There are two places in Britain where you can experience circus performed in a purpose-built building with a mechanism to convert the ring into a tank for water displays. One is, of course, the Blackpool Tower Circus [http://www.theblackpooltower.co.uk/index.php], which is famous for where it is and what it is; the other, a little less well known, is the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome [http://www.hippodromecircus.co.uk], which is unique in the way it belongs to, and continues to reinterpret circus and show-business traditions in exciting new ways.
The owner of the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, Peter Jay, is remembered by a certain generation as the leader of Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers, one-time support band to the Rolling Stones. He is in fact the descendant of one of Great Yarmouth’s showman families, married to Christine, who belongs to the other Great Yarmouth showman family. Peter told a Daily Telegraph reporter, “When we started going out, everyone thought we were just trying to find out each other’s family business secrets.” [December 6th 2008].
After Peter and his father first bought the Hippodrome building to forestall a rival bingo operator in 1983, they gradually realised the potential to develop creative, innovative circus entertainment within the old traditions of highly skilled, risky physical performance, using lighting, music and dancers alongside the acrobats, trapeze-artistes – and synchronised swimmers.
The swimmers are the most unusual part of the Hippodrome performance: as the second half of the show winds towards its finale, four pairs of stagehands unlock the bolts that hold the circus ring in place and it gently sinks into the water tank beneath. Once, you could see this in a number of places – the London Hippodrome on Leicester Square, the Olympia Theatre in the Liverpool suburb of Everton. Now only Blackpool and Great Yarmouth operate in Britain, and two others – Moscow and Las Vegas – elsewhere.
Several of Peter and Christine’s sons have been directly involved in the present-day show – Ben as the lighting designer, Jack as co-producer and drummer; Joe, a trained trapeze artist, prefers to work on oil-rigs and other high-building sites. In fact, one of the joys of working in circus is the way the whole troupe forms a family for the duration of the run.
Watching live circus is an inimitably thrilling experience. Some people are intimidated by the level of risk that the artistes take on; for most audiences, that is the sheer wonder of circus. There are no special effects, though there is certainly a dash of conjuring in the clowning. The precision, precariousness, athleticism, grace and beauty of the acrobatic acts is unique to this form of entertainment.
Actually, I don’t miss the animals.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all: the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside: the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.