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Giffords Circus co-owner Nell Gifford (Photo By Rex Features)
Giffords Circus co-owner Nell Gifford (Photo By Rex Features)

Leah McLaren

Giffords Circus gives us a glimpse of futures past Add to ...

This week, as Toronto geared up for its annual orgy of cinematic razzle-dazzle and celebrity adulation, my buddy Ron Murphy, a screenwriter-director whose credits include several of CBC Television’s biggest shows in recent years, flew to England to attend a spectacle quite different from the Toronto International Film Festival. Not for him the velvet ropes, hibiscus martinis and rubber-necking that are occupying his chattering comrades in the film business.

Murphy decided to forgo the Toronto schmooze-a-thon in favour of a different sort of circus, in Gloucester, west of London.

“We’re going on a road trip!” he announced, handing me a half-crumpled, hand-printed flyer for something called Giffords Circus. “Vogue magazine says it’s the greatest show on Earth!”

On the flyer were old-timey drawings of a bear, a pig, a pinto pony and a jewel-eyed goose. The edges were curled, almost yellow. Online, I soon read about Toti and Nell Gifford, the young couple who 10 years ago started what is now one of the hottest summer tickets in England.

Their vision was of “a miniature 1930s village-green circus, packed, rowdy, glamorous – birds and horses and motorbikes bursting from a fluttering white tent – a show for rural families, farmers and film stars.” All the circus’s costumes are handmade, the sets hand-painted, the caravans constructed by cast members.

The next thing I knew, we were hurtling down the highway toward the unpronounceable market town of Cirencester. As we rattled past suburban sprawl in a tin-can Vauxhall, Murphy became philosophical. “Look at all this stuff,” he said, gesturing to the skyline rushing past us. “It’s just … mind-blowing, don’t you think?” Out the window was a sooty overpass, a blinking billboard and an old factory converted into a car dealership.

I was skeptical. But he was on a roll.

“It’s been a hell of a party, but now the ice caps are melting, the crude’s running out fast, and in a few years the whole thing’s going to grind to a halt.” He gestured up at a grim stucco complex that could have been the set for the original, British version of The Office. “All this crap needs cranes and backhoes and front-end loaders to be constructed and maintained. What’s going to happen when we can’t afford it? Party over.”

My friend was positively energized by his cheerful sermon of apocalyptic doom.

An absolutely appropriate mood, as it turned out: Giffords Circus, when we finally found it, in a meadow down a narrow road hemmed in by medieval hedgerows, brought to mind a midsummer night’s picnic organized by Mad Max and the Time Bandits. Before us stood caravans in burgundy and white, and ragtag players in cossack coats and ruffled skirts. The main tent, in a creamy canvas, was rather small. The man who took our tickets had a curled-up mustache. Murphy and I sat down beside a jolly-looking male couple sharing a bottle of rosé and a wedge of Stilton from a wicker basket.

Then the Russian dancers appeared, and the tumblers, and the clown, and a man who tap-danced upside down on his hands, and a tiny woman in a blue tutu who jumped through hoops of fire.

Unlike its more glamorous Canadian cousin, Cirque de Soleil, Giffords Circus is happily rough around the edges. One performer hangs upside down from a bedsheet while playing a jig on her fiddle; another throws a brace of daggers with his teeth. Many of them are grizzled and undeniably road-weary.

“It’s a hard life, especially when it’s raining, which it often is,” full-time stagehand Micky Seadon – who, like his circus mates, proudly calls himself a “runaway” – told me after the show. “For most people these days, entertainment is video games and renting a movie. What we’re doing here is a real, living, breathing spectacle.”

At the end of each show, a tiny, open-air, 40-seat restaurant serves three-course meals of local seasonal farm fare. Although the circus has forged abroad in the past, it now prefers to stick to this neck of England. “We’re committed,” says Seadon, “to the local rural area.” After 11 seasons on the road, Giffords Circus is still selling out nearly every show.

In the car on the long drive back to the city, Murphy and I relaxed into a pleasant post-circus reverie, bathing in what I would describe as a premature nostalgia for a future that may well look surprisingly like the past.

We drove past strip malls and stadiums, and multiplex theatres playing $100-million summer blockbusters, comforted by the knowledge that the handmade circus we’d just seen could well serve as a blueprint for the future of entertainment: Once the party’s over, and the oil runs out, and the cranes stop moving, we’ll still have clowns and geese and hoops of fire.

“It won’t be so bad, will it?” I asked him.

“Nah,” he replied, “it’ll be the greatest show on Earth.” Without a red carpet anywhere in sight.

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