Jay brothers have the circus in their blood

The Hippodrome Circus building in Great Yarmouth.

The Hippodrome Circus building in Great Yarmouth. - Credit: Archant

Growing up with Great Yarmouth Hippodrome as their 'second home' the Jay brothers are happy to be continuing the family business, says DAVID CLAYTON.

“I suppose I’m a problem solver,” Ben Jay tells me as we survey the empty circus ring at Gt Yarmouth’s famous Hippodrome.

That probably sums up an operations manager’s job description perfectly. In between chatting to me he’s shouting directions down to his crew as lighting rigs are lowered and raised above the circus ring and work goes on to get the performance ready.

He knows the place well since his dad, Peter Jay, took on the iconic building in 1979. Ben’s earliest memories are being in and around the family of circus performers who turned up every summer to entertain the audiences with jaw-dropping acts.

“As a youngster, after I’d seen the show two or three times, I’d spend time backstage talking to the acts, then they’d try and teach me some of their skills. There was one act who did break-dancing. They had me spinning round on my head,” he laughs.

Operations manager Ben Jay at work inside the Hippodrome Circus, Great Yarmouth.

Operations manager Ben Jay at work inside the iconic building. - Credit: David Clayton

His parents Christine and Peter clearly didn’t worry. The camaraderie of the circus family meant he was in safe hands. The acts usually travelled as families, so it wasn’t unusual to have children around.  

Ben has always preferred the technical side of the business. “I’d follow the electricians around. As soon as you were old enough, you’d be put on a spotlight - even if it meant standing on a box.”

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He went on to be part of the circus ring crew who assembled and dismantled the performers’ apparatus. “It was a very physical job. You had to be strong,” Ben tells me.

Animals haven’t been part of the Hippodrome Circus for years, but back in the day, when they were, cages for the tigers had to be quickly built and then de-rigged.

Then there’s the unique water finale for which the Hippodrome is rightly famous. It involves lowering the floor of the circus ring to create an amazing, choreographed climax to the performance. If you’ve seen the show before, or are going this year, just watch Ben’s efficient crew, set it all up in minutes at full stretch and in full view of the audience.  

“I enjoy the lighting side most of all,” he explains. “Dad and I work on it together.”

Peter Jay is no stranger to showmanship and spectacle. With his band, The Jaywalkers, he toured the country in the early sixties with The Beatles and others. He even concocted a now rather dodgy stunt where his drumsticks had carbon tips and were wired to a battery. Every time he crashed the cymbals, sparks flew.  

Ben's younger brother Jack is the compere and ringmaster. He’s the public face of the Hippodrome Circus, along with regular comedy partner Johnny Mac. The two of them write the hilarious comedy sequences which are so much part of the circus. Jack has been producing and directing the shows for 13 years.

Jack Jay, the face of the Hippodrome Circus at Great Yarmouth.

Jack Jay is the face of the Hippodrome Circus today. - Credit: David Street (Streetview Marketing)

“It was an incredible experience,” as I ask him about the circus as his second home. “An amazing thing to grow up hanging around with people from all over the world.”

The Jays have always trawled the globe to find different and spectacular acts to bring to Yarmouth. In the past few years, Jack has flown to Peru to see performers and this year headed off to the Budapest Circus Festival to book an act for this summer’s show.

While Ben was engrossed with the technical side of things, Jack gravitated towards performing.

“I remember the Grumbleweeds doing a season in one of our theatres when I was about nine or 10. I stood in the wings night after night and knew their act off by heart.,” he says.

Jack began to understand how they put their show together and when and why it subtly changed. It was a valuable apprenticeship, as was keeping a close eye on the circus shows.

“I was always aware that dangerous things happen in the ring and there was a right time to concentrate.”

His grandfather on his mother’s side was Gordon Edwards, himself a great showman, who was always on stage at Yarmouth’s Garibaldi and Gorleston’s Ocean Room, hosting an evening’s entertainment. The dynasty continues because Ben’s 15-year-old son Billy is now playing the drums in the show. 

The Jay brothers combine their talents well, as Jack explains: “We’ve grown up in the same environment but see things with a different perspective.” Ben agrees: “We see things from different angles, but we communicate and can be brutally honest with each other.”

Peter Jay still keeps a fatherly eye on things, although has stepped back from the daily running.

“You don’t ignore all those years of experience,” explains Jack. “So, when he suggests something, we listen. Dad was a great forward thinker and was always innovating. The show he’s interested in is the next one.”  

Mind you the boys are known to take the mickey out of their old pop star dad. “We tell him we’ll put on one of his old records as it’ll help clear the audience at the end of the show.”  

The Hippodrome Circus, at St George's Road, Gt Yarmouth, Norfolk NR30 2EU, runs until Sunday, September 18, seven days a week with matinees on most days. Find out more at: https://hippodromecircus.co.uk/ or call the box office (open between 11am and 4pm every day) on: 01493 738877.