Phillip Gandey, enterprising circus director who led the way from animal acts – obituary

Phillip Gandey
Phillip Gandey

Phillip Gandey, who has died of cancer aged 67, was the UK’s leading circus director who, over a 50-year career, created and directed Gandey’s Circus and Cirque Surreal, led the move away from animal acts, and introduced Britain to the all-human spectacular of the Chinese State Circus.

Philip George Gandey was born on February 26 1956 in Sandbach, Cheshire, into the 150-year Gandey circus dynasty. His father Joe was a clown and mother Mary a trapeze artiste. He was expected to work in the show, becoming Britain’s youngest clown, Starri, at the age of five. Later, he had a Wild West Act, knife-throwing and rope-spinning as Brett Montana.

Phillip Gandey’s Gold Clown-winning troupe at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival
Phillip Gandey’s Gold Clown-winning troupe at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival - Andrew Payne

Meanwhile, as the family circus was constantly on tour, he attended some 1,200 schools, but was the popular kid who always had free tickets to give away.

While touring the Scottish Borders in 1973, Joe Gandey suddenly died. Mary told the 17-year-old Phillip that he could walk away or take charge. He chose to stay. It was a monumental challenge, but during the 1970s and 1980s, with the business acumen of his wife Carol, Phillip Gandey turned what had been a small two-pole-tent circus into Europe’s largest big-top entertainment organisation.

Phillip Gandey’s horizons expanded with his ambitions. Nothing fazed him. In the late 1980s Gandey’s Circus searched for new audiences in such diverse places as Iceland and Madeira. There were inevitable mishaps. On one occasion, one of his artistes – an Indian contortionist whose dressing room was made of bales of straw – angrily accosted him: “Mr Gandey, your elephant, she has eaten my dressing room!”

The Chinese State Circus foot juggler
The Chinese State Circus foot juggler - Andrew Payne

By the end of the 1980s the mood had turned against animals in circuses. Gandey knew things had to change. He was inspired by seeing Chinese acrobats at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival and, astounded by the quality and diversity of the performers, he organised a talent-spotting trip to China.

Within a year he had struck a deal with the Chinese government and introduced British audiences to the “purest, most abiding and most exhilarating circus ever seen” – the Chinese State Circus. Created, produced and directed by Phillip and Carol, it revolutionised UK circus, proving that an all-human version could provide edge-of-your-seat excitement.

Gandey regularly scoured China for new talent. Once, after watching a rope-spinning Wild West act, he could not resist “having a go” himself. He proceeded to give a master-class, earning spontaneous applause from an astonished audience. He also won the top prize at the world’s leading circus festival in Monaco with an all-female Chinese troupe. Recognised for his services to performing arts in China, he was honoured for furthering cultural links between China and the UK.

The Chinese State Circus toured the UK, France, Iceland and the Middle East until 1997. When it was at London’s Roundhouse, Princess Margaret’s equerry asked to book tickets. Gandey greeted her during the interval to discuss the show. Suddenly a regal voice called for silence. “Everyone, Mr Gandey’s next production is the Bolshoi Circus on Ice. How splendid, a trip to Grimsby!”

In the 1990s Gandey created and directed big-top shows, outdoor festivals and theatre productions in the UK, Beirut, China, Italy, Qatar, Thailand, and Bahrain. In 1999 he took the first circus to Saudi Arabia, where the all-male production had to conform to cultural strictures. It was described as “a display of athletic achievement”.

The Lady Boys of Bangkok
The Lady Boys of Bangkok - Bina Fellowes

Gandey constantly searched for new ideas, themes, and entertainment. One of his proudest achievements was the creation, in the early 1990s, of the contemporary production Cirque Surreal. It featured not only extraordinary circus skills, but choreography never seen before in a circus context, with prose, verse, and a soundtrack by Rick Wakeman. It has since been staged at festivals in Edinburgh, Dublin, and Dubai.

Gandey was also ahead of the times in normalising “kathoey” – or transgender – culture with his cabaret show The Lady Boys of Bangkok, created in 1996. It became the top-selling show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has gone from being regarded as a novelty to a reputable cabaret.

In the early 2000s  Gandey returned to the family’s entertainment roots with the launch of Europe’s largest touring equestrian show, Spirit of the Horse, a take on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, in which his grandfather had been involved in 1904. In 2003 the production – involving a cast of 40, with 30 horses and a special structure providing a gigantic indoor arena – was flown to Dubai.

In 2012 Gandey started creating the summer circuses for the Butlin’s resorts at Skegness, Minehead and Bognor Regis. In 2021 he directed a circus in Doha for the men’s football World Cup, and a production for a Christmas festival in Singapore. He was also artistic director of the charity Circus Starr, which provides entertainment for people with disabilities.

Phillip Gandey is survived by his wife Carol and by their three daughters.

Phillip Gandey, born February 26 1956, died December 12 2023