Gerry Cottle: Showman Supreme
2014 marks fifty-two years from the time that the young Gerry Cottle ran away from his solid middle class family to find fame and fortune in the circus. His initial love of the circus began after a visit to Jack Hilton's Circus at Earl's Court at the age of eight. Less than seven years later he left a note telling his parents 'please do not under any circumstances try to find me. I have gone forever. I have joined the circus. You do not understand me. I have gone.' His early apprenticeship was served at the Roberts Brothers' Circus where he trained as a fledgling juggler, and in the following year, 1962, during his time with Joe Gandey, he learned all aspects of the business. Working from the ground up, his training included tenting, juggling, clowning and grooming, a time he later stated was the foundation for his later success. Over the next eight years he appeared in numerous shows working as a juggler billed as Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler and later with the James Roberts Circus as one of the Melvilles which combined roller-balancing and juggling. In 1968 he married Betty Fossett, youngest daughter of circus showman Jim Fossett, and appeared in pantomime with his new wife in Leicester that year.
In 1970 he made the decision that owning and operating a circus was his real talent, thus embarking on a journey that would result in Gerry Cottle's Circus becoming a household name. It was only a few years after many of the major touring shows presented by Mills, Smart and others had fallen by the wayside and it was a remarkable decision for Cottle and his partner Brian Austen to take a circus on the road at this time of declining fortunes. After four years together, Cottle and Austen dissolved their partnership, and Gerry Cottle's Circus was born.
The mid-1970s onwards saw a period of massive growth and success for Cottle's Circus. Using a mixture of canny marketing, an eye for stunts and publicity and sheer showmanship, Cottle was running two shows by 1976, including a special season in the Gulf States. Over the years the many incarnations of his shows have included Gerry Cottle's Circus, Cottle and Austen's Circus on Ice, Cottle and Austen's "London Festival" Circus, Gerry Cottle's New Circus, and, with Brian Austen again, the Moscow State Circus and the Chinese State Circus. Alongside this Cottle was part of the hugely successful Seaside Special, which was essentially a variety show held in a big top by the seaside and ran from 1975-79.
From the early 1980s there was a persistent boycotting of animal acts by local authorities, yet despite winning his case against Edinburgh Council, by 1993 he had sold his last elephant and toured with a non-animal show. In the mid-1990s, once again in partnership with Brian Austen, Cottle created the European Entertainment Corporation, initially to promote the Moscow State Circus, and later the Chinese State Circus and the Cottle & Austen Circus. Cottle's most radical departure was the opening of the edgy, hard core Circus of Horrors at Glastonbury in 1995, which was heavily influenced by the French circus Archaos which had toured the UK between 1989 and 1991.
In 2003 Gerry Cottle retired from the travelling entertainment world and purchased Wookey Hole in Somerset which he transformed into a mixed entertainment complex including a circus museum, daily circus shows and a range of additional attractions.
Cottle's unique achievement was in bridging the gap between animal and non-animal performance and incorporating the elements of French New Circus into his contemporary circus shows. From Cottle and Austen to Circus of Horrors, his shows combined old-fashioned showmanship and promotional skills with high-quality acts that moved with the times. Through skilful use of television, high-powered stunts and sheer showmanship, he made Gerry Cottle's Circus arguably the most famous circus in Britain at that time. Playing venues as diverse as the Roundhouse, Wembley and Glastonbury Festival, his circus shows bridged the gap between the traditional family audience and the modern rock-and-roll adult show. His decision to celebrate his fifty years in the business by touring Gerry Cottle's Circus: 50 Acts in 100 Minutes, demonstrates that his love for the circus is as true as it was in 1962 when he first made those fledgling steps to be part of a business which he truly made his own. Gerry Cottle has donated a number of items to the NFA including posters and programmes from his extensive collection which form part of the NFA's poster collection.