Notes on...

The curious history of Britain’s last circus building

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

Guess which theatre is the first to open to the paying public post-Covid? Not Lloyd Webber’s London Palladium, where small audiences have been invited on trials, nor any of the other West End giants. This weekend the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome — Britain’s last stand-alone circus building — is welcoming audiences to its ringside seats for the first time since March.

The Hippodrome is tucked behind a row of kerchinging arcades on Great Yarmouth’s decaying, half-lit seafront. But its imposing red brick facade, built by legendary showman George Gilbert in 1903, leads into a lobby glinting with art deco-glass. Its performance space is a traditional 42ft diameter sawdust ring that can be flooded and filled with water like a pool.

The Hippodrome hasn’t only hosted knife-throwing, sword-juggling and the occasional dancing bear. Lloyd George held political rallies there, an ageing Lillie Langtry warbled through her vaudeville shows and Houdini staged his escape acts. During the war it was requisitioned by the military as a shooting range. Thereafter followed a period of slow decline, with the building, like circus itself, losing fashion and favour.

In 1979, pop star Peter Jay bought the Hippodrome to save it from being turned into a bingo hall. In the early 1960s, Jay’s band The Jaywalkers had a top 40 hit with ‘Can Can 62’ and toured with the Beatles and Rolling Stones. (Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson once auditioned as lead singer.) But by the late 1970s, Jay was ready to settle down in Norfolk, where he’d first formed the band at Norwich college.

One of the first things Jay did was restore the water ring to its original working order. One of only five like it in the world, the ring mechanically sinks to be filled with water deep enough for synchronised swimming. He then added fountains and a filtration system and, after a quarter of a century, water spectaculars returned to the Hippodrome.

Jay brought further innovations. His pop experience inspired him to introduce modern music and concert-style lighting, calling the result ‘Circus for the MTV generation’. Many traditional fans frowned on these changes, but they soon became the blueprint for circus revival across Europe.

Behind the scenes, in the long disused animal cages, Jay began to store memorabilia from the shows — costumes, sets, programmes, bill posters. He became a circus obsessive and he was soon adding to his collection from performances across the globe: clown eggs, ringmasters’ jackets, giant papier mâché animal heads. His backstage museum opens after each show. Jay’s son, Jack — host of the The Jack Jay Show on BBC Radio Norfolk — now produces and directs the Hippodrome productions as well as appearing in them.

Jay calls the Hippodrome one of Britain’s cultural ‘crown jewels’. It’s not only the last purpose-built total circus building in Britain, it’s one of just five in the world. But whether the government, in its Westminster wisdom, will deem a circus building worthy of a slice of its £1.57 billion bailout for the cultural sector is still unclear. It’s not in Covent Garden nor on the Southbank, but it is beloved. I only hope that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden throws his hat into the ring.

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