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Monday 23 June 2014

Excellent Women: Nell Gifford

For the last decade, the highlight of the summer for my family has been Giffords Circus coming to town. From May onwards, the 1930s inspired circus travels around the Cotswolds with their unique brand of family and animal friendly fun packed up in vintage caravans. This is not the kind of circus that shows wild animals: the only creatures at Giffords shows are horses, dogs and occasionally the odd duck or goose that wanders into the ring from backstage.

My sister Phi being an usherette at Giffords Circus!

My siblings and I have grown up with Giffords Circus - I had my 21st birthday party there with guests dining alongside the circus troupe backstage after the show: fresh local food served on starry Emma Bridgewater crockery. Last year my sister even interned there as an usherette and dancer.

Emma Bridgewater is actually Nell's sister!

Giffords is the brainchild of Nell Gifford, who first ran away to the circus when she was 18. She made time to come back to reality long enough to get a degree from Oxford university, but then was straight off to the circus again after graduating.

'When I was 18 I went to join my brother in America at Circus Flora and it was there that I fell in love with the art of circus and the first seeds of Giffords were sown. I went on to work on a variety of circus shows including the prestigious Circus Roncalli in Germany. It was here that I experienced a vision of the future - a happy place, cared for and loved, where children and animals played together in sunshine, and the workplace was a huge candy striped tent, full of music'

The Giffords

Nell has just written a book about the first ten years of Gifford's Circus, an altogether family affair which she runs with her husband Toti Gifford, with the help of their gorgeous twins, Cecil and Red, who regularly perform in the shows with their tiny pony. Jugglers Bibi and Bichu are their godfathers. It's all like something out of a fairytale. You can see some behind-the-scenes photos from their idyllic life here on Nell's blog- and buy 'Giffords Circus: The First Ten years' for the full story.

Of course running away with the circus sounds very glamorous, but as with all show business, the reality involves a lot of hard work.

'‘Glamorous’ is certainly not the first word that springs to mind! In the early days, muddy boots, rats and no loos were a regular occurrence. Since then we’ve come a long way. When we’re on tour throughout the summer, Toti, the twins and I live in a restored 1930s showman’s wagon that’s towed behind a vintage lorry. The wagon was rescued from a roadside ditch and Toti has spent a long time restoring it to its former glory with added mod cons of a TV and fully fitted kitchen. It may surprise some people to learn that we do actually live, eat and sleep on location throughout the tour and that the children come along too.'

Red and Cecil's tiny pony Tom!

Vogue has referred to Giffords Circus as 'possibly the greatest show on earth'. pressure then! I asked Nell how she manages to keep coming up with the goods.

'Rehearse and rehearse! Circus season is a relentless and repetitive machine of activity and the whole team, animals included put heart and soul into the entire tour. We run very much on a family atmosphere and as a result, all keep an eye out for each other. The troupe of 50, including performers such as clowns, acrobats, a five-piece band, a director, a musical director, a choreographer and animal trainers have just three weeks to learn the entire show before performances start. After that, we have a two-hour rehearsal every week. As performers, the audience’s reaction is what feeds us and spurs us on to improve year on year. Their laughter, the collective gasp after an amazing feat and the look of wonder on a child’s face is worth everything to us. '

Giffords regular Nancy performing her Andromeda act with doves

Animals are always a huge part of the Giffords experience, and this year's show The Thunders, inspired by Ancient Greek myths, is no different.

'This year we introduce an all-new pack of dogs – Dalmatians, Domino and Tarquin, and crossbred Terriers, Griffin and Hades. We found both the Dalmatians on pets for sale websites. They had outgrown their owners and were proving to be, as many Dalmatians are, strong, wilful and needing lots of exercise and training. We brought them to the show during the summer tour of 2013 and although they were both untrained and out of control, they almost immediately settled into their kennels in the Giffords Circus stable tent. Dalmatians were originally bred as carriage dogs and we saw that these young adult dogs loved the company of the horses and being around the smells and noises of the stable environment. Their training is ongoing, but every day they become more responsive, obedient and settled with clearer and happier expressions of character. The Terriers, Griffin and Hades, were strays from Birmingham Dogs Home, they are a brilliant addition to the team, full of energy, affection and eager to please. New or old, all our animals are close to our hearts.'

Domino and Tarquin in action!

One of my favourite photographers Ellen Von Unwerth shot this glorious video for Lula magazine, which I think truly captures the spirit of Giffords.

Giffords Circus are touring their new show The Thunders until mid September - see if they're coming to a village green near you by checking their schedule here.

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