Your Guide to the Reality of Animal Circus

"The academic panel concluded that there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments" - Executive Summary of the DEFRA Circus Working Group 2007

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Friday, 28 October 2011

A Forgotten Hero? By David Hibling

I am delighted to introduce a piece written especially for this blog by David Hibling. David has an extensive background in circus - with particular experience in British circus. He is and has been an animal trainer, a ringmaster, an administrator and an artistic director for most of the major circuses in his lifetime. This essay reflects on the release of a new movie that features the namesake of this blog, the inventor of the modern circus Philip Astley...

Ask anyone in a High Street in Britain who “invented” the circus and you would probably be offered in response,
The Russians?” or even “The French?” (Actually the French do think they invented the circus, one of the reasons why Cirque Du Soleil has not enjoyed the same success in le’hexegon as they have elsewhere is that the French as a nation were completely affronted when Soleil first arrived in Paris with the arrogant slogan “we reinvent the circus!” – the French press replying  “why?”)

Or perhaps you might be given the answer “The Italians” to your question. At the Rome Film Festival this week a new Italian film “The Marvellous Adventures of Antonio Franconi” is being presented telling the story of the Italian-born son of a nobleman who arrived in France in 1783 and founded an illustrious dynasty whose early performances in Paris challenged the fame enjoyed by the Englishman Philip Astley, who had arrived in France some years earlier and whose equestrian spectacles had made him the toast of French society, even impressing Marie Antoinette before she lost her head, the revolution causing Astley to hurry back to England and leave the Franconi family to establish themselves as the circus Kings of revolutionary France and thus allow the French the belief they created the art form.

Of course most people reading this blog will know all about Astley’s history and how in 1768 by roping off a circular open air-arena in London (42 ft in diameter, still the size of many circus rings today) at Halfpenny Hatch nearby where Waterloo Station stands today presenting his equestrian skills he earned the accolade “Father of the Modern Circus”.

Yet his fame is not widespread in the country of his birth.

If the Italians can make a film about Franconi and their French neighbours regard circus so highly to an extent that at least a dozen circuses can be seen in Paris during the winter months daily selling out, why does not Britain recognise one of it’s own illustrious heroes whose circus legacy means that on any given day many thousands of people in virtually every country in the world are attending a performance of an art form we Brits invented?

In truth I really don’t know but ignorance of Astley is certainly a reflection on how circus is perceived in the United Kingdom in general.  There is an argument that live arts in the UK suffer because our TV is so good and as someone living in France I have some sympathy with that as I can vouch the television output is so awful its no wonder Big Tops are full!

On a more serious note, of course the circus animal debate has no doubt damaged the industry in the U.K. but the animal rights arguments against circus are not confined to our island and does not explain the apathy shown today towards the art form in Astley’s birthplace – for example despite the activities of Peta in America Ringling Bros, Barnum and Bailey enjoys a household name status nationwide that no British circus has done since the days of Billy Smart’s.

Circus The Truth was formed to counteract the misinformation spread by the animal rights agenda but in addition to fighting the corner for circus animals I think there is also a further need to promote and celebrate the circus in general, especially in Great Britain.  Circuses are still popular in the U.K. of course but it is important to remind the British media and politicians just what an essential part of the world’s culture circus was, is and will continue to be and that this world-wide success story has its’ roots firmly implanted on British soil.

Without taking anything away from the importance of campaigning for the animal issue an increased respect for circus in general will automatically have a positive influence on the campaign for safeguarding animal contributions to the performance.

Astley died on October 20th in 1814 and ironically was buried in France at the famous Pére-Lachaise cemetery in France where his grave (although alas no longer visible) is somewhere alongside other celebrities such as Edif Piaf and Jim Morrison. We have three years to ensure the 200th anniversary of his death is met with recognition long overdue – “The Marvellous Adventures of Philip Astley” coming soon to a cinema near you?

Circus The Truth was formed to counteract the misinformation spread by the animal rights agenda but in addition to fighting the corner for circus animals I think there is also a further need to promote and celebrate the circus in general, especially in Great Britain.

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