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Lord Of The Ring

Michael Hasted runs away to join the circus – but only for a day. crack

There’s an old cliché that if life gets too dull and boring you can always run away and join the circus. But imagine what it would be like, not to run away to join the circus, but to actually create your own from scratch and within a couple of years be one of the most successful and acclaimed small circuses in England. And, what’s more, imagine doing it locally. But this is exactly what Toti and Nell Gifford did in 1999.

I put all my belongings in a red spotted handkerchief, tied them to a stick and slung them over my shoulder and set off to join them.

They have a relatively small touring area usually no more than a 40 mile radius of Cheltenham. I went to see them at Llanthony Priory in Gloucester for the first date of the 2010 season. I caught up with Toti as he was putting the final touches to the big top as the audience began to arrive. He is a charismatic young man with a mop of floppy hair and his sleeve rolled up, ready for work.

I was keen to know how it all started. “Through love of Nell.” he stated unequivocally. “Nell had been working in circuses since she was 18. In fact the first job she had in England was with Circus Zero on Cox’s Meadow in Cheltenham. It was inevitable that soon after we met I became as passionate about it all as she was.” I wondered if he had been a fan of circuses before then. “No, not really. I went to them occasionally when I was a child, as all kids do, but if you’d asked me then if I thought I’d ever be running one of my own I would have thought you silly - I’m a farmer’s son.”

Toti was born in Cirencester and attended Cheltenham College. As well as the circus he runs a successful landscaping business which has done a lot of work in and around Cheltenham and, if that weren’t enough, he’s still runs the farm. The circus is based at Bourton-on-the-Water.

But how do you start a circus from scratch? I wanted to know. “We bought a tent and an old children’s roundabout from a classified ad and found a derelict showman’s wagon rotting in a ditch on a nearby farm.” Toti explained very matter-of-factly, as though it was the easiest and most obvious thing in the world.

He’d been running the landscaping business for some time before he met Nell and I asked him if the circus had taken over his life or whether he still saw himself primarily as working on the land. He grimaced, not very happy with the question. “The landscaping is the chief sponsor of the circus. The landscaping and the circus are together, no matter what. It’s not one or the other, Nell and I do both. You’re asking too many questions.” he said with a not entirely good humoured laugh.

I sensed he was getting impatient to dash off and do something physical but I persisted and asked him if he saw himself doing this for the rest of his life. “I’d like the circus to be here for hundreds of years. Nell and I get an idea for a show and we go off round the world looking for performers. We talk and giggle and laugh. We do it all together. When we’ve found what we need for a new show, Nell does the writing and designing and sorting out and I build things, paint the wagons and we get on with stuff, as a husbands and wives do.”

Another thing that husbands and wives do is have children and earlier this year Toti and Nell became the proud parents of twins who, at four months old, have already made their debut in the ring.

Amazingly they built and painted all the wagons, some of them converted from old ammunition trucks. I asked Toti how long it had taken from the day they said ‘let’s do a circus’ until the first performance. These dates were indelibly fixed in his mind. “We started on 29 May 1999 and we went out on 13 June 2000. Yes, we built most of the stuff ourselves. Every winter we build a new wagon of some sort.” But surely, I suggested, it must be possible to buy second-hand circus equipment. He grimaced again, “They’re all knackered. If somebody’s selling them it’s because they’re no good, worn out. And now, with so much health and safety, everything has to be perfect. There are so many regulations; those people really make us jump through hoops.” Sounds ideal for a circus I thought, but decided against saying it. But it must be worth it, I said. “Of course it is. To see 360 people leaving the tent all laughing, giggling and enjoying themselves, of course it’s worth it.”

I wanted to change tack slightly; I wanted to ask him about the ethos of Gifford’s Circus. In an age when everything is gadgets, high tech and computer driven, Gifford’s seems to hark back to an earlier, simpler, less complicated age; an age of village greens, may-poles and boiled sweets in paper bags. “Yeh, people think that life is going too fast, everything has to be modern,” he rapidly snaps his fingers as he talks, “and what we’ve done is just slow it all down and go back a bit. That’s all it is.”

Every season Gifford’s presents a new, themed show. This year it is Yasmine a musical tribute/biography to Yasmine Smart, grand-daughter of arguably the greatest British circus showman, Billy Smart.

Yasmine was born in a circus caravan, grew up with chimps and elephants as her companions and by the age of twelve was considered a child prodigy. I chatted with her during the interval in the backstage area and asked her how it felt to have a show dedicated to you. “I’m very flattered. There are a lot of stories in it that are very sentimental for me.” The blood of circus flows through Jasmine’s veins, was she not sad that the big circuses no longer existed in Britain? “Of course, but times change. It is no longer possible to travel around with twenty elephants, eight lions and all the rest. The problem was with logistics not with audiences losing interest. Billy Smart’s Circus was the last of the big three to stop touring in 1971. I left England in the 80s and have been working in Europe and the States ever since.”

And how had she become involved with Gifford’s? “Nell used to work for me and we stayed in contact. I always said that when I came back to England I’d work with Gifford’s and this is my first show since returning.”

The character of Yasmine appears four times in the show; as a baby, a young child, a teenager and as herself. The teenage Yasmine is played by local girl, 18 year old Emily Seal. Emily has been riding since the age of two and I asked her had that prepared her for life in the circus? “It’s completely different, completely and utterly. On my first day at rehearsals, in February, I was standing in the middle of the ring with a whip and two horses and it was though I’d never seen a horse in my life before. But I’m loving it, it’s excellent. I’m having a wonderful time, it’s brilliant.”

One of the most original acts in this year’s show in a young, classically trained German musical clown called Gabor Vosteen. He is gaunt young man with sticky-up hair and pointy shoes and he plays up to five recorders at the same time. I asked him how it all started. “There is a very small repertoire for the recorder so it can be difficult to find work. I created this comedy act in 2003 while I was still studying because I wanted to combine music and funny stuff.”

Gabor fits in very well, there’s something very old-fashioned, difficult to put your finger on, eccentric even, about Gifford’s, almost like Fellini’s La Strada. It is very individual and really reflects the personalities of Nell and Toti. As he said to me, “I don’t ever compare my life to anyone else’s. I’m living my life and that’s how it is. If you start comparing your life to others, your life isn’t true; you are just copying somebody else. You just look at your life, keep going and hopefully enjoy it. You help other people, other people help you as you go along and that’s it. Does that make sense?”

I think it is the mark of a true eccentric that however strange the things they do may seem to other people; to them they seem perfectly normal. They don’t seek opinions and they don’t measure themselves by any yardstick except their own. They do their own thing, as we used to say, without regard or reference to exterior factors. And this is what makes Giffords Circus different and what makes it unique. It has a vision that is traditional but a style that is original. It is this anomaly that makes you think, as you leave the tent, your smile illuminating the evening sky, that you have spent a very special couple of hours.