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HUGH Jackman's musical[...].


HUGH Jackman's musical, 'The Greatest Showman', has just hit cinemas and the timing could not be better.

2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the circus, created here in England, in 1768. Jackman's movie tells a story about one of the great circus proprietors, Phineas Taylor Barnum, but his three ring 'Greatest Show on Earth' was a much later innovation.

The man who founded the original circus was another larger than life character, one Philip Astley, a former Sergeant Major of the Dragoons, born in Newcastleunder-Lyme.

On his return from war, Astley set up a riding school and gave equestrian exhibitions on the south bank of the Thames. He is known as 'the father of the circus' because it was his idea to add other performers to his horse-riding entertainment.

Astley gave the circus its traditional colours (the cavalry's red and gold), its brass military music and its size and shape when he discovered that a centrifugal force helped him balance on his horse if they progressed in a circle. It was Astley too who provided the circus with its smell as he covered the ring with sawdust.

Astley scoured the fairs at which performers including strong-men, jugglers, rope-walkers and comedians had plied their trade for hundreds of years as individual attractions.

He then persuaded them to work together under one roof, performing one after the other. The performers did not need much persuading because George II had begun closing fairs on health grounds and the loss of their traditional workplaces made performers vulnerable to the law.

It would take almost a century before performers were no longer regarded as 'rogues and vagabonds', liable to arrest on the say so of any local magistrate. The circus afforded them a degree of legal protection and ultimately, social status.

Every subsequent circus, from Barnum and Bailey's to Cirque du Soleil, owe their origins and much of their form, to this remarkable British showman. Astley established 19 circuses across Europe, as far east as Moscow, although we owe the word 'circus' to his first great rival, Charles Hughes.

Astley died in Paris in 1814 and rests alongside such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and Chopin, in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. He lies in an unmarked grave - no better metaphor for the neglect of the art form he founded.

During his lifetime, however, the circus spread across the globe, and in America in the 1820s that the first 'tented' circus appeared. Wild animals were added in the mid-19th century. The circus became the world's first mass market entertainment, it was pivotal to the development of advertising and by the start of the 20th century military leaders were turning to the three ring circuses to learn how to move thousands of people, animals and pieces of equipment quickly across large distances.

Rather than being the pseudonym for chaos with which the word 'circus' is abused today, the three-ring circus was once central to what we now call logistics.

Much of this is barely known and Hugh Jackman's movie, blessed though it is with great songs and performances, is so historically inaccurate that it might lead people to believe that the circus was invented in America.

But as Jackman himself has pointed out, historical accuracy mattered little to Barnum, what he was about was the show and in this sense the movie is true to his spirit, if not to his life.

The movie also rings true in showing how the circus accidentally created a community; a community of outcasts and rebels. Many of those who perform today are descended from families who came to the circus centuries ago and found a way of life that they wanted to pass on.

Despite the rise of other entertainments, war and the controversy over circus animals, there are more circuses in the UK today than for 40 years. In addition, circus schools have expanded this community to tens of thousands of people, including those at the excellent Circus Central in Shieldfield, Newcastle.

Every year has it anniversaries and 2018 will see the circus community come together to celebrate Circus 250. There will be parades, shows, exhibitions, films, radio and TV coverage and much else besides. So Happy 2018 and may all your days be circus days, | Ron Beadle is Professor of Organization and Business Ethics at Northumbria University and Visiting Professor at the National Centre for Circus Arts, London.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 30, 2017
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