Circus celebrates 30 years of entertainment

Stephen PullingerPeter Jay is celebrating thirty years of the circus at Great Yarmouth's Hippodrome. Stephen Pullinger went along to find out more.Stephen Pullinger

The gathering clouds might be bad news for deckchair hirers and ice cream sellers, but they put an extra spring in the step of Peter Jay.

The start of the afternoon show at Yarmouth's Hippodrome Circus is still two hours away but holidaymakers with one eye on the sky are already queuing outside the ticket office.

Whether it's global warming or Saint Swithin to blame, monsoon downpours sending families scurrying for shelter have certainly contributed to Mr Jay's 30th anniversary summer circus enjoying record-breaking audiences during its early weeks.

And, as he steps outside to take another rain check, glowing praise from one elderly couple, thanking him for giving them years of fun and laughter, almost brings a tear to his eye. 'That's one of the reasons we keep going,' he said.

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He confessed that the general consensus of the business community was that he had gone mad when he decided to buy the Hippodrome from the Russell family in 1979.

As a former drummer in a rock-and-roll band, who had put on variety shows with his father Jack for 10 years, he was taking a leap seemingly almost as brave or foolhardy as the daredevil Brazilian acrobats, the Romeiros, in his latest show.

'Even Dad thought I was barmy, telling me I knew not the slightest thing about circus,' he said.

It was the fear that someone else might buy the Hippodrome and turn it into a bingo hall, competing with the Jays' then thriving bingo operation at the Empire that finally prompted the purchase.

Mr Jay said: 'It was a life-changing moment, but I did not realise that for many years.'

For the first three years, he brought in touring circuses but then 'the magic of the building' took him over and he decided to put on his own shows.

He said: 'The big change was bringing the water back. Everyone told us they remembered the Hippodrome's water feature even though it had not been used for 25 years. And there is still something magical when the ring disappears under 100,000 gallons of water and the synchronised swimmers appear.'

In the early days, Mr Jay said it was a struggle becoming accepted by the closed circus community and to check out acts before signing them they had to fly off to places as far afield as Bulgaria and Russia.

'Advances in technology have made things simpler. Once I asked acts to send me a video of their performance and then it was DVDs. Now it is nearly all on YouTube,' he said.

However, the task of talking to the acts, signing them and sorting out their paperwork has become scarcely less complicated for his wife Christine.

He said: 'This year, I could hear her trying to communicate with the Romeiros, who were ringing in the middle of the night from their home 200 miles north of Rio.

'Only one speaks a bit of English and it was frankly a miracle they all got here with their props, visas and work permits.'

By the time the acts arrive from far-flung parts of the globe - this year they include a contortionist from Mongolia, a juggler from Mexico and a magic act from South Africa - there is only a week to get the show together.

'I plan the running order, the music and the swimming routines in advance, but it is a mad week putting it all together like a giant collage. After a couple of days, it takes on a life of its own and that's the magical bit for me,' he said.

Now the early performance glitches have been ironed out, he is proud that 'the finished product is exactly what I envisaged three months ago'.

Today's exciting show with its fast-moving action, contemporary music and creative use of lighting is very different to the old Christmas Day television circus offering from the Big Top that people might remember.

Mr Jay said: 'Our show is a melding of my show business and rock and roll roots and what I have learned about circus in what is still a relatively short time - it is a blend now copied across the world.'

Animal acts have long since disappeared, and this year there has been another major step - the end of the clown sporting a red nose.

Instead, young Scottish comedian Johnny Mac has formed a double act with Mr Jay's 21-year-old son Jack.

Mr Jay said: 'The combination of Johnny and Jack just seems to work and I'm hoping this is going to be the start of something big for both of them.'

Having reached the age of 65, he is preparing to hand over more of the day-to-day running of the Hippodrome to Jack.

'The Jack and Peter Jay partnership worked with my dad for 10 years. Now the circle of life means it is with my son. It is a privilege to work with your family,' he said.

t The circus runs to September 6. To book, ring 01493-844172 or log on to

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