The Bridge Interviews
Running away to join the circus has long been regarded as an exciting and romantic thing to do, although John Major was once described by the late Linda Smith as the man who ran away from the circus to become an accountant. This month’s interviewee is someone who not only joined a circus but later started one of her own. In doing so she has given pleasure to many thousands of people and shown great courage in the face of personal difficulties.
Nell Gifford was brought up in Wiltshire with four siblings and took a degree in English at New College, Oxford. Emma Bridgewater, the ceramic designer, is her sister and clearly a creative gene runs in the family. The circus bug bit her at an early age and she spent a gap year before university working at Circus Flora in America. After graduating she worked at several circuses including selling popcorn at the Chinese State Circus, Bobby Roberts’ Super Circus and Santu’s Circus where she acted as ring-master in France. After this she worked at Roncalli’s Circus, which was German and recreated a circus as it was at the turn of the twentieth century – “beautiful and theatrical”. She worked there with Yasmine Smart, gtrand-daughter of Billy Smart, the British circus performer and impresario, who later helped Nell with equestrian skills and training horses. By this time she had met Toti Gifford, who became her husband. – “He is a big part of the story”. He is another creative type and is now a landscape designer who does large-scale work at stately homes through his business, T. E. Gifford Landscapes.
Between them they came up with the idea of starting a traditional circus touring southern England. They bought a second-hand round tent from the Trade It magazine and a maroon and gold showman’s caravan to live in. Toti made a big input into the appearance of the circus including the design of the old-style caravans which were made or restored for them and are painted in a deep shade of burgundy. They advertised for performers in The Stage newspaper and held auditions in a little dusty theatre in Cheltenham. Giffords Circus started in 2000.
Since then they have taken a new show out on the roads of England every summer. Their vision was a miniature village green circus, bursting at the seams, packed, rowdy, tiny, a little band of performers who live nomadically, performing daily, engrossed in the serious business of making magic. So far they have entertained over a million people. Their tour takes them across our region from their base near Stroud in the west to the Oxford University Parks in the east plus Henley, Windsor and Chiswick House and Gardens in London. In our own patch they perform at Great Barrington. “It has become part of the calendar. People come together to meet at the circus. (It has been referred to as “The Glyndebourne of circus”).
What is it that gives a circus its appeal? Nell unhesitatingly says “Live music, the tent, the fact that it travels, different languages, glamour, horses and wagons”. The tent is relatively small and feels packed, which creates an intimate feel. There is a great feeling of celebration about it, culminating when the audience is invited to dance with the company in the ring at the end of the show.
How do you plan each year’s show? “We start a year in advance.” At the time of our interview rehearsals for the 2019 tour had not yet started but Nell and her team were already working on what will happen in 2020. She is helped with this by an experienced creative team and six full time people working at the circus HQ near Stroud, also Nell’s home. The creative team is headed by Cal McCrystal, a renowned director and actor who once trained as a clown and whose credits include being associate director with Nicholas Hytner of the hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors which was put on at the National Theatre starring James Corden. He also worked on the films Paddington and Paddington 2 and directed Iolanthe for English National Opera. The others are musical director James Keay, choreographer Kate Smythe and designer takis (written that way).
How do you set about putting together the show? “It’s like a recipe. You build it up ingredient by ingredient. It depends what is available and what you want to do. I take ideas to the creative team and they won’t put their names to it unless they are good.” How do you find the performers? “I get messages all the time about new acts, especially from social media. We can’t always meet them in person before booking them, for example if they are from Russia and China.” Animal acts are trained on site at the farm which serves as the circus base and head office. The performers include gypsy violinists, tight-rope walkers, trapeze artists, stunt riders, magicians, illusionists and gymnasts. A regular and very popular member of the circus is Tweedy the Clown, or Alan Digweed to give him his real name. He doesn’t wear traditional clown’s costume or makeup but his antics link the various acts together through the show. Anyone who saw it is unlikely to forget his knife-throwing act involving blindfolded victims plucked from the audience, least of all the victims themselves. “I have known him since I was 20 and we have always worked together”, says Nell. “We are good friends. Circus is a society of its own and we go to the same weddings and funerals. He is very funny and clever. He has a range of skills apart from clowning – he can juggle, ride horses, use the trapeze and play musical instruments”. Another regular performer is Diamond, Nell’s magnificent cloud-grey Andalusian stallion.
Each show is built around a theme such as, in recent years, The Painted Wagon, Any Port in a Storm and My Beautiful Circus. This year’s is called Xanadu and is set when the flower power movement was at its height. It figuratively takes place in Hyde Park as hippies, hipsters, rock stars, musicians, wild women and global nomads with Shamanic horses gather, and a policeman and a family of out-of-towners get caught up in the celebrations. Nell and Toti have twins, daughter Red and son Cecil, who are now nine. However along the way Nell has had to cope with personal sadness. The couple separated four years ago, finding their lives and careers were taking them in different directions and Nell is anxious to emphasise what a great contribution Toti has made to the circus. Nell has twice been treated for breast cancer and has now been diagnosed with secondary cancer which is terminal. Despite this she carries on working, to the extent that her strength permits.
What are the challenges of running the circus? “Some people say the performances are too loud but we have two relaxed shows this season for anyone who finds that a problem”, says Nell. There are also some complaints about the cost but Nell points out that the maximum price of £35 for an adult is less than that of many theatre tickets. “We need to generate money in order to make it better”.
The logistical challenges of moving the circus between 12 different sites and sometimes putting on three shows in a day are formidable. “At each place we have to provide a supply of drinking water which is certified as safe, arrange disposal of rubbish, waste water and sewage, deal with impact on the ground and ensure that all health and safety laws are complied with. Arranging visas for the performers can be difficult, especially if they come from places like Cuba for whose nationals entry to this country is not easy”.
Nell remembers one year when the circus was at Great Barrington. “A curious man turned up and said he was from the electricity board. He told us that the tent was too close to overhead cables, even though it was exactly where we always put it, and we would have to move it by two feet, otherwise he would close us down. We were opening that day. There are thousands of moving parts in the tent and it normally takes us 24 hours to take it down and another 24 to erect it. We all set to work. People started arriving for the show and some of them joined in to help us. Somehow we managed to do it. We never discovered whether he was really from the electricity board. In the world of a circus - the show has to go on”.
Another memory is of a performance at Lechlade where the tent was set up near the Thames. “It is very uncomfortable performing in a tent in hot weather while wearing makeup. At the end of the last show the entire cast ran to the river and jumped in, like lemmings. It was amazing to watch”.
Starting a circus from scratch, running it and taking it on tour for 19 years and coming up with a fresh and original show every year is an enormous achievement. “We want to keep the circus going for generations to come, keep it in this area and keep it accessible,” says Nell. We are lucky to live in an area where such exciting entertainment is available to us. We offer our best wishes to Nell and Giffords Circus, whatever the future holds for them. In the meantime, if you haven’t been, do go. If you have, go again.