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THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH… BORN RIGHT HERE, IN LAMBETH

Circus has a claim to be Britain’s most successful export, a concept which people across the world immediately understand. And its origins can be pin-pointed to Waterloo – where in a field 250 years ago, Sergeant-Major Philip Astley together with his wife Patty performed feats of horsemanship, such as standing across the backs of two galloping steeds. (Patty’s star turn was to ride smothered in bees).

They rode in a circle, laid out with a rope, making it easy for the audience to see everything and to help the riders perform their tricks through centrifugal force. Over the next two years, the Astleys moved into a more permanent venue in a timber yard on the site of St Thomas’s hospital, and introduced other acts – acrobats, jugglers, tightrope walkers, musicians, a clown, and dancing dogs. Astley was invited to perform in France and Ireland, and built more and grander “Astley’s amphitheatres”. Meanwhile in Lambeth, always fertile ground for entertainments, Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin set up a rival venue – the first to use the term “circus”. In the coming years, wild animals, big tops, staged battles, freak shows and ringmasters were all to be added to the emerging artform.

To celebrate the anniversary, writer and broadcaster Dea Birkett, who when she was in her thirties took a radical career break to become an elephant girl in Sicily and Scandinavia, has set up Circus250. From Kennington and Ireland, the non-profit is co-ordinating more than 400 events across the British Isles to show how circus “is part of our history and what we are”, says Birkett. Lambeth events have included a Victorian sideshow by Invisible Circus in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a Circus250 weekend at the Southbank, and the unveiling of two plaques to Astley by ring- master and circus historian Chris Barltrop. Barltrop has taken his one-man show about Philip Astley to the Edinburgh Fringe, earning five-star reviews. There have also been major exhibitions in Dublin and Sheffield, and programmes of events in six “cities of circus” across the UK.

At Christmas, the Southbank is hosting Circus 1903, an Edwardian extravaganza returning elephants to the stage in the form of life-size puppets made by the creators of War Horse. Dea has vivid memories of working in this side of the circus – “the hair of the elephant is like wire and rubs uncomfortably against your thighs and yet I was waving and smiling. You are presenting joy and that contrast [between pain and joy] is part of the circus”. But she’s not sentimental about wild animals disappearing from the ring. “Change has always been at the heart of circus, and that’s a very good thing”.

Her hope with Circus250 is to raise the profile of an artform which has embraced racial, genetic and cultural diversity from the start, and which is accessible to all age groups. “Circus has always been the poor relation in terms of funding” she says, “which is ironic, as often funding is about inclusion and diversity. Other artforms should be looking to circus for advice. We need to support circus to take circus to as many people as possible”.

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