From the beginning of May to the end of September, Nell Gifford presents Gifford’s Circus tours the villages and market towns of the Cotswolds and the south of England.
Gifford’s Circus is a multicultural and contemporary magic show with artists and musicians from all over the world. Now within its twentieth year, Gifford Circus is has become very much part of the Cotswolds.
I caught up with Gifford’s Circus creator, Nell Gifford, during the hectic three week rehearsal period, before the circus opens its doors to the public for the 2018 season on the May 4th, at its home in Fennels Farm near Stroud.
Nell Gifford, who only recently finished treatment for breast cancer, explained how she made her childhood dream of running her own circus, into the incredible reality of Gifford’s Circus today.
Nell’s love of the circus began when she was 18, she rode elephants, sold candy floss and was a ringmaster at circuses around the world including the Circus Ronkali in Germany, which Nell Gifford says was one of the main inspirations behind Gifford’s Circus, with its similarity to the theatre rather than other more traditional circuses.
Nell Gifford spoke with us about the ups and downs of Circus life, what it’s like to be on the road for five months of the year and, how she has become “The pompous old queen of the circus.”
The story of Nell Gifford is well documented, however, how did you make your dream of running a circus become a reality?
I guess I first had the dream of running my own circus when I was 18. I went to work on a circus in America called circus Flora, because I lost my mother after a really bad riding accident when I was 18, which meant that happy family life fell to pieces.
I went to the circus because my brother’s wife’s family had a circus in America, which was quite a random circus connection because my family are nothing to do with the circus. I got the chance to go and work on the circus then and fell in love with the whole way of life, the families and the travelling.
I completely fell in love with the circus.
I’ve often had this feeling of: “Narrowing options can give a kind of freedom.” So that’s what I did, I just decided that I was going to have my own circus one way or the other.
But you couldn’t have done this by yourself?
No, I couldn’t have done it without Toti, my ex-husband.
I worked on lots of different circuses here and abroad. I rode elephants, sold candy floss, sold tickets at the box office. I helped in different circus offices.
I worked as a ring master and then, to cut quite a long story short, I used to stay outside Cheltenham in Bishop’s Cleeve where I met and got engaged to a farmers son, who was Toti.
We went to work in a circus in Germany, called Circus Ronkali, which this is quite heavily inspired and influenced by and then we decided to set up our own circus together.
So without Toti, Gifford’s Circus might not be here today?
Yes, that’s right.
Has anyone else also had such an influence on Gifford’s Circus?
So many wonderful people have given lots of years of their time to helping Gifford’s Circus grown, so it would be impossible to say “This person” or “That person” however, in the very beginning, Gifford’s Circus was created by Toti and I.
At such an early stage, where Gifford’s Circus was much smaller than it is today, you must have had to get some capital from somewhere, where did this come from to get started with such a project?
OK, so in the first few years, I had written a book, which got a really quite big advance. Big at that time, it was in the regions of £45,000. I never believed I could have that much money, I never believed it, so all of that book deal went into the circus.
Bits and bobs of family windfalls helped, but there isn’t a big ‘circus trust fund’ that is pumping money into it. There most definitely is not that. Plus Toti had a landscaping business, which helped to fund the circus in its earlier years and helped the circus to gradually grow. We quite literally threw every resource we could muster at Gifford’s Circus.
You mentioned the loss of your mother when you were 18, How did this effect you at a relatively young age?
I definitely had to grow up quickly. Basically I had to leave home, there wasn’t really a home to go back to.
Your upbringing in Oxford before that, a bohemian upbringing. Did this give you a sort of freedom to literally run away to the circus?
People do run away and do all sorts of things. People join the army; people still run away to the circus, they come here for example.
Throughout 20 years of Gifford’s Circus, have there been any particularly frustrating moments?
There are regular frustrating moments, usually during rehearsals, when there are too many problems happening at the same time. You feel like you can’t give people any more answers and you feel like you’re losing patience with the people that you love, which is a really horrible feeling, full of complicated emotions.
Bringing unrelated acts together (Juggling, comedy, horse riding, animals, music) cannot be a simple task. Can you explain how, in practical terms, you manage to do this so well?
In practical terms it would be thinking of an idea, sharing it with the director and him agreeing to it. In a way, you’re working towards producing a script, but the script needs an idea, so it’s the idea first, then the treatment where you expand on it a bit.
Then you bring in a musical director, a choreographer, a designer; that all happens in a few meetings during winter. Then in my case I work up a look, as I tend to go through things visually. The musicians have to work out their own approach, which we bring together and make more plans and then finally, we start the process of physically making the show, which what we are in the middle of right now.
Are you always part of the shows yourself?
Absolutely I’m in the show yes.
In what capacity?
I’m the lady on the horse. I tend to be working with horses. The comedy, Cal, does require status play. So I tend to play an extremely high status character, which obviously everyone can poke fun at. And you turn that upside down, you need those kinds of systems to make the machinery of the comedy.
And by high status you mean?
I usually play the most self-important person in the circus. The clown understands that and he undermines that. It’s really classic comedy to have a status play. You have to have it. I feel that over the years I’ve gradually become the pompous old queen of the circus. A circus is a funny slice of life played out.
You’ve been to Moscow and Hungary scouting for talent, where you’ve worked with Cossacks. Can you explain a little about the foreign influences on Gifford’s Circus?
It’s a global village. It is multiculturalism. The whole Brexit thing is a worry. It’s been a nightmare, that’s why we are behind schedule because the Cubans’ visas got turned down.
There is a troupe of Cubans in Havana that are meant to be here now, but they had to be replaced at very short notice by another troupe who only got here yesterday because we had to get them from Romania.
It’ll be an absolute nightmare if they put visa restrictions on Europe. I don’t even want to apply for any more visas, I’ve just had enough of it. It’s such a nail biting process, our applications just get stuck in a computer in Washington somewhere.
For example the Musicians Union; I spent months and months finding two authentic New Orleans second line jazz musicians, however, the Musicians Union just said that you could find the equivalent musicians here in the UK, which you just can’t! …This was years ago, but you can see how frustrating it can be.
Now that Gifford’s Circus is very well known, do foreign musicians and acts contact you often?
Honestly, there are people getting in contact every day.
Can you tell me a little bit about this coming season? What’s different and new about the show?
There’s a troupe of Dachshunds from Moscow. It’s a new tent. There’s a really brassy sound to the music, very 1930’s, it’s quite classic circus this year. We’ve always done themes and there is a theme this year. The theme is ‘classic circus’.
A circus can be a dangerous place to work, has Gifford’s Circus every experienced any unfortunate events?
We’ve never had, touch wood, any sort of major accident. But we have injuries all the time. People fall, people do their knees in, backs in, arms in, and things go wrong …They are always going wrong. It goes wrong every day, you’re manging risk all the time.
The United Kingdom has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Has Gifford’s Circus ever experienced grief from health and safety officials or animal rights activists?
Obviously yes, but what can you do. You’ve just got to work with people and their approaches and their opinions, which they are completely entitled to. We just make sure that we’re open and work with people as much as possible.
You fell in love with the romantic side of the travelling circus. Was it tough raising two children whilst traveling so much? How do you think circus lifestyle might have affected
They’re incredibly popular at school, they are very responsible children. I hope that the lifestyle has affected them in a good way. I think it’s made them aware that there is a world outside of The Cotswolds. They understand that they are not the centre of life and I think that’s really important. They are very sweet helpful children I’m very proud of them.
It was very hard in the early years obviously, on the road with them as babies, it was really taxing emotionally, but as the years move by it’s just becoming more and more fun and an absolute pleasure.
How old are your children now? Are they involved in the circus in any way?
They’re twins, both eight. Yes, they do help out a lot. They love it this year because there is a Portuguese family, so they are constantly running around. My daughter loves helping with the ponies and horses.
How do you feel after a Gifford’s Circus show has gone particularly well?
When it’s a full house, I love watching the show and I love watching people watching the show. I love it when there are famous faces in the crowd, it’s so much fun, it gives the entire company a real buzz. I love when my friends turn up, I love it when the next door neighbour turns up, and I love it when the shop keeper turns up or the children’s school teachers. I just basically love to see the tent full and everyone enjoying the show and the hilarity of it.
But the circus is grounding in a way, because you’ve still got to move it. You’ve still got to be out in the wet putting costumes on. It’s a lot of shows, it’s very tiring but it’s great because you do something over and over again so you get really good at what you’re doing. As good as you could be. That’s why sometimes I think that circus acts are born out of a …Kind of funny boredom …Because they are so repetitive. So, then you start to try new things.
You mean within the show?
Within the show, or in your life, you try and learn a language or a musical instrument. It is very repetitive.
So on May 4th, your first night of the season, it’ll be a lot “less polished” than what someone would see at the end of September?
Yeah. It transforms, it really does, which is one of the reasons why some people enjoy coming back to see the show multiple times.
Do you need to be an animal lover to work in the circus? How much time do you and the other people here spend on their welfare?
Not everyone is interested in the animal’s welfare because that would be mad. Musicians don’t go around looking after the horses. We have professional grooms, who if they weren’t doing this they would be doing a polo season.
We have a team of people who look after the animals. The circus breaks into departments; the kitchen and the musicians and animals, where you hope that people take a pride in their department.
I heard that you’re an animal lover, right?
Yes, that was my route into circus performing; that was where I found my feet as a performer. But it’s not to say that all people in the circus love animals. You do get to live with animals, it’s up to the people running the circus to make sure that the animals are looked after, like when on the move. You wouldn’t move everybody and then go back and then get the horses because the animals can’t look after themselves.
Where do you live when you are on the road?
In a big caravan, a big wagon, it’s just being mended in the barn at the moment.
What’s in there? Is it like a self-contained house?
It’s like a self-contained flat really.
Is it vintage?
Yes, its 1950’s. I really like it. It’s just fine. The nice thing about being on the road is that you simplify things. It’s quite small and you just have what you need. You spend a lot of time outdoors.
One of our British writers who is fairly well known, Jonathan Coe, believes that in the UK at the moment, we have an obsession with the past and we tend to sentimentalise it in our modern culture. Do you agree with that? Can you explain why Gifford’s Circus is not just a throwback to bygone era, but something more than that?
That is a really interesting question; I’ve been watching a lot of TV like through the eyes of a Cuban person for example. If you don’t speak English, everything we seem to watch is about the war or the Royal Family a hundred years ago, they must think we’re absolutely obsessed by it, so I do agree with that statement.
What we do at Gifford’s Circus is definitely nostalgic, I can’t say it isn’t because it is, but I also think that running a circus pushes you into the most contemporary problems, like the visas, like the use of open spaces in cities, like how to get arts funding. So I think I identified a kind of circus that people would really like, which is something from a pre-industrial world.
Is it Gifford’s Circus based around the 1920’s, 1930’s or before that?
It happens that this year we are doing a 1930’s theme, but I have an idea for next year which isn’t really fixed in time. But the circus itself was inspired by Laura Knight’s paintings, which were early twentieth century. But this circus exists on its own terms now.
The way that the show is put together is really fast paced and contemporary.
How do other circuses in the UK differ to what you’re offering?
The Moscow State Circus, although based here, is Russian in style and it’s bigger, so it goes onto bigger grounds. It moves faster and further.
What about the acts though, how are they different?
We spend more time rehearsing, because I know the other circuses don’t do three weeks, they only do one week. I think sometimes that we make more of a palaver of everything. But you can summarise it to say that there is more of a heavy influence of theatre in what we do. It’s a theatrical circus.
Are there any other theatrical circuses, do you have any competition like that?
Not in the UK, I don’t feel like there are theatrical circuses that take things as far as we do, but there are abroad. There are lots of circuses in France. The French love the circus, they have all sorts for every taste, even flying trapeze circuses, they have every manifestation of circuses there. “Circus” is actually a very broad term.
What would you say to young and old people who, similar to you, have a dream but are too anxious, too scared or just don’t know how to realise it?
Well, my advice is the old clichés that you have to just dig in and be bloody minded. The thing is to decide what you want and then do it. But make sure you’ve decided the right thing, because you can do anything, so make the right decision of what you want to do.
A lot of luck will play into the journey as well, which comes with hard graft and networking. Figure out what your natural strengths are first.
Cotswold Allure Magazine would like to thank Nell Gifford for sharing her story with our readers, wishing Gifford’s Circus the best of luck with their new show.