Roll up! (While you still can) As Britain's family circuses slowly die out, a new show reveals how the latest generation are torn between the past and the future
21:53 GMT, 22 June 2012
Big Kenny Darnell’s three sons each had four school uniforms. One was in red, another in green, and the other two were in blue and purple.
That was the trouble with being in a circus family – travelling from town to town all the time meant a different school every week, and they had to ring the changes with their kit so as not to stand out from their temporary classmates.
As his 24-year-old son Kenny Jr puts it, ‘It was a hard life because we had to make new friends every Monday, then say goodbye at the end of lessons on a Friday.
The performers of Paulo's Circus today in front of the Big Tent
The four colours were pretty standard everywhere, so we never looked out of place, but I was always being called “gypsy” because I lived in a caravan. I’d go home in tears, but Mum and Dad couldn’t do much about it because the circus was all my family had known for 200 years.’
But life under the Big Top – outwardly romantic and glamorous, in reality gruelling and dangerous – is under threat. Television, the internet, video games and the cinema have combined with the recession to keep audiences away. A new TV documentary gives a compelling insight into one of Britain’s oldest family circuses as they fight to stay on the road.
Big Kenny, 46, and his wife Kath, 44, run Paulo’s Circus with Kenny Jr (the daredevil), Leigh, 22 (the ringmaster), and 18-year-old Patrick (Patchy the clown), sixth and seventh-generation members of the founding family. But Kenny Jr fears the show will end with them.
Madame Clara Paulo in 1961
‘This could be the last generation, which is a great shame as Paulo’s has been going since 1816, the heyday of the circus when they could pull in audiences of 10,000 instead of just hundreds today,’ he says. ‘My great-great-grandma, Madame Clara Paulo, had 80 horses and it was a great spectacle when she rode them from town to town. In those days it was a huge event when the circus arrived. But since the 1940s the number of circuses in the UK has dropped from over 50 to nearer ten.
‘It would be horrible to have to give it up, because we’re real circus people. From the day you’re born you see people putting make-up on and training to do incredible things. The circus has given us everything but it keeps you until it’s drained everything out of you. Being on the road ten months a year takes its toll, which is why we’ve told Dad when he retires we’ll find work elsewhere.’
But for now the summer season has just started, and Paulo’s is trying to survive in the most challenging conditions it’s ever faced. Big Kenny marshals his troops to make sure they have a bumper season, with a publicity drive headed by Patchy the Clown who’s sent ahead to distribute leaflets in the next town. ‘It’s all hands on deck,’ explains Kenny Jr, whose own function – after helping to erect the Big Top – is to perform, without a safety net, on the Wheel of Death, a 40ft steel structure that resembles two giant revolving hamster wheels.
It is inherently dangerous – an act only a few circus artists can perform. ‘My Dad bought a Wheel of Death for me when I was just into my teens,’ he explains. ‘One night a strap broke and I fell 30ft into the ring, smashing my foot and shattering my ribs. It was seven months before I could walk again. Mum saw it and has refused to watch me ever since. But I love it and so do the audience – for them, that death-defying stuff is all part of the thrill.’
Kenny Jr’s wife Teddi, 31, who used to do acrobatics with him in between selling candy floss, has already quit to raise their four-year-old daughter, also called Teddi. They’ve settled in a house in Newquay, Cornwall, where the circus is based for the summer. ‘It will give my daughter stability,’ says Kenny Jr.
‘I’m fed up with travelling, it grinds you down. The generators are switched off at midnight so there’s no TV and often we’re not connected to the water mains so the shower’s just a trickle. But I’m so used to living in a caravan with one room I find it frightening to be in a house. Little Teddi follows us everywhere as she’s scared to be left in a room on her own, so maybe she’s got circus blood in her.’
Would he recommend the life to his daughter ‘It’s one of the most exhilarating businesses of all, but unless you’ve been brought up in the circus I’d say steer clear as your life will be turned upside down. The circus is a great fairytale, but now there’s a modern reality to face up to.’ n
The Circus, Friday, 9pm, ITVI.