Jennie Renton interviews Cilla Birt about life in the circus.
When I was a little girl I dreamed that one day I would join a circus and be the lady on the flying trapeze. It wasn’t to be. I get dizzy if I stand on a chair. My long-forgotten, sequinned dream came back to me when I met Cilla Birt, who, like me, had dreamed of joining a circus – and had actually managed to do so, at the age of fifteen. She worked in circus for ten years during the 1950s until a bad accident forced her to retire from the ring. Circus is her first love and abiding passion. Even now, it doesn’t take much to persuade her to do a spot of fire-eating.
Meeting Cilia stimulated me to find out something about circus books. It struck me what a joy a collection of books about circus would be – an impression amplified by a reading of R. Toole-Stott’s introduction to his world bibliography of Circus and Allied Arts. Here, he makes his own selection of those books which are ‘outstanding not only on account of their rarity, but also because of the genuine understanding they reveal of some aspect of the circus or circus life’. As they would make a marvellous nucleus to any collection of circus books, the details of a number of these circus ‘classics’ are listed below. Circus programmes and posters have an integral part in a good circus collection. By their nature few survive the event they advertise, and their bombastic announcements of unparalleled deeds of daring evoke the glorious glitz and excitement of it all as nothing else can.
It’s hard to track down anything about early Scottish ciros. An extremely scarce pamphlet that does deal with circus in Scotland is Harry S. Lumsden’s History of Cooke’s Royal Circus: the Oldest Establishment in the World, having existed for two centuries, with particulars about the Cookes. With portraits and Illustrations, n.d. Aberdeen. R. Toole-Stott gives 1897 as its date of publication and describes it as ‘an extremly rare item of great historical importance. Only a few copies have survived as it was sold on the show and never reprinted in boot form’.
The first member of the Cooke family about whom anything is known is Thomas Cooke whose circus travelled to fairs and markets all over Britain. Harry Lumsden recounts an incident on one of Cooke’s tours: ‘About the year 1784, while on one of his visits to Mauchlin, Robert Burns had the pleasure of listening to the famous musician Peter McNab, who was at that time first fiddle in Cooke’s Circus. He played The Braes of Invermay and Roslin Castle one evening after the performance ended. It is said that Burns listened with “rapt attention and delight”.’
The Cooke family’s extraordinarily intrepid and dedicated spirit is exemplified in Thomas’s son, Thomas Taplin Cooke, strong man, rope-walker, heavy balancer and equestrian wizard. Harry Lumsden tells how in 1836 Thomas Taplin Cooke charactered The Royal Stuart of Greenock and took the entire company to New York. Consider the scale of the undertaking: the company consisted of 130 performers (including40 members of the Cooke family), not to mention a full complement of musicians, grooms and other hands. Along with them went 42 horses and 14 ponies. In America fire destroyed one of the enormous circuses Cooke had erected, but, nothing daunted, he returned to Britain and set about constructing a number of these semi-permanent wooden circuses around the country. There was one on Glasgow Green. Members of the Cooke family continue to delight circus audiences to the present day.
Family dynasties are the backbone of British circus. Traditionally, acts are passed on and developed from generation to generation. Such is the mystique of the family system that it is difficult for outsiders to break into the magic circle. I asked Cilia how she had managed to do it.
‘My parents were in the film trade and I had no circus connections,’ she told me. ‘But I had wanted to join a circus ever since, as a little girl of six, I had watched one set up in a field next to my boarding school. I remember watching people practice their acts, my nose pressed to the wire perimeter fence at the end of the school playing field. I was an only child; seeing the show from the outside, it was the camaraderie of the circus people that impressed me. I wanted to be part of it before I had seen a single circus performance.’
Throughout her childhood she read as many books as she could about circus.
‘They gave me the idea that the best way for an outsider to get in was as a groom – which is exactly what happened. I joined Chipperfield’s, and after a while I got a chance to train as a high school rider – dressage as they call it in horse shows. It was all originally battle training.’
In the early days, she once left a camel tethered to the tunnel the tigers run through to leave the ring, not realising that the tunnel wasn’t shackled together at the time.
‘The camel pulled two sections of the tunnel apart and the last tiger to leave the ring escaped. The boy who fed the tigers went with me to look for him. Only he and I knew what had happened. We were hoping to get our tiger back to the circus without telling anyone or causing a fuss – and we did. We spotted him wandering round the garden of a nearby house. The gate creaked as we went in and someone came to the window, so we fell into each other’s arms and pretended to be a courting couple. The woman at the window just tutted and drew the curtains. She didn’t notice there was a tiger in her garden!’
One season, she got a job with a small show called Lazards.
‘Lazards was buying a lion on Hire Purchase from a man who wouldn’t give away the lion’s cues until payment was completed. Unfortunately, he died before Lazards had paid all the money. Now we had a lion on the show that we couldn’t take into the ring because nobody knew the cues. Everyone apart from the fire-eater thought it would be a good idea if a fire-eater went into the ring to train the lion, on the theory that the lion wouldn’t eat the fire-eater because it would be scared of the flaming torch. I volunteered for the job. That’s how I came to learn fire-eating! As it turned out, I only used the torch for a couple of days because the cat didn’t like the fire and we got on better without it. This gave me an idea for a fire eating act of my own, with which I could get bookings in my own right. I’ve been doing it ever since.’
Cilla is convinced that the best factual books about circuses are written by people who travelled with them and know the circus lifestyle.
‘Writers who try to wring drama from circus with stories of artistes trying to sabotage each other are very wide of the mark. In real circus everybody works together, anything else is much too dangerous. Behind the scenes drama comes from fighting the elements. My favourite children’s book about circus is Noel Streatfield’s The Circus is Coming. She gets it right. Circus people are described as I found them; she tells a lot about how people are trained, and the rapport between them and their animals. Her characters always have a shirt sleeve job as well a spangled job.’
In her view, British audiences don’t usually know much about the skills that go into circus acts.
‘They notice what’s showy or sensational, rather than appreciate the expertise involved. Anyone who is really interested in understanding what goes into circus acts should read Anthony Hippisley Coxe’s A Seat at the Circus, which gives details of the training and the technique of every single circus act. Circus is like ballet, an art requiring dedication and gruelling training from performers that is, in the end, physically transcendent.
Toole-Stott, R. Circus and Allied Arts. A World Bibliography. Derby, Harper and Sons. Four volumes. The fourth volume brings the bibliography up to 1971.
Streatfield, Noel. The Circus is Coming. Illustrated by Steven Spurrier. London, J.M. Dent & Sons (1938).
Coxe A. Hippisley. A Seat at the Circus. Illustrated by John Skeaping. London, Evans, 1951