Our Circus250 Heritage

How did Circus250 begin?

Some of the fabulous women who helped found Circus250. From left to right – Cathy Haill, Curator, V&A Museum; Rebecca Truman, performer and artist; Professor Vanessa Toulmin, historian; Dea Birkett, director Circus250

The best ideas are born in a circus trailer, in the rare moment of quiet between shows. You’re waiting for a blast from the ringmaster’s whistle for the 15-minute countdown. Your make-up is done, your costume checked. You’re about to step out from your tiny home, enter through the ring doors and burst into the ring. You can hear the crowd gathering. You wonder, from your trailer, what the audience will be like tonight. Will they gasp at the double somersault on the flying trapeze? Will they laugh at the clown when his trousers fall down? Will they put their hands over their eyes when a fourth motorcyclist rides into the Wheel of Death?

Philip Astley silhouette

It was from these snatched conversations, in this space between shows in a traditional circus trailer, that Circus250 was born. Acrobats, equestrians, tumblers, ring crew and clowns chatted about what we were going to do to celebrate the 250th anniversary. 1768 – the year in which Philip Astley and his wife Patty created the world’s first circus – is a significant date in the traditional circus community. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, Astley was already known to many through the work of the Van Buren family and friends. But we knew that, beyond the traditional ring, few had heard of the retired cavalryman and his daring wife who’d established a whole new art form.

We used the significance of 2018 as our rallying cry, like a ringmaster’s whistle, to bring all the different circus communities together. A rare partnership between traditional and contemporary circuses led to Circus250 being formed, to co-ordinate all the activities UK and Ireland-wide. There were over 400 events, from Falmouth to the Orkneys, in archives and libraries, schools and theatres, cinemas and museums, festivals and big tops.

Circus has seeped into every aspect of our culture, even if we don’t realize. There’s barely an art form that isn’t touched and inspired by it. Artist Sir Peter Blake’s paintings and collages, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s circus-inspired catwalk, boy band Take That’s Circus tour, author Philippa Gregory’s novels, Costa Children’s Book Award winner Katherine Rundell’s children’s story books, actor Sir Tony Robinson’s sketches and comedian Paul Merton’s routines – all acknowledge circus as an inspiration in their art.

Circus is such a wonderfully accessible art form. No one, of any age, goes to the circus and comes out saying, ‘I’m not sure I understood that,’ or feels embarrassed because they didn’t quite know what was going on. No one tells you to be quiet at a circus; no one tells you to sit back down in your seat; no one tells you how to behave. The fabulous accessibility of circus is what makes it so special. Every other art form could learn from this. And circus isn’t only for everyone, but everywhere – the original pop up.

But Circus250 has evolved. We’re not here to simply celebrate the past and hugely enjoy the present, but to create new futures for circus and its audiences. When Philip and Patty Astley created the world’s first circus 250 years ago, it was ground breaking, with acts and in an arena no one had seen before. Over 250 years later, Circus250 continues in their radical spirit. Let’s carry on those snatched circus conversations. Who knows what wonderous things might happen.

Dea Birkett, Ringmaster, Circus250

Lost in Translation circus performing on London’s South Bank, right by the spot of the very first circus. Photographer Pete Maclaine.