Susie FowlerWatt: Our colum­nist cel­e­brates the circus

As the circus cel­e­brates 250 years Susie re­calls a mem­o­rable visit to Great Yar­mouth’s Hip­po­drome

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - SUSIE FOWLER-WATT Susie Fowler-Watt BBC TV Look East pre­sen­ter

Two hun­dred and fifty years ago, on an aban­doned patch of land in Lon­don, a cir­cle was drawn in the ground, and circus was born. That first 42 foot ring, cre­ated by Philip Ast­ley in 1768, was filled with acts that wowed the au­di­ence. And many of those same acts – jug­glers, ac­ro­bats – still wow us to­day.

This year the an­niver­sary is be­ing marked at a num­ber of lo­ca­tions across the UK – in­clud­ing Nor­folk. We are lucky to have Bri­tain’s only sur­viv­ing to­tal circus build­ing in Great Yar­mouth. The Hip­po­drome was built in 1903, and has played host to some ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mances over the past cen­tury. Hou­dini, Lil­lie Langtry and even a young Char­lie Chap­lin are all be­lieved to have played the Hip­po­drome. Its wa­ter spec­ta­cle was lov­ingly re­stored by Peter Jay when he bought the build­ing in 1979, and makes the whole circus ex­pe­ri­ence even more spec­tac­u­lar.

I re­mem­ber my first visit to the Hip­po­drome vividly. My friend Rachel had re­galed us with her own ex­pe­ri­ence a few weeks ear­lier. She had been picked out of the au­di­ence and spun round and round on stage by one of the acts. I laughed up­roar­i­ously as she de­scribed what had hap­pened. What fun, I thought, and so we booked to go with an­other fam­ily on New Year’s Day.

When the day ar­rived, it was def­i­nitely a case of the morn­ing af­ter the night be­fore. We’d had a rau­cous, late night New Year’s Eve, and I was feel­ing par­tic­u­larly frag­ile as we set off for Yar­mouth for the mati­nee show­ing. It turned out that our friends had booked us seats on the front row. Rachel’s story started to play on my mind. What if I was picked? What if

I was spun round and round? In my cur­rent state, it could be disas­trous!

The dreaded mo­ment came when they ran­domly chose an au­di­ence mem­ber. I turned to my daugh­ter and her friend (who were des­per­ate to be se­lected) and tried to en­gage them in con­ver­sa­tion so I wouldn’t meet the MC’s eye. It back­fired. “YOU!” he said. I looked up, and he was point­ing at me.

I could feel my stom­ach churn as I stood up. He asked me my name and where I was from. I found it hard to re­mem­ber. I could see the head­lines “TV news­reader vom­its over circus act”, and my hu­mil­i­a­tion al­ready felt com­plete.

But to my huge re­lief – maybe they had seen my ex­pres­sion – they went easy on me. There was no spin­ning, no ac­ro­bat­ics, only ques­tions I could just about stut­ter answers to. I sat back down af­ter­wards, heart beat­ing like the clap­pers and thanked my lucky stars.

We have been back to the Hip­po­drome sev­eral times since, and have al­ways had a bril­liant time. What I love about the circus is that it’s truly a show for all ages. It is one of the few events we can go to with el­derly par­ents, teenage daugh­ter and lit­tle boy, and know that every­one will en­joy them­selves.

This year BBC Look East has been keen to mark the 250th an­niver­sary with spe­cial fea­tures from the circus. One of our pro­duc­ers came up with the idea that I could some­how train up to do dif­fer­ent acts – tightrope, ac­ro­bat­ics, fire-eat­ing etc – for a series of Look East broad­casts.

Part of me loved this idea, as noth­ing could be more fun than hang­ing out with circus per­form­ers for a week. The other part of me had to re­mind my­self that I am a 48-year-old mother of two, with ques­tion­able fit­ness lev­els and I would like to stay alive. I am cur­rently push­ing for a com­pro­mise, which doesn’t in­volve any leo­tards (no one needs to be sub­jected to that sight) or dan­ger.

Of course, circus has had to adapt and mod­ernise over the past 250 years, as public opin­ion has changed. Very few cir­cuses use an­i­mals nowa­days – the gov­ern­ment says a to­tal ban will be in­tro­duced by 2020 – and the tra­di­tional clown is usu­ally re­placed by a more con­tem­po­rary ver­sion. But the heart of the circus – the hu­mour, the ex­tra­or­di­nary feats of strength and agility, the many “how do they do that?” mo­ments – are still the same.

The Hip­po­drome’s sum­mer sea­son runs un­til the mid­dle of Septem­ber. If you’ve never been – I can highly rec­om­mend it. But per­haps not with a han­gover… and give some thought to where you sit!

ABOVE:Great Yar­mouth’s fa­mous Hip­po­drome Circus build­ing

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