Roll up, roll up and meet the master of the flea circus!
- Credit: Steve Haywood
Introducing Uncle Tacko!, a master of traditional seaside fun
Star act Olga Ivanich is poised and ready to begin her daredevil hop across the high wire. Crowds have gathered and are sat, waiting with baited breath (in between licks of ice-cream) as this tiny performer takes centre stage to perform her death-defying stunt.
Olga is part of Uncle Tacko!’s famous flea circus, an international troupe of expertly trained and fearless insects.
Together with their self-styled ringmaster, they are itching to take the world (or at least the East Devon coast) by storm.
Two summers ago, up to 7,000 people encountered Uncle Tacko! and these miniature marvels perform during an eight-day run on Teignmouth seafront.
Now Uncle Tacko! – or Tony Lidington, as he is otherwise known - is hoping to roll out his flea circus show across the region. He knows there is still a place for good, old-fashioned seaside entertainment in our busy, screen-obsessed world.
“It’s timeless,” says Tony, a highly successful performer, writer and director with a prestigious career spanning more than three decades. “People can come and enjoy something that is charming and simple. The whole thing about the flea circus is that things break or go wrong; the canon doesn’t fire, the child drops his ice cream and bursts into tears, a nearby dog poos. But that’s real life. It’s about real life in a situation that’s not pretending to be anywhere else.”
Tony, from Dawlish says he is an ‘evangelist’ for the arts, a firm believer that theatre and performance should be enjoyed by everyone.
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During his extraordinary career, which has included directing the opening ceremony of the 1993 World Gymnastics at Birmingham Indoor Arena, being invited to meet the Queen and becoming artistic director of Wakefield Opera House Tony has had to entertain audiences of hundreds of thousands.
But his passion for British popular entertainment means his heart is beside the seaside. He’s just as happy dressed in his bright red ringmaster-style hat and jacket, firing fleas out of a cannon in front of a few children, parents and grandparents.
“I’ve been through various incarnations, done bigger and bigger things,” says Tony. “But then I gave it all up and bought myself a puppet booth and went busking on Morecambe seafront!” he adds, unable to contain his laughter.
“It’s really important to me that there is an integrity about what people do.”
Tony spent 27 years performing as part of his seaside pierrot troupe “The Pierrotters” before setting up Promenade Promotions (Prom-Prom) Limited in 2003.
For the past ten years, he’s travelled the country as Uncle Tacko!, captivating audiences on seafronts, in classrooms, car parks and museums and more.
As well as the shows, Prom-Prom was set up to deliver projects, workshops, consultancy and research to promote and preserve traditional British entertainment. He’s become a well-respected expert on the genre, often working with academics and broadcasters.
“The open air is where all performance begins,” says father-of-three Tony, who has also been working as a part-time drama lecturer at Exeter University. “It’s our most natural environment. When we’re at the seaside, we’re competing with other attractions, whether that’s screens or ice cream or the play park or the beach. But that’s part of the fun. In live performance, what I really like is having to play in the moment. Yes, I can say the same things every time but there are no lights, no stage, there’s nothing hiding me. It’s about building a relationship with the audience.”
Tony and his tiny team, including Olga, the mighty Hercu-Fleas and trapeze artist Madam Flea-Flea, are back performing in Teignmouth this summer. Tony is also hoping to organise shows on Exeter Quay and would love the chance to ‘flea wrangle’ on seafronts in Dawlish or Torbay – natural homes for this joyful, family friendly event.
My kids and I managed to catch the fleas and Uncle Tacko! in Teignmouth last year and it was a delight: sunshine, sea air and people from all cultures and generations laughing together at this very bonkers and very British performance.
“You get what I call these ‘what it’s all about’ moments, or WIAs,” says Tony, as I tell him what a great time we had that day on the East Devon coast. “There could not be a more beautiful place to perform seaside entertainment. You’re there and the sun’s going down, you’ve done two or three shows, you’re tired but you’re warm and proud because you’ve made people laugh. There’s nothing more important than that.”