A circus steeped in history and water
THOSE of us “of a certain age” can remember circuses with big cats in what looked like flimsy cages and tunnels, chimpanzees taking tea on the sawdust ring, prancing ponies and big-footed clowns.
Some of us can also remember annual aqua shows with all the razzmatazz of a circus, only in water – a sort of rough-and-ready, but glitzy, precursor to the olympic divers and ever-smiling synchronised swimmers.
If you thought they were a thing of the past, gird up your lions (as my Aunty Doris used to say) and set your controls for the heart of Great Yarmouth.
There Peter Jay (leader and drummer of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, an instrumental band from the time of B Bumble and the Stingers and The Tornados) runs a circus for all generations in the extraordinary Hippodrome theatre near the bracing North Sea.
Known in the business as Mr Great Yarmouth, Peter, who is all set to celebrate his 70th birthday next year, has a finger in every showbiz pie in the resort – and he used to run the Blackpool circus, too.
He’s a man still driven by the love of the smell of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd he first felt as a boy. He went to school near Great Yarmouth, where his parents lived, and the band was formed in their hotel on the front, where his mother catered to crowds of eager fans on the lawn while Peter slept off long nights on tour – with The Beatles and other 60s luminaries.
He played with the Fab Four at Bournemouth Winter Gardens, on a bill that included Bobby Vee and the Crickets, but his band’s success was short lived and he soon turned his attention to other showbiz activities.
You have to say Peter’s a bit of a squirrel. He gathered memorabilia around him when it could have been described as junk. Now it forms the basis of the wonderfully atmospheric museum that runs in a semi-circle round the backstage area of the Hippodrome circus, artefacts crammed into every inch of the former stables, cat pens and animal accommodation behind the ring.
There is still just about room for the artistes’ dressing rooms, though every year they wonder if there will be anywhere to hang their leotards, swimsuits and sparkly costumes.
Peter runs two seasons of circus every year – one in the summer and one leading up to Christmas. The rest of the year he is scouring Europe for the best new acts, booking old favourites and letting his long-suffering wife sort out the complexities of visas and work permits.
He took over from his father Jack, and now his son Jack introduces the show, aided and abetted by Scottish comedian Johnny Mac. And they are busily welcoming audiences for this, the theatre’s 110th anniversary of bringing circus to Norfolk.
Everyone has their own favourite act, but one popular regular is Robert Foxhall, a man who literally flew away to join the circus. From the bedroom window of his parents’ home in Shropshire, the young Robert watched the travelling circus set up in the adjoining field, and he knew that was the life for him. Now he’s an internationally acclaimed aerialist, flying high around the ring on wispy silks, wearing a costume that accentuates his muscles and his glamour.
New in from Switzerland this year comes the young marksman and daredevil Gengis van Gool with his assistant Roxana. He opens with a heart-in-your-mouth hop-skip-and-a-jump act at the very summit of the Wheel of Death, high into the rafters of the old theatre. His precision crossbow skills seem almost tame after that.
Trapeze artists The Flying Maltese make sure the tension never fades as they soar through the air above the audience, one wrong move inviting disaster.
These acts are nothing like the playstation games or computer generated bravado of the franchise movies – they are real, they are dangerous, and they are happening before your eyes.
When the floor of the ring starts to disappear under jets of water, it’s time for the aquashow – the museum has old Bournemouth Pier Approach Baths Aquashow props and sets on show, for those of a nostalgic disposition.
And at the end of every evening there is a guest appearance by Peter Jay, still revelling in the marvels and magic he has lovingly preserved, and serves fresh again every night.