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Gerry Cottle, Circus Showman

September 27, 2013
by the gentle author

Gerry Cottle

Gerry Cottle’s Circus set up their big top on Hackney Downs last weekend and you can catch them at Alexandra Palace for the next week – so, while they passed through the East End, I took the opportunity to meet the man behind the legend, Gerry Cottle himself. With robust swagger, I found him leaning against a caravan and munching his way through a Bakewell Tart while casting a custodial eye over the expectant audience arriving for the Saturday matinee.

Every inch the showman, Gerry saw Jack Hilton’s Circus at Earl’s Court in 1953 at the age of eight, when his parents took him along to the show, and from that day on he was simply biding his time until, at fifteen, he ditched his O Levels and ran away from his middle-class upbringing to join the circus. “It was the polar bears that got me,” he later admitted fondly.

Marrying Betty Fossett, a princess of Britain’s greatest and oldest Circus family  – the Fossetts have been riding bareback for more than two centuries – Gerry embraced his destiny when he opened his own circus in July 1970, with just five performers including himself and Betty. The first venue was Sturminster Newton in a small second-hand tent that had previously been used for flower shows. By now, he had learnt juggling, stilt-walking, acrobatics, clowning and bareback horse riding.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year ascendancy that made Gerry Cottle’s name synonymous with circus in this country and involved the acquisition of elephants, lions, tigers, chimpanzees and polar bears. “I guess those glorious years in the mid-seventies were my heyday, I felt pretty invincible,” admitted Gerry, contemplating  the fulfilment of his ambition to become Britain’s largest circus owner. Yet changing public opinion turned against the use of animals and, reluctantly, Gerry had to accept the inevitable loss of the beasts which were an integral element of circus for centuries. “Originally, people came to circuses because they had never seen these animals before,” he explained to me, “P T Barnum said, ‘A circus is not a circus without elephants and clowns’ – so if you can’t have elephants, you need to have good comedy.”

Steeped in circus lore and history, Gerry faced the creative challenge that has preoccupied the latter part of his career – of reinventing circus for contemporary audiences, without animals. He started with a Rainbow Circus that saw his three daughters – the Cottle Sisters – in the ring for the first time, followed by a Rock & Roll Circus and a Shark Show. Employing top stunt acts, acrobats, magicians and clowns, Gerry set out on a tour of the Far East that proved immensely lucrative. Flush with cash, he returned home and became the impresario who presented both the Moscow Circus and the Chinese State Circus in Britain, further boosting his fortune. Yet alongside this success, Gerry acquired a cocaine habit and a sex addiction. “I was a bad boy,” he confessed to me in roguish understatement, exercising his considerable charm.

Overcoming his demons, Gerry’s comeback was The Circus of Horrors in 1995, a gothic-themed performance constructed around dramatic stunts. Then, retiring to Wookey Hole in Somerset, Gerry started his own circus school with students drawn from the local population and this became the basis of his current circus, entitled ‘Wow,’ with a company of young performers eager to flaunt their impressive talents.

As one who has not been to the circus since I was a child, I was entranced to enter the big top filled with an audience that roared in excitement at this charismatic show. Combining music theatre, variety, magic, stunts and acrobatics,’Wow’ comprises fifty acts in one hundred minutes, introduced by a pair of clowns. The exhilarating pace, packed with fast-moving spectacle and comedy, is irresistible. Where once horses defined the circular motion which characterises a circus show, now bicycles and performers on roller skates fulfil this gesture. Rather than a sequence of unconnected acts, ‘Wow’ is distinguished by strong company work in which all members of the team give of their utmost, offering strong mutual support, and resulting in a show of palpable joy and delight.

After fifty years of working in circus, ‘Wow’ manifests Gerry’s unique and profound understanding of the medium. Approaching two hundred and fifty years after the first circus was opened by Philip Astley in Blackfriars in 1768, circus is still alive and evolving in this country, thanks – in no small measure – to the particular genius, distinctive passion, infinite tenacity and strength of personality of Gerry Cottle.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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