Fabulous founder of Gifford’s Circus, Nell Gifford, may no longer be with us, but Gifford’s Circus is Coming to Town with new show ¡Carpa!
Gifford’s Circus rolls into town with new show ¡Carpa!, starring Tweedy the Clown. He tells us about his life clowning around and touches on what we can expect from Gifford’s Circus this summer.
How long have you been performing in Giffords Circus and how did it start?
2022 will be my 16th show with Giffords Circus. Nell and I were friends already, having met through circus when Nell was a groom on another circus, and I asked her for a job.
What was it like to collaborate with founder Nell?
Great! It worked very well because our approaches were very different, hers was very serious and artistic whereas I was quite silly, and we just naturally complimented each other.
How did you get to be a clown? Did you have any kind of formal training?
I didn’t have any formal training when I decided I wanted to be a clown. It was very difficult to find out how to be a clown because there wasn’t the internet back then to look things up, so I applied to a few circus schools and I got accepted onto a clown course at Fool Time (which is now Circomedia in Bristol) and I was saving up to pay for it by working as a Red Coat at Butlins, but sadly the school went bust!
So to research and find out more about clowning I sent out a questionnaire to about 50 circuses and I got about two back! One from Cirque du Soleil (which I hadn’t heard of at the time!!!!) and the other was from Martin Burton at Zippo’s Circus, who said the best way to learn about clowning was from other clowns and in front of a live audience. He also offered me a job as a Publicity Clown, which involved handing out leaflets in the streets and doing school and hospital shows. This was when I was 19 years old.
In the first week at Zippo’s the clown got stuck in traffic and there was no one else who could do the act, so I volunteered and said “I’ll do it!” and I did the show. Martin caught the end of the second half of the show and offered me the job as his understudy. The following year I became part of Zippo & Co, a clown troupe, the rest is history!
You are a big favourite with audiences, and very interactive – how would you describe your relationship to your audience?
Empathetic! In the circus, you see many people doing amazing feats and acts, so the clown acts as a device that the audience can relate to bridging the gap between two worlds, the world of the circus and the real world. I have a go at things and mess it up and the audience can relate as they think that’s what would happen to them if they gave it go! But in the end, I always pull it out the bag.
You did an incredibly dangerous ladder act last year in The Hooley, how hard is it to balance putting yourself at risk whilst still making people laugh?
I don’t find it that difficult because I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s also a technique of building up tension and the release of the tension gets the laugh aswell as the silliness. Two things that can induce the laughter within the stunt type routine that I quite often do.
Who is your character in this year’s show? What’s his story?
I am always Tweedy in Giffords Circus, I’m never fully immersed in the show, I’m always the outsider.
Giffords is very much an ensemble company, but everyone gets to show their particular skills, can you tell us a bit about some of the other acts we can expect to see this year?
“Show their particulars! Oh Matron!”
And you are a bit of an all-rounder – can you tell us which skills you have that you think are your best?
I like doing lots of things so I’m good at lots, but I never spend enough time doing just one thing to be really good at it like the other circus acts, so my best skill is being an allrounder to be honest! I’m also quite observant and quick witted as if anything goes wrong, I have to be straight in there filling in or distracting the audience!
‘Running away with the circus’ is such a romantic notion but I imagine it’s really hard work. How would you describe life on the road with Giffords Circus?
Well for a start I had to catch a bus as it was too far to run! So that wasn’t very romantic or glamourous, stuck on a coach for eight hours to London. But I did meet my lovely wife Sharon at the circus and had a wedding in the big top!
Life on the road can be very up and down as you work really hard and sometimes in really difficult conditions such as the weather, but you have the most amazing community that you live with and such an amazing camaraderie.
Of all the Giffords shows you’ve been in do you have a favourite?
No I don’t have a favourite, Moon Songs in 2015 was a highlight it was the one where I was shot out of a cannon and had to catch a rope in mid-air! I also had great fun playing Magda the fortune teller that year too.
Give us three reasons why everyone must see ¡Carpa! this year?
It’s a completely unique experience like no-other circus you’ve seen before! It incorporates live theatre, music and circus.
Gifford’s Circus arrives in Elstree on 9th to 13th June and then Chiswick on 16th to 27th June.