffords. She did this with her then husband who provided the technical back up. She started with an old tent, ninety silver gilt chairs and a juggler who dropped his clubs. Twenty years later, Giffords is a legend. It plays to six hundred people a show, three times a day, and spends the spring and summer touring the south and west of England. Nell opened each performance, dressed in a gorgeous costume, cantering into the ring on a white stallion that greeted the cheering audience by rearing on its hind legs. Nell said that she wanted her audiences to go ‘Into a land of pure magic’. At Nell’s funeral her friend, the actor Helena Bonham Carter, described her as a magician and a wizard.
I wanted to work out what it was about circus that so obsessed Nell. Over the years, she gave me a lot of circus books and I started my quest by pulling one down from the shelves and opening it at random. I found myself staring at a painting of an ancient performer, a nearly naked female acrobat frozen in a backward somersault, her arched body balanced on the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet. The image is on a fragment of pottery drawn sometime around 1400 BC. The acrobat would not be out of place in a modern circus. Similar figures can be found in ancient civilisations all over the western world.
The word ‘circus’ derives from the latin circus which is a romanisation of the Greek, Kirkos, meaning circle or ring. It first appears in English in the fourteenth century. Roman circuses, such as the Circus Maximus, were for chariot races, dangerous versions of the Grand National or the Cheltenham Gold Cup but not circus as we know it today.
The first modern circus was started by Philip Astley in 1768. He was a larger-than-life cavalryman, over six foot tall with a commanding voice and a reputation as a daredevil. When he left the army in 1766 he was given a strong, grey horse called Gibraltar which he decided to use to make his living. Astley could make his horse feign death, fire a pistol and appear to perform mind reading tricks. He realised that if he cantered his horse in a tight circle he could use the centrifugal force to stand on its back and execute seemingly impossible acrobatics. Astley toured the country displaying his skills. By 1768 he had made enough money to open a riding school near Westminster Bridge. He called the establishment Astley’s Amphitheatre Riding House. By the time he died Astley was reputed to have had nineteen ‘riding houses’ in Britain as well as others in Dublin, and Paris. He introduced jugglers, clowns, tumblers, rope dancers and magicians and conjurors to entertain between the daring riding acts. By 1780 Astley had given up performing, but controlled what happened in the ring, so inventing the role of ringmaster.
In America tented circuses began to appear, introduced by P. T. Barnum, a sixty-year-old chancer. Barnum spent his life entertaining people. At twenty-five he exhibited a blind and almost paralysed black woman, claiming that she was 161 years old. He made her work twelve hours a day. Later he met the singer Jenny Lind and offered her one thousand dollars a show to come and sing in America. The tour netted Barnum over five hundred thousand dollars, more than fifteen million dollars in today’s money. Starting a circus was a natural development for him. In April 1870 the people of New York State and New England were showered with leaflets advertising The P. T. Barnum Museum, Menagerie and Circus, International Zoological Garden, Polytechnic Institute and Hippodrome. Spectators were led through a series of tents containing a menagerie, magicians, mechanical wonders and freaks, until they arrived in a big top where they sat and were entertained by galloping horses, clowns, jugglers and acrobats. In 1872 Barnum had the idea to move his circus on specially built railroad cars travelling from city to city by night. He added another ring and renamed the show P. T. Barnum’s Great Travelling Exposition and World’s Fair, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome, Poytechnic Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Hall of Classic Statuary, Mechanics, and Fine Arts, Garden of Zoology and Ornithology, later shortened to The Greatest Show on Earth.
In 1859 an acrobat arrived at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris. His name was Jules Léotard and he came from Toulouse where his father had a gymnasium and swimming pool. One day Leotard noticed that there were two ropes hanging from a roof ventilator. He tied them to a wooden bar and invented the trapeze. By the time he got to Paris he was somersaulting between three trapezes. He had no safety net although the management had insisted that he place mattresses on the ground to cushion him should he fall. The costume he designed is named after him.
Another legend was Lillian Leitzel, who appeared in sheer tights, a tiny skirt, a tiny top and a bare midriff. She wore her long red hair loose and had golden ballet pumps on her feet. Leitzel stood on a small platform, high in the roof of the tent, lit by a single, dazzling spotlight. Drums rolled, as she slipped her hand into a padded loop attached by a swivel to a hanging rope which she slowly swung round and round. Then she hurled herself, spinning, into the abyss. This is known as the ‘full arm plange’ or ‘dislocate’. The centrifugal force caused the bones in her right shoulder to dislocate, only the strength of her muscles snapping them back into place. High above the crowd she whirled, her long hair flaming behind her like a golden comet tail. One spectator said she looked like a ‘pastel doll spinning in a halo of flame’. Leitzel admitted that when she was ‘spinning around way up there, holding by one hand, all of a sudden you hear a little nagging voice — Why not let go? I’ve never managed to get over it’. On 13 February 1931 one of the swivels broke and she fell forty feet to her death. One obituary described her as ‘the queen of the circus’ and said that she would be ‘welcomed into heaven by a celestial drum roll’.
My search for Nell’s inspiration lured me into a dream world of bright lights, noise and glamour, of bravery and daring, of clowns and laughter, bands, parades, pretty girls, and fortunes won and lost. But circus is much more than razzamatazz, it is also art. The essayist E. B. White wrote of circus that ‘out of its wild disorder comes order; from its rank smell rises the good aroma of courage and daring; out of its preliminary shabbiness comes the final splendor’. He went on ‘a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is just too much for him’. Nell was a writer and a painter as well as a circus impresario and she often combined pictures with words. Her phrase ‘Into a land of pure magic’ is written on several of her paintings. Her last work was a large tapestry covered in brilliant glittering sequins. On it, in bold, black block capitals she wrote an epigram which has acquired a new resonance as we grapple with the virus. ‘Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going. Don’t take anything too seriously, it will all work out in the end’. What I think Nell meant was that in good times and bad, life should be fun, and magical.