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Gerry Cottle, who has died of Covid-19 aged 75, ran away to join the circus aged 15 and later founded his eponymous circus, the biggest in the world; the circus flourished until a growing addiction to cocaine led to his arrest and a series of bankruptcies, though in best circus tradition, he always bounced back.
In the course of some 40 years in the ring, Cottle worked as a juggler, unicyclist and clown, stuck his head in a crocodile’s mouth and performed with a duck that quacked in time to a trombone. He shared a bunk with Klemendore, the India Rubber Man from Sri Lanka, took sensational ice-skating chimpanzees to Iran (where they were impounded by customs) and staged the World’s Largest Custard Pie Fight Ever.
There were many mishaps along the way: one human projectile quit the circus when he grew too fat for the cannon; in London, two llamas escaped and ran amok on a motorway; two generators caught fire in the 1970s; a caravan was squashed by a runaway lorry, and at Galashiels a ferocious gale ripped Cottle’s Big Top to shreds.
When some Tanzanian acrobats were refused a work permit by an official who thought they must be illegal immigrants, Cottle alerted the press and got the acrobats to run up and down each other in front of the man’s office. He secured his permits, along with free publicity.
Such minor dramas, in Cottle’s view, were part and parcel of the circus life. He loved the immediacy of live performance, believing that audiences do not want highly polished performances; they come for rawness, vulgarity and the sense that things could easily go wrong. “Circus,” he opined, “has to be a bit in your face.” He was unimpressed by the slick Cirque du Soleil, observing: “They’d die in Basingstoke.”
Traditionally circuses are family affairs and Cottle was unusual in being an outsider. It was this, perhaps, that allowed him to see the business dispassionately and change with the times. When local councils started voting against allowing animal acts on their land, Cottle was one of the first to realise that the days of the traditional circus were over.
He went on to replace the animals with “razzmatazz, daredevil acts and magic” in shows such as the Circus of Horrors (“We’ve got fakirs sticking spikes through their tongues and African pygmies limbo-dancing under chainsaws”), Cottle’s Daredevil Circus, and the Cottle and Austen Electric Circus – all of which helped to revive the fashion for circus-going in the late 1990s.
Gerald Ward Cottle was born at Carshalton on April 7 1945. His father was a City stockbroker and grandmaster in the Freemasons; his mother was a secretary. Young Gerry’s prevailing memory of childhood was being forced to wear grey.
He fell in love with the circus when he was eight after being taken to see Jack Hilton’s Circus at Earl’s Court. He taught himself to juggle with his mother’s oranges and was hired by his father to appear at a Masonic ladies’ night.
Without his parents’ knowledge he bunked off school – “the same school that John Major attended” – and cycled to Chessington Zoo circus to help with the ponies and master the basics such as the unicycle.
Aged 15, Cottle caught a train to Newcastle and joined Robert Brothers Circus, leaving a tape-recorded message for his parents that ran: “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.”
He was regarded as a “josser” (outsider) by the circus fraternity, and his early days were tough. He did menial work shovelling elephant dung, scattering sawdust, loading big cats into trailers, putting up Big Tops and sharing a bunk bed with Butter Bean the Midget.
His first appearance in the ring was as the back end of a pantomime horse. Later, as Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler, he did a juggling act and learnt to do trick riding. He moved to a smaller outfit, working for Joe Gandey, who taught him the rudiments of circus management.
Realising that things would be a lot easier if he married into the business, he set his sights on the 12- year-old Betty Fossett, member of a famous circus dynasty and already celebrated for her farmyard act. He pursued her relentlessly until, at 16, she moved into his caravan. They married in 1968.
In 1970 he and Betty bought a tent for £60, joined forces with Brian Austen and his wife and formed the Austen Cottle Circus.
“I was chief clown,” Cottle recalled in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last year. “Brian Austen did his unicycle act and walking the wire. Five of us, including his brother and my wife, Betty, did an illusion act getting out of a locked box. We were always doing stunts. My sister-in-law walked the wire with washing hanging underneath; we’d take the zebras across zebra crossings.”
Within four years, the Cottles were able to split from what became the Austen Brothers to form Gerry Cottle’s Circus.
His big break came when the BBC invited him to host the variety television show Seaside Special from his own Big Top. At the height of his fame Cottle’s circus toured Britain with three daily shows, each seating 1,500 people and requiring 150 trucks to transport an army of artistes and a menagerie of elephants, lions, horses, chimps and polar bears. Cottle himself appeared on programmes including Desert Island Discs, Wogan and Jim’ll Fix It, and met the Queen.
When he started, animals were banned only in Bath and Corsham (“being full of old ladies”), but by the 1980s animal acts had become a political issue, with Left-wing councils banning them on council land. In the early 1980s it reached the point where Cottle toured without a single performing animal.
When a duck crept into a comedy act, in the circus’s show near Alexandra Palace, Haringey council went into emergency session. Cottle noted in his memoirs, wryly, that the same council subsequently had to bend its own rules to accommodate the Moscow State Circus with its Cossack riders.
He brought the animals back in the late 1980s, having gambled that if people had become accustomed to out-of-town shopping, they might also get used to out-of-town circuses, but the idea did not work and in the early 1990s Cottle sold off his last three elephants.
Throughout his career as a showman Cottle's own life was filled with drama: he lived to excess, becoming a serial adulterer and a cocaine addict (though latterly, having survived cancer, he was just as loudly enthusiastic about his sober lifestyle of green tea and blueberries).
By his son’s estimation, Cottle went bankrupt seven or eight times; by the early 1990s the strain was beginning to tell. In 1992 he was fined £500 after he admitted possessing cocaine. In 1995 he sold much of his stock at auction (lots included 10 tons of elephant manure, a stuffed, eight-legged lamb, a rusting bed of nails, and a flying-chairs fairground ride).
As always, however, with his characteristic air of indestructibility, he bounced back. In 1995 he co-founded the Circus of Horrors, a blood-curdling extravaganza which proved that the British public’s squeamishness stopped short of cruelty to humans. By the end of the century he owned and presented the Moscow and Chinese State Circuses as well as his own outfit.
In 2003 he sold his circuses and bought Wookey Hole Caves, the tourist attraction featuring show caves, penny arcades and restaurants, to which he added a theatre, circus museum, hotel and circus school, where local youths could train in circus skills.
Three years after buying the caves, missing life on the road, he revived the travelling circus, with graduates of his circus school along with “10 African acrobats and a few performers from Europe”.
Despite his fame, Cottle had no grandness about him, and never lost the passion that had inspired him as a child. “It’s daredevil stuff,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2012. “Wow, I have a guy who shoots an apple off a girl’s head; she used to work in Somerfield.” Other attractions included a blindfolded high-wire act and a “boneless boy” who squeezed himself into a bottle.
He was “constantly thinking up ideas for new shows,” he said. “I’ve got a million ideas, that’s the trouble.”
He published an autobiography, Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus (co-written with Helen Batten), in 2006.
Gerry Cottle’s marriage to Betty broke down in the 1990s, though they never divorced and remained on good terms. She survives him with their three daughters, Sarah, April, Polly and a son, Gerry.
Gerry Cottle, born April 7 1945, died January 13 2021