Meet Nell Gifford, founder of Gifford's Circus - the nation's most glamorous troupe. Nell's lifetime of learning - from recruiting clowns to dog training to facefuls of custard - has built the travelling show of her dreams
In the fifteen years since Nell Gifford and her husband Toti launched their travelling show out of a bevy of painted vintage wagons that tour the south west each summer, Nell has dazzled in scarlet and gold Ring Master's garb; set hearts racing astride rearing ponies; and left children crying with laughter as another custard pie splats in her face.
Their new permanent base at Fennels Farm where Nell and Toti live with their seven-year-old twins, son Cecil and daughter Red, is being refurbished to accommodate their burgeoning troupe of 50 clowns, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and musicians, not to mention the 100 animals already in situ, which include horses, ponies, dogs, chickens, doves and a goose called Brian.
'Every year feels like the last,' she says, after describing the 16-hour days, non-stop questions and continual trouble-shooting that tis the pre-season lot of a circus boss. 'It's a nightmare, but once you get the bug, you can't live without it.'
Nell is not what you might expect from someone who runs a circus. Her voice is low and measured, and she has an air of self-containment that seems at odds with the abundance and jollity of her chosen career. As a girl, she never dreamed of running a circus, or even running away to one, although in her 'threadbare and bohemian' childhood, she did once want to be a monkey trainer, and her favourite game involved gypsies and pretending to live in a caravan. 'Be careful what you wish for,' she says. But this isn't a story of the girl who never grew up. Perhaps rather the girl who was forced to grow up too quickly, when in 1991 catastrophe struck, and a riding accident left her mother Charlotte severely brain damaged. 'When your mum is put in to hospital for life, your home life is over in a day,' says Nell, who has a sister Clover, two years her junior, and two older siblings from her mother's previous marriage, Tom and Emma Bridgewater, the ceramics designer. 'I was 18, not 12, but it was abrupt. The house was sold, I packed up our home, put away my childhood; everything was dissipated.'
So Nell ran away with the circus. Or rather she was offered the chance to spend a year working at a circus in America that was owned by Tom's wife's family. 'I fell in love with the whole way of life,' she says, 'with the animals and the children, and the multilingual travelling village feel. I was more helped than helpful, but i knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life, nothing else was a possibility.'
Back in the UK, she took up a place at New College Oxford to read English, and on graduating, started her career selling ice cream for the Chinese State Circus. Over the next few years she worked her way around the industry, putting up tents and driving lorries, donning fishnets and riding elephants. In 1998, Nell met Toti who ran his own landscape contracting business in Cheltenham, they became engaged, and he followed her to Germany for a season at Circus Roncalli, where Nell worked as an assistant horse trainer and groom. It was here that their eyes were opened to what a circus could really be. 'All the English circuses were very unloved,' says Nell. 'Circus Roncalli was like a fantasy baroque travelling circus. It was absolutely beautiful, with twinkling lights, cinnamon cakes, beer and champagne. There was such a sense of occasion when it arrived in town. It showed me how culturally relevant circuses could be.'
In 1999, Nell and Toti, by now married, bought a second-hand tent through a newspaper and an old showman's wagon from a farmer, and began building their vision of the perfect circus, nail by nail. 'We wanted to create a jewel of a show on a village green, that was rowdy and handmade, with horses and a gas-lit feel,' says Nell. 'My mum's old curtains got cut up and made into costumes, we sewed sequins on to old riding clothes.' They held auditions at the Playhouse Theatre in Cheltenham, and hired 20 artists including a local juggler and a contortionist from Birmingham. Money from Toti's landscaping business was ploughed into the circus, they very nearly went bankrupt, and were forced to move into the old showman's wagon, in which they lived until 2005. 'It wasn't the easiest way to start a marriage, without a loo or a shower. It was non-stop hard work and it still is. But we never doubted it would be a success.' When Gifford's Circus launched at the Hay Festival in 2000, their faith and hard work was rewarded with a clamour of positive media coverage, and a sell-out first season.
The circus may be a success, but there is a difference between successful and financially stable, says Nell: 'It's taken a long time to make it even slightly secure. It's not the cleverest thing to make something successful but not well off, because you are constantly trying to make things the best without a lot of money.' But year after year Gifford's Circus's old-fashioned and topsy turvy charm has continued to delight thousands of guests, with the help some of the best names in theatre creation including Angela de Castro and River Dance's Molly Molloy. IN 2002, good food was added to the line up with the opening of their mobile restaurant Circus Sauce, which offers a local and sometimes foraged menu, served at candlelit oak tables on Emma Bridgewater Pottery - Nell's sister also designs a range for the Gifford's Circus shop.
Today the constant challenge of balancing work and private life has been eased by the ability to hire more staff and delegate. If Nell is able to do a spot of gardening during rehearsals, she feels that she has cracked the system. The arrival of Red and Cecil in 2010 saw the twins seamlessly immersed in circus life. 'They just know the world of shows. It's a family business,' says Nell, who nevertheless only wants her children to continue with the circus if it is something they feel passionate about and can do well. But the twins certainly like to perform, and appear in the ring for finales whenever they feel like it, sometimes, Nell suspects, simply as an excuse to get out of bedtime.
'I think Red thinks she is in charge of the circus, whereas Cecil thinks mending lorries is more his department,' she smiles. This arrangement is not dissimilar from her own and Toti's division of labour; Nell is in charge of the overall steering of the business, the scheduling and the press, as well as turning her hand to a bit of animal training, most recently dogs; while Toti is in charge of logistics, the tent and the lorry.
Winters are spent at the farm planning the next season, but there is little time off - work on next year starts the moment the tent comes down. But once spring arrives and the weather turns, they are keen to get back on the road. Nell describes the beginning of the season as a bit like a family wedding, 'There are lots of hellos and excitement at who's new and what's happening, but then it settles down and by the end everyone's quite pleased it's over. Some people are sick of each other, some are in love - we've had quite a few people meet and have children over the years.'
While Nell thrives on those days when a performance is 'packed and safe and rocking', it's an exhausting and stressful time, when she's constantly in uncomfortable costumes, and on high alert, unable to unwind. So when the road isn't calling, quiet time at home with Toti and the twins, playing puzzles, is how she switches off. Nell also finds time to learn something new each week, and at the moment takes sewing, fitness and riding lessons. 'I think it's really important to be taught something. It changes the dynamic from always telling people what to do, otherwise my automatic response is to become bossy, and I hate that.'
Setting up a circus may seem an improbably dream to most, but for Nell it has restored her faith in life: 'I think life is a question of what you want to do, not what you can do,' she says. 'Things just went so wrong with mum, that it's only in the last year with the move to this area and the farm that I definitely...' she tails off. 'It's like riches to rags to riches again,' she says. 'I just wake up every morning and think, 'what went right?'
This year's Any Port in a Storm runs until 24 September 2017. For tickets and venue information go to giffordscircus.com.
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This interview was first published in the April 2015 issue of The Simple Things - shop back issues