Collected Journalism

Zippos: Life Behind the Curtain


This piece was published in The Big Issue in August 2010.

Thirty feet in the air, a Colombian duo’s high-wire act is not going as planned. The younger man, muscles shiny with sweat, somersaults over his crouching colleague – only to miss the landing and slip from the rope.

The audience gasps. A few screams. The young man grabs the rope, struggling for a few seconds to hoist himself back onto sure footing. But this, after all, is what everyone really wants: affirmation the act is dangerous and difficult, and therefore worth doing.

The young acrobat will try again. The spotlight picks out the long walk towards his partner on the middle of the rope. This time he nails it. A perfect somersault. A perfect finale. The ringmaster reappears to bring the evening’s entertainment to an end…

Zippos is the largest traditional British circus still on the road. Yet the caravan is only a sliver of the vast touring enterprises once able to capture far bigger chunks of the pleasure-seeking public. Before TV took off in the ’60s, Chipperfield and Billy Smart circuses packed in up to 6,000 punters a show.

Tonight in Milngavie, near Glasgow, only a few hundred parents and face-painted children trickle out with candyfloss and plastic glow sticks.

I meet Zippos’ legendary ringmaster Norman Barrett one morning after his circus has moved on to Falkirk.

He may have recently been awarded an MBE, but Barrett still gets up early each day to clean out the bird cages at the back of a converted Mercedes estate car. He has taught budgies to walk down slides, hop through hoops and swing around on tiny trapezes.

I watch the birds hop gracefully around the wheel.

“How is it done?”

“Patience, and a little bit of know-how,” Barrett winks.

Now 74, the showman has spent more than 60 years in the ring. He inherited the life from his father, a Yorkshire farmer, who ran away with the circus after a touring troupe noticed how well his animals were trained.

Barrett was 12-years-old when he developed his first act: dogs leaping over a tightrope-walking goat. “Where I’m happiest is in the ring,” he says.

“I’m an old ham really. A bloody show-off! We’re all here because we’re doing what we love. I’m a welder of talent. The music, the lights, the acts, the ring boys – I weld them all together. I have the glamourous job, but we all need each other.

“It can be a hard life, you know. You might be stuck knee deep in mud in the pouring rain, but we all know the show must go on. We’re a nomadic tribe essentially. And it’s all centred around what we do in the ring when showtime comes.”

Zippos goes on the road from February until December. The mobile village of 70 puts on two shows a day, often without a day off between towns.

Does the ringmaster ever think about saying goodbye and putting his feet up? “I was talking to Ken Dodd about this a few years ago, about retiring. He said, ‘The thing is Norman, we’ve got exciting jobs – think of all those boring jobs out there’. I remember painting the ceiling at winter and I said to the wife, ‘If this is retirement, you can stick it’. I really do hate to talk about the day I can’t do it anymore.”

I find the Columbian acrobats Los Marinhos preparing to go shopping in town, an afternoon break from rehearsals. Chico wants to get some new clothes. Ernesto and Chico are father-and-son performers from a long line of circus entertainers touring the barrios of South America.

“My first memory is them putting down a low-wire for me to practice,” smiles 27-year-old Chico, who has starred in circuses all over the world.

“In Colombia, the circus is treated like a big outdoor pantomime. They love it there. In Scotland, you always get a good reaction. In Germany they clap, but they don’t scream. In Holland, they stand up and cheer and clap every time. In Saudi Arabia, you don’t get anything; no response. Complete silence. But they must be enjoying it if they are coming.”

How does Chico stop the act from becoming mundane? “Mundane? Routine? Yes, it can be routine, like any job,” he concedes.

“Sometimes it’s a thrill. Sometimes it’s a bit boring, to be honest. It’s nice when there is a big audience, a full house; it’s nice to work with an atmosphere. A new trick, that’s when you get a buzz.

“The main thing is, I cannot stop travelling. I get bored if I stop. Wherever we go, the circus is like a small country in itself. There is an international community; we all know each other from other circuses. So it’s almost like your religion.”

Ernesto is satisfied the circus life “still carries on, through the generations”. He’s keen to point out, lest his son makes it sound straightforward, the hard graft involved. A slip like the one during the Milngavie show needs immediate correction. “It can be controlled,” he says. “When you fall to the floor from the high wire, it is a shocking moment. But you have to go straight back up or you will have time to get scared.”

Over near the stables, “horse whisperer” Tom Roberts is happy to talk about his own ancestry: seven generations in the circus.

He and his family spend most of the year on the road with their beloved caramel-coloured palomino horses, an operation that involves careful planning so his 10-year-old daughter Kristina can temporarily attend school in many of the towns and cities they pass through. “I grew up this way – I know nothing else,” he explains.

“When you’re a boy, it’s a kid’s ideal world. You make the candyfloss, you sell the programmes, then you start appearing in the ring. The kids have a base school in winter, but they like moving around like I did. My daughter would spend morning, noon and night with the horses if she could.”

Animal rights activists do not make life easy for Roberts and the other trainers with Britain’s few remaining animal circuses. There are placard protests and increasingly exacting council regulations. Shortly before the election, Labour minister Ben Bradshaw said the government wanted to impose an outright ban. Everyone here hopes the Conservative-led coalition will be more sympathetic.

“If there are no animals, it isn’t a real circus,” Roberts insists, tired of having to justify the ethics. “Wherever I go, the horses go. Part of the family. Animal welfare is absolutely first in our mind.”

Inside the big tent, Georgeta Miluti is relaxing before tonight’s performance. Although she performs aerial stunts on a giant glass ball as Miss Georgeta, she was originally trained as a gymnast in Romania before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“At that time, if you did gymnastics you had not much money, just an apartment and travelling was paid for,” she recalls. “After the end of communism, I was told I was too old for gymnastics. The Romanian circus was five minutes from where I was living, and they needed a high-wire act. I’m not sorry I joined. It has been a good life. I don’t see myself doing something else, like selling in Tesco,” she laughs. “This is a more interesting life.”

David Konyot, Zippos’ clown-in-chief, is a little bit defensive. He’s the only person around to have spent much of his career outside the circus – 15 years in the theatre – and is aware of the low esteem in which the circus is held.

What made him return? “Believe it or not, I don’t like the travelling around so much,” he says.

“But it has become my…philosophical point of view that the circus is the last true freedom. No unions, no borders, no bullshit. Every religion, every language, colour, creed – it’s the only thing in our society where all of that is true. The cases of alcoholism and drug abuse are laughably small compared with the outside world. Believe me. Divorce is rare. The general malaise in society is absent in the circus.”

Now irony and skepticism pervade the outside world, Konyot admits he and his fellow clowns do often struggle to conjure up a spirit of innocence in the audience.

“Sometimes it’s difficult. But it is heartening when you sometimes see a gang of young people – the disco and binge-drinking mob – and they come in with the intention of taking the piss,” he says. “And within 15 minutes they actually get into it. It’s genuine – they’ve dropped the piss-take. We try to push the envelope a bit and update things, but slapstick is still part of what makes everyone laugh.

“They say there’s only seven original gags in comedy anyway. Someone falling over is always funny. A fat person is always funnier than a thin person. I mean, Bruce Willis doesn’t do anything Errol Flynn didn’t do, except Willis has got CGI.”

Before ringmaster Barrett wishes me goodbye, he tries to explain why the circus has enduring appeal. He is old enough to recall the days before Sky+ and IMAX 3D, when Flynn was around as rival entertainment. “The circus is like life – it’s a wheel,” he says. “When the movies came, it went down and then came up again, then television took off in the ’60s and it went down a bit.

“There is a nostalgia involved, but the kids who come along are vociferous as ever. A lady told me the other day about bringing her grandchild, and she was concerned that it wasn’t going to be the same for him.

“But the boy sat down with his Gamesmaster or whatever it is, and as soon as it started he was spellbound. Totally spellbound. So you see, it’ll always be around so long as it’s colourful.”

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