Founder of Zippos Circus, Martin Burton, talks big top life.
“In the 1980s I spent a year in intensive care after a fire eating accident,” admits the unflappable Martin Burton, who set up Zippos Circus, “so I promised my mother I wouldn’t do it again.”
Fortunately clowning wasn’t off limits. During the interview (held in Martin’s cosy trailer office, parked in Finsbury Park and lined with circus memorabilia) he shows me a large skin graft scar braceleting his wrist. “Well, I was 25 and invincible! But the audience never know if something goes wrong.”
The death-defying acts on motorbikes, horses, trapeze or ropes are as much a part of the circus’s appeal as the carefree life on the road. As red tail-coated ringmaster Norman Barrett puts it: “You are never too old or too young or too cool for the circus.” That’s certainly the case when my family visit – grannies, teens and tots seem equally gripped by the action.
“We actually started Zippos on Highbury Fields but no longer go there. The last visit to Highbury Fields was in 2004 when Paul Newman (yes THE Paul Newman) joined us for one performance. He was giving money to a number of charities including Clown Care which sends clowns into hospitals. Back then we were trying to send clowns into Chernobyl. There’s research in America that shows that if clowns cheer children up then they recover more quickly, so the insurance companies like to use clowns to get people out of hospital. It also means in the US clowns get highly paid.”
England’s most famous clown has close links with Islington. Joseph Grimaldi (1778 -1837) was just four when he made his first appearance at Sadler’s Wells. He had a tough childhood, in a performing family explains Martin. “He’d be at Sadler’s Wells for the first act then run over the fields to the theatre at Covent Garden, it was all fields then.”
Grimaldi introduced the white face paint and two-sided personality of the clown that’s still used today. Traditionally clowns paint their face makeup on to a chicken’s egg to register the design. Martin’s clown cabinet, kept inside his trailer, includes egg-heads of Zippo’s Delbosq Clowns, Martin Zippos Burton and Norman Barrett (for once not kitted out as ringmaster). Nearer home, Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, is famous for holding a service to remember clowns, attended predominantly by clowns like Martin, on the first Sunday of February. And Grimaldi is buried at St James’ Church, Pentonville Road near Clerkenwell.
“In order to sell tickets we have to promote the romantic idea of the circus,” explains Martin. “You’ll read in the press ‘Last week I looked out of the window and saw the circus had come. Now it’s moved on and there’s just a fairy ring left in the park where the big top was pitched.’ The reality is a circus is where people live, we’re a travelling village. For me today it’s 2pm on Sunday and I’m in my office making sure that all the vehicles comply with the low emission zone in London. I’m always doing health and safety. People are surprised how highly qualified we have to be.”
“Everywhere we go is different, this is just cosmopolitan London. Most important people seem to quite like Zippos Circus and are happy to see horses on Finsbury Park. And I love coming to Finsbury Park. There’s a great bagel shop with the best and biggest chocolate croissants in London. And there’s Lidl.”
There’s one small hitch. Finsbury Park is run by Haringey, which Martin remembers as “the first London council to ban performing animals 40 years ago”. Islington did follow eventually. “We’re only allowed to bring horses, dogs and birds into Finsbury Park by special permission of the council. And there’s a vet check too [which you can read on the Zippos website],” he says. Martin has a million tales about animal care and his battle with authority. Most are hilarious. “We had a Romanian girl in the box office who was asked what animals we had. She said ‘horses and budgies’, but it sounded like badgers. Later six police armed with machine guns and two RSPCA officers turned up asking us where we kept the wild badgers! I said, ‘We’ve got budgies’. The police went berserk at being called out wrongly.”
It’s a truism that you are ‘never too old, too young or too cool for the circus’, so be sure to go to Zippos Circus when it next sets up in town.
ROLL UP! ROLL UP!
Zippos Circus tickets between £5-25. Check the website for discounts and locations.