News of the passing of British showman Gerry Cottle of the Corona virus in January reminded me of seeing one of his shows in the UK, about 2000. Cottle was not born into the circus business, but loved it. He grudgingly went along with the animal-free circus movement, making the comment that we have reached the point where you can “eat a duck in a restaurant, but you can’t watch one perform.” Here is my report on visiting one of his shows.
In England, 2000, I was lucky enough to see an “half price” ticket giveaway for the “Cottle and Austen Circus” playing near a subway station in London. I took the underground out, went up the stairs, and saw the tent erected in a city park. It was a medium-sized top, surrounded with a temporary chain-link fence, and draped with lights, as is common in European shows. The half-price tickets were not just for children-they were for everyone. Best I could tell, no one paid full price, which would have been pretty high. (About $30 for the best seat, so I paid $15.)
London can be wet in the fall, so the show had put down plastic walkways to get you to the tent. It was one-ring affair, with three levels of seating, the best being wooden folding chairs with backs. Cottle and Austen’s advertisements say “We Will Rock You” and there was a 1950s rock flavor to the show. A two piece band of organ and drums accompanied the ring-mistress in song and dance numbers like “Rock Around the Clock,” and it was fun.
The animal rights movement is strong in the UK, and there were no animals on the show. (Nor did the advertisements say “animal free” as I understand some shows do.) My favorite act was a group of West Indians doing tumbling. At least, they presented themselves as West Indians, dreadlocks and all. They seemed to really enjoy themselves. Curiously, they were the only act without a costume. They just wore blue jeans and tee-shirts. I think the idea was that they were trying to look like street performers.
People enjoyed the clowns, who given the small size of the tent could use their voices. I hadn’t identified myself at all as someone interested or once involved in show business, but they still picked me out to get hit with a soap-sud pie, which I took as an honor.
Intermission led us out to the atrium of the big top, where there were stands selling corn, pop, hamburgers, and due to the cold English weather-coffee. Some of the performers had the concessions. I noticed two things-first that the prices were not hiked up like US shows, and second, a very friendly style at the counters. Business was good. The performers all had their own trailers, which were parked on the grounds. They did prop work for each other, and as the stand was about 3 weeks in that location, I suspect they also did all the set up and tear down of the show equipment. The audience, like much of London, was heavily immigrant-Muslims in veils, Africans, eastern Europeans. They had about a 3/4 house.
The “Daily Mirror” has a nice obituary of Mr. Cottle at https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/gerry-cottle-dead-circus-legend-23321723