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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire


Updated: May 5, 2023

250 years ago, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley drew out a circle in the ground and filled it with astounding physical acts. 2018 will see an array of circus activity across the country. And I do love a circus!

Before I had even come across the great work being done for Circus 250 I started the year in a circus mood, with a visit to see The Greatest Showman, starring the fabulous Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum. It reminded me of one of those old fashioned Bio-Pics of the 1950s full of colour, catchy songs, great performances and all the negative aspects of a life quietly swept aside. I loved it, but felt that I needed to find out a little more about the real Barnam.

Whilst googling Barnum I came across #Circus250 and through their tweets an amazing array of people and activities planned to celebrate the 250 anniversary of the modern-day circus.

And to satisfy my Barnum curiosity I found a pair of podcasts by The Bowery Boys, who specialise in New York History, on PT Barnum and the Barnum museum – well worth a listen.

Anyhoo, here's a blog about some of the circus related reading and watching that I did as part of #Circus250 ...

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier (2007).

Loved Girl with a Pearl Earring and the one about the Dorset fossil hunters, but sadly didn’t enjoy this. Perhaps going in keen to read about the Philip Astley and circus, I was disappointed that Chevalier never really captured the atmosphere of the circus, and both Astley and William Blake (the other real person featured) seemed peripheral to the main plot of a family moving from the country to London.

Pandora’s Box by Pamela Hutchinson (2017).

OK, this is a slight cheat! I have written about Silent Film, and Pamela is one of the key movers and shakers in this world, she runs the excellent Silent London site. This monogram (published last year) focuses on the 1928 silent film Pandora’s Box. And the circus connection? One of the Lulu’s (Louise Brooks) lovers is a circus strongman. Via this book discovered that the plays the film is based on are far more embedded in the circus world, than the film.

The Murder of the Circus Queen by Anthony Abbott (1934)

Started, but not finished... So will have to wait until next month for my thoughts on this.

Although thanks to the wonders of twitter, Kate Holmes tweeted to tell me that it is based on the death of Lillian Leitzel in 1931. Will have to look that up when I finish the novel.

On 20 January to commemorate Federico Fellini’s birthday I watched La Strada (1954) which is a magnificent bittersweet tale of a mismatched pair: a circus strongman played by the impressive Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina as his reluctant partner.

A few days later, on DW Griffith’s birthdate, I watched Sally of the Sawdust (1925) starring W C Fields’ as a circus artiste (and con man!) Professor McGargle, a part he’d played on stage a few earlier. He plays him again in the 1936 film Poppy.

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