Susie Fowler-Watt: circus celebration

Great Yarmouth's famous Hippodrome Circus building (photo: James Bass)

Great Yarmouth's famous Hippodrome Circus building (photo: James Bass) - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014

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

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.

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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!


BBC TV’s Look East presenter Susie Fowler-Watt shares a little of her family life every month

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