Big Top thrills in a historic setting
Roll up, roll up, for a story about the greatest show on earth – well, Great Yamouth… the story of the world famous Hippodrome Circus!
Built in 1903 by the legendary showman George Gilbert, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome was one of many purpose-built circus buildings put up around the country at a time when circuses were the number one form of entertainment. There were six in Great Yarmouth alone, but it is now the only one in the country still being used solely for its original purpose. Circuses and other entertainment are put on all year round – from the summer spectacular to the traditional Christmas circus and even horror-themed shows around Halloween.
Over the years, the Hippodrome has hosted concerts, political rallies and plays, been used as a film set and was even requisitioned for military shooting practice during the Second World War. In recent years it has hosted The Berlin Symphony Orchestra, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and The Russian Philharmonic, Moscow State Circus, Chinese State Circus, Circus of Horrors and BBC Question Time, among others. David Lloyd George held political rallies there, Lillie Langtry sang, Little Tich made people laugh with his music hall routines, Max Miller joked and Charlie Chaplin is said to have performed here as a child.
The crushed velvet seats and ring edging may be faded and a little tatty around the edges, but once the lights go down, the magic happens and crowds flock to see some of the world’s greatest performers who test the limits of courage, endurance and the human body itself.
But its famous party- piece is the water spectacular. In full view of the audience, the ring floor sinks to reveal a swimming pool and a water ballet evocative of the Esther Williams films of the 1940s. In years gone by horses also swam in the water and the audience was invited to dive in for sixpences. Animals have not been involved for many years but, when they were, it wasn’t uncommon to see elephants on the beach meeting holidaymakers and enjoying a paddle.
It’s certainly a building with many stories to tell. It still smells of more than a century of greasepaint, straw and candyfloss and the ghost of George Gilbert is said to walk the upper balcony… many technicians believe that anything going wrong, such as a blown bulb, is his work.
But that’s where the funny business ends… following the 2016 “scary clown” craze, owner Peter Jay – who bought the building in 1979 – banned clowns from all performances. There’s still fun and frolicking, but the red noses and white make-up are long gone. Instead it is more a Cirque Du Soleil-style show, with death-defying motorcycle stunts, rollerskaters, illusionists, escapologists, acrobats and jaw-dropping displays of the seemingly impossible, all done without smoke or mirrors.
But the building – built as a replacement for its wooden predecessor – attracts as many “oohs” and “aahs” as the show itself. Decorated with terracotta tiles and wonderful examples of Art Nouveau stained glass windows, it once faced the seafront across an open square –the centrepiece of the Golden Mile.
Dubbed one of the seven wonders of the British seaside, there is now an amusement arcade blocking it off from the promenade so it is hard to really appreciate the impressive towers and its elegance and faded grandeur, but it’s well worth a look around. Trees, peacocks and other birds grace the façade and the columns, and there are flowers and fruit on the panels – all in classic Art Nouveau style. The whole length of the building is decorated with owls – staring ahead, wings outspread.
The architects of Gilbert’s dream were the Cockrill family, whose distinctive terracotta-embellished style can be seen all over the town. At the opening night ceremony, it is reported that Miss Nellie Cockrill sang a song entitled The East Anglian Flag, before a cyclist pedalled to the top of the dome – and leaped into the water-filled ring… a tough act to follow as a show-starter.
But it’s what the talented international cast do night after night – and often in the afternoons as well.
The 2019 Halloween Spooktacular starts on October 19 and runs until November 3 with 29 show times to choose from! Visit https://bookings.yarmouthhippodrome.co.uk/ to book or for more information.