“I geek out all the time in circuses,” says Nell Gifford, her turquoise eyes glittering under a crown of red roses as she pulls a little jar of sand from the pocket of her fluffy coat. “This is from another circus in Paris. That’s the kind of thing I just find in my pockets. I had to bring this back because I wanted to find out what it was but, you know – walking around with a sample from a French circus in your pocket – that’s sort of the epitome of geekiness.”
It is the interval of Gifford’s Circus 2019 show ‘Xanadu’ and Nell and I share a bench in the bustling tea tent, which is alive with excited chatter and sparkly bunting. In the middle of the tent stands a display table decked out with crisp new copies of Nell’s recently published children’s book ‘Nell and the Circus of Dreams’.
Although it speaks of dreams, the book draws its characters very much from real life. When I ask Nell how much of herself is in the lead character of the book, she responds with a disarmingly straightforward “Pretty much all. The dream of running away to the circus has been my life story. I wanted to tell that story for children.” Even the chicken who leads young Nell to the circus comes directly from Nell’s own childhood: “When we were little we actually had a really sweet pet chicken called Rosebud, who did sleep on our bed and all of that. She’s a real-life character.”
The story also speaks directly to the very real experience of being a child with an ill parent – something Nell experienced with her own mother and is experiencing now as a mother herself, who was very ill at the time of beginning to write this book: “The central character’s mother is ill. I wanted to write about the boredom – how boring it is for a child to have an ill parent.”
The illustrations for the book are also drawn closely from real life. Nell’s publishers at Oxford University Press brought her together with illustrator Briony May Smith, and together they translated the art and the heart of circus life into vibrant images which tell the story of little Nell’s visit to the world behind the velvet curtain. Nell tells me it was tricky trying to fit all of the circus into one book, and so she has more books planned for the future!
I ask Nell what is the gift that she had received from writing this book: “It made me more aware that the circus is quite a simple story,” she tells me. “I’m always trying to overcomplicate things, but now I’m starting to understand that magnifying a simple idea is better than complicated ideas that are hard to follow.” The idea for Gifford’s Circus this year comes straight from a sixties summer of love. The performers present a love-drenched, technicolour spectacle of song, dance, acrobatics, horsemanship, juggling and clowning – all decked out in long hippy wigs, glitter galore and even doves!
At the end of the show, I am lucky to catch the weekly Q&A session with performers. The line-up features famous faces like Tweedy the clown, returning favourites such as Emmanuel the Italian acrobat and new stars like Lil Smith, who grew up watching Gifford’s Circus. Following the theme of the book, I ask the performers about their earliest memory of feeling inspired to join the circus.
“When I was young I really loved monkeys,” begins Nell, “I wanted to be a monkey trainer in the circus, but it wasn’t really to do with the circus so it’s strange in a way how it’s worked out.” For Lil, her earliest memory was watching her aunt Nell ride an elephant in a circus in Germany: “I was really young and I remember thinking that must be the coolest job ever,” she tells us. Emmanuel shares the story of his childhood as part of a family of acrobats who ran a circus.
Not everyone who performs in the circus is born to it, and for children who dream of joining Nell has the following piece of advice: “If you want to join the circus the best thing to do is learn dance, gymnastics and languages. Everything else will follow.” Nell explains that, in her experience, people tend to bring to the circus whatever skill they have naturally and then to train and exaggerate that skill until it becomes a performance.
Nell’s skill growing up was riding horses. She began riding at the age of 6 and has since ridden horses – and elephants! – in several circus rings around the world. In the first half of this year’s show, Nell appears in the ring on a showy grey stallion alongside her daughter Red riding a beautifully dappled rare Eriskay pony. Mother and daughter float around the ring in a dreamlike harmony to the dulcet tones of the house band performing Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Days’. It was in this moment that Gifford’s Circus truly touched my heart and I confess I cried real, salty tears into my popcorn as it did. “I love doing the act with my daughter,” Nell tells me as I gush at her about the beauty of it, “and I hope she loves it too, I think she does. It’s a really special thing.”
Nell and her circus of dreams have now taken to the open road for the summer season. Tickets are available from the Gifford’s box office or through the website www.giffordscircus.com and copies of ‘Nell and the Circus of Dreams’ can also be purchased online at http://www.giffordscircus.com/shop.
Article first published July 2019, Good on Paper