Vintage-style Giffords Circus has established itself as a highlight of the alternative British summer season.
Giffords Circus is an experience like no other circus. Colour, music, comedy and fun and the chance to be amazed and transported to a special place for a few hours. If you haven’t been to a circus since you were a child you’ll going to be enchanted by Giffords, a proper travelling circus, with a big top and sawdust ring and jaw droppingly talented performers who bridge the line somewhere between vaudeville, circus skills, music hall and acrobatics.
Established in 2000 it’s a relativity new circus but it captures the old values and vintage appeal of traditional circus. Touring across picture postcard locations with village greens as their backdrop Giffords have created a quintessentially English circus experience. Who else would think to combine circus with tea (served from beautiful china, made by her sister Emma Bridgewater).
We caught up with Nell Gifford, the person who ran away and created Giffords, to find out what it’s like to work in a circus and what it is about the circus that continues to entrance and delight.
When and how did you and Toti Gifford create your own circus?
Toti and I began Giffords Circus in 2000. Toti is the son of a farmer and grew up on the Cotswold hills. I grew up in Oxford and when I left New College Oxford I had a dream, remembered from childhood, of starting my own village green circus.
Together we have realized this dream. We bought a round white tent from the Trade It newspaper. We built a maroon and gold showmans wagon to live in. We advertised for performers in The Stage newspaper and held auditions in a little dusty theatre in Cheltenham.
These were our first baby steps, and since then we have taken a new show out on the roads of England every summer. Our 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.
Giffords is a travelling circus. What’s it like living and working with circus people all the time, being constantly on the move ?
It may seem like a nomadic lifestyle but there’s actually a lot of structure. Winters are spent at the farm planning the next season as work on next year starts the moment the tent comes down. Once spring arrives and the weather turns, everyone is keen to get back on the road. We play village greens rather than cities and its lovely returning to familiar places. By the end of a season everyone knows each other pretty well and we’ve even had a few people meet and fall in love and have children over the years. Living together, working together and travelling together; we feel like a family.
Giffords circus has a particularly English feel combined with an international cast of performers from all over the world. How do you put it all together?
We set out to reclaim the older traditions of a touring company and recreate the love and sense of history and occasion of an English Circus arriving in town. Toti and I have travelled to Paris, Moscow, rural Hungary, Romania and beyond in search of talent and in search of people who are prepared to give up their own life temporarily and throw their lot in with ours and bring their mastery of a certain skill to our show.
We are a handmade show all created on our farm near Stroud and every element is worked alongside the next, from the signage, costumes, to the performance itself to create an overall experience. The live music is also an integral part of Giffords, with new music composed for each show and the band perform alongside the circus acts, in fabulous costumes.
Along with the circus acts you also have some wonderful animals including horses, dachshunds, geese and even a pet iron. How important is it for you to include animals in your performances?
Animals and in particular horses, are at the heart of Giffords Circus. We both grew up riding horses. The compelling adventure of horses is something that once experienced is hard to forget or turn away from. Horses inspire each new show and the shows revolve around them. For example the chestnut horses in The Cockerel Show, Red and Rooster, were a starting point for the bright colours and dynamic energy of that production. The pair of Shires who entered the ring with one man riding astride both of them was at the heart of our interpretation of War and Peace in 2011 – they were the undefeatable spirit of the Russian soldier. Being based on a farm they get to enjoy the fields and we ensure that all our animals have a good balance between work and rest.
There is an intimacy in your performances, with the audience feeling part of the show. How do you achieve that?
Giffords is a family business, filled with performers who are passionate about what they do and who create an energy which is easy to get swept along by – one of our favourite parts of the circus is at the end when everyone is on a high and joins in the dancing. Over the years people have got to know many of our performers such as Tweedy and Nancy Trotter Landry and as with the whole of Giffords Circus, treat us like an extension of their own family.
You have a very loyal audience with people coming back year after year. Who is your typical audience?
A huge number of our audience remember sitting on their parent’s knees and have grown up with Giffords being part of their summer. Now they too are coming with their own children sitting on their knees. It is like a family recipe being handed down from generation to generation. All sorts of groups come to us and the ages vary from babes in arms to octogenarians.
We love that the Giffords experience is about the circus and more, with guests having the opportunity to dine in a candlelit tent and carry on the evening. Tell us what people can expect from Circus Sauce?
Our 60 seater restaurant travels on tour with us and offers a local and sometimes foraged menu, served at candlelit oak tables on mismatched pottery by Emma Bridgewater. Guests dine banquet-style, sipping on BYOB wine with other revellers and sometimes members of the circus might join them for an evening of revelry. The food is rustic (with the menu changing daily)but also quite extravagant with sharing platters and puddings such as summer berry and elderflower trifle, ensuring everyone gets stuck in and chats to each other. As well as the dinner we also offer vintage candy and street-food from the surrounding wagons such as our wood-fired pizzas.
Last year was Circus250, a celebration of 250 years of circus. What is its enduring appeal?
The sheer magic and escapism created within a wonderful theatre. It was wonderful to be part of the celebrations last year and being involved with other activities such as the Victoria & Albert exhibition and we loved being able to celebrate the story of circus in our own show last year, My Beautiful Circus.
What’s this year’s theme?
It is midsummer 1973 in Hyde Park and the flower power movement is at its height. Hippies, hipsters, rock stars, musicians, wild women and global nomads with Shamanic horses gather to play, sing, dance, protest and perform. Policemen and a family of out-of-towners get caught up in the celebrations. Will they get in the groove? Nell Gifford builds a pleasure dome and Tweedy has a job in the kitchen as he thought everyone was talking about “Flour Power”. As evening approaches, the ever more chaotic event careers towards a joyful, transcendental finale. Be there or be square!
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