A circus of delights for more than a century

Peggotty looks back at the life and times of Great Yarmouth's Hippodrome Circus

Peggotty looks back at the life and times of Great Yarmouth's Hippodrome Circus - Credit: Archant

ONE thing leads to another! Last week’s mention of Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s final big-scale musical after half a century - Barnum, about the famous American circus impresario - aptly being produced in the Hippodrome ring in 2002 instead of on a conventional theatre stage led to the receipt of a DVD about that enduring seaside establishment which is now 111 years old.

The DVD title, One Ten, acknowledges that much of it was filmed last summer, having been a cornerstone of the borough’s entertainments provision for 110 years.

Ace showman George Gilbert built the Hippodrome in the middle of what was to become known as our Golden Mile, erected as a permanent replacement for his six-year-old wooden circus in 1903 when, according to the DVD, there were about half a-dozen circuses operating in the town.

Architect of the present Hippodrome was one of the Cockrill family whose distinctive terracotta embellished style graced many prominent buildings in the borough. At the opening night ceremony, Miss Nellie Cockrill sang The East Anglian Flag before an intrepid cyclist pedalled to the top of the dome - and leaped into the water-filled ring.

Throughout its long life the building has also been used for concerts, professional boxing and wrestling, displays and demonstrations, variety, screening films and newsreels, beauty contest...

I have not been to a Hippodrome circus for probably 30 years but at one time was regularly at the opening night of the summer season when the audience included local VIPs, borough council senior officers and seaside landladies who displayed publicity material at their establishments.

The memory still lingers of people conveniently in the front row being reluctantly dragged from their seats to participate in the fun...one of them the staid editor of the Yarmouth Mercury unknowingly relieved of tie, wallet and wrist-watch by the fast-talking Gentleman Jack, a professional pickpocket. The Mercury chief was lucky, for another victim had his braces removed and did not realise it until his trousers began to slide down.

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The DVD passes an entertaining 43 minutes, squeezing more than a century of history, performance, interviews and explanations into its limited time. Admittedly, circus has lost its animals that were a feature for decades, but basically the programmes continue to be traditional, well tried and tested and loved but nonetheless warmly applauded by audiences still almost disbelieving the dexterity and daring of the specialist acts often high above them, apparently defying death or horrendous injury through impeccable timing.

Circus artistes continue to achieve the impossible in full view and without smoke and mirrors. And although the clowns’ routines have probably little changed down the decades, we still laugh out loud.

Hippodrome owner Peter Jay continues to scour world-wide for internationally-acclaimed star and novelty acts to maintain and enhance its long tradition but the necessity to undertake expensive and time-consuming travel to see them perform has been negated by the computer link-ups and other technology in his office.

By whatever means Peter, wife Christine and their son Jack (Hippodrome ring master and our host on the DVD) recruit the artistes, they certainly succeed in giving their Yarmouth summer audiences some brilliant entertainment.

On camera Peter Jay explains: “It’s a blend of show business, pop music, fantastic lighting, thrilling acts...in fact, it is a blend of the different strains of my own background rolled into one. The quality of the acts are like Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas - very unusual acts, something for people to see and appreciate because sometimes acts are too quick for the public to see.”

There is vintage footage of Hippodrome acts of yesteryear, a reminder for circus fans that little has changed and the shows are just as they have always enjoyed them, perhaps with improved production values and technological improvements.

The souvenir DVD has been created by 25-year-old Tom Mallion, son of former Mercury journalist Tony. Tom, a chum of Jack Jay at Cliff Park High School in Gorleston, worked at the Hippodrome from the age of 13, having pestered his friend for a job there.

He stayed for seven years, hired as a spotlight operator and having to do all those other jobs vital at the Hippodrome, including preparing the ring for the water spectacle. Then he studied media production at Lincoln and is now London-based, filming mainly sports documentaries in the UK, Europe and internationally for a You Tube channel, Copa 90.

His father tells me: “Tom still retains his great love of the Hippodrome and was given great access in the ring itself to film the excellent 2013 show, getting right in close to the performers and also securing some unusual shots from the roof of the building.”

Journalists usually strive to avoid using the word “unique” because in reality whatever it is that they are describing is usually not the only this-or-that in existence, but it might well be justified in relation to the Hippodrome format of a superlative circus performance enhanced by its water spectacular.

The bathing belles feature was revived in 1981 after being dormant for a quarter of a century. In full view of the audience, the ring floor sinks – activated by a system of winches - to reveal a swimming pool in which lithe aqua-lovelies perform a water ballet, almost a homage to an Esther Williams Hollywood movie from the Forties.

However, the DVD fails to answer a question that occurs to me every time I see the water spectacle – and probably puzzles many in the audiences, too. Is the water in which the girls swim in every show at cold-tap temperature or heated enough for comfort?

? To buy the £12 DVD, phone the Hippodrome box-office on 844172 or visit the website at: