The government is facing urgent calls to save Britain’s 250-year-old circus tradition with companies warning that they will go bust within just two weeks without help.
The Association of Circus Proprietors has said that performers have been reduced to using food banks to survive since circuses were shut down temporarily by Covid-19.
On Tuesday, there were clowns in Downing Street, but this time they were professional ones, joined by acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters and stilt-walkers to deliver a plea for assistance to Boris Johnson.
In a letter to the prime minister, the association said circuses must be allowed to open this month to have any chance of staying alive. They wrote that, without swift action, “a great British institution will be lost for ever”. “Please save the circus … We have two weeks before the end of the road,” they said.
Circuses exist primarily on their Easter and summer seasons, when there are around 50 shows on the road in Britain.
Martin Burton, the association’s chairman, told the Guardian that the situation was “completely desperate”. “We’ve missed Easter. If we miss the summer, most circuses will go bust,” he said.
“My association has had countless emails from members saying: ‘if you can’t get us open in the middle of July, we can’t see a way to carry on’… [Circuses are] not just going to be dark. They’re going to be gone … about two weeks from now.”
Burton said companies were perplexed because they are classified as outdoor events, yet were not on the list of businesses allowed to reopen last week.
Unlike theatre buildings, they can rearrange seating into any socially-distant pattern and their Big Top tents have airy designs with plenty of ventilation, multiple entrances and outside box-offices, catering and toilets.
The association represents shows such as Circus Extreme, Zippos Circus and Gerry Cottle, which draw an estimated 2.5 million people each year.
In their letter to Johnson, they wrote: “Sadly, circuses seem to have fallen through the cracks of all the rescue package schemes … [Monday’s] announcement that a £1.57bn culture lifeline was to be given to the arts made no reference to circus.”
Referring to an interview given by the culture secretary in announcing the emergency arts funding, Burton said: “When Oliver Dowden read out who was on [the list of recipients], he didn’t say the word ‘circus’… [The presenter] said: ‘And circus?’ He didn’t answer.”
He added: “The first circus was invented by Philip Astley. His circus building was on the other side of Westminster Bridge … Parliamentarians would cross the bridge and go to Astley’s amphitheatre and watch the circus.
“It’s only in Britain – I’m sorry to tell you, considering that we invented [the circus] – that it’s looked down upon so much [today] … There’s a national circus in Hungary. The man who runs [it] is a cabinet minister. The national circus in Switzerland, Knie, are like royalty. The Pope in Italy goes to see circuses all the time. We don’t get that recognition here.”
Burton is the founder and director of Zippos Circus, having run away to the circus “much to my mother’s disgust”. He worked as a clown for years.
Joking about clowns and politicians, he said: “We have to be very careful about the abuse of the word ‘circus’ and the abuse of the word ‘clown’. Let’s not make it too derogatory because it upsets the real ones.”