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Gerry Cottle, who died of coronavirus on January 13, was one of the last big names in the circus world.
Stalwarts of the traditional circus scene, like Bertram Mills, Chipperfield’s and Billy Smart had all either diversified into different fields or closed down altogether.
But Gerry was one of the business’ most colourful characters as well as its most persistent.
He owned the world’s longest limo – a 72ft stretch Cadillac with a jacuzzi in the back. “It wasn’t much fun trying to get it around the South Circular.”
He also bought Wookey Hole, staged the World's Largest Custard Pie Fight and took a troupe of ice-skating chimpanzees to Iran.
Gerry fell in love with the circus at the tender age of eight. He later wrote in his book Confessions of a Showman: “It seemed impossibly glamorous and dangerous and exciting. The women were beautiful and sexy, the men rough and macho. They did not look like my parents.”
Gerry ran away to join the circus when he was just 15. He recorded a message explaining his disappearance for his well-to-do suburban parents. Even then showing a flair for the dramatic Gerry got a mate to play the tape down the phone to them.
On it, he said: “Please do not under any circumstances try to find me. I have gone for ever. I have joined the circus. You do not understand me. You are not listening to me. I do not need O-levels where I am going.”
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Where he was going was to the top. In the mid-1970s Gerry Cottle’s circus was the Greatest Show on Earth, or at least in the UK.
Gerry Cottle’s Circus was featured on the BBC ’s Seaside Special and required some 150 trucks to transport its tents, scenery, performers and animals.
The animals began to be phased out, though, as people felt increasingly comfortable about making wild creatures perform for their entertainment.
By the mid-1980s Gerry was performing with a show that was almost entirely animal-free – the sole exception being a duck that quacked along with a clown who played the trumpet.
Soon, even the duck had to go. Gerry wrote: “Would you believe the London borough of Haringey had a special meeting to ban that bloody duck?” adding “Benny Hill said he couldn’t believe it.”
Gerry wasn’t completely convinced by the animal bans. He said: “Critics say that the way elephants travelled was cruel, but look at how people use the Tube.”
But in scrapping the animal acts made him far ahead of his time. The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019, which banned the use of animals in UK circuses, only came into force a year ago.
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Without animals to draw the crowds, Gerry was forced to be more creative. During the circus’s glory days, he had persuaded his Iranian strongman to lift an elephant. “Nearly killed the poor old bugger, but he liked it.”
But once the elephant was gone Gerry needed to find a new stunt for the strongman: “We run a car over him now,” he said in a 1976 interview.
There was a dark side to Gerry’s life though. He was a regular visitor to sex workers and one of them, a “blonde, amazonian” woman named Kerry he met in London’s West End, gave him his first taste of cocaine. “Cocaine and I fell in love instantly,” he said.
That set him on a course of regular binges – sometimes disappearing from his family home for weeks at a time to take cocaine and sleep with prostitutes.
His involvement with drugs and women cost him his marriage, and eventually his health. He suffered kidney failure and was on dialysis for a month. His wild lifestyle also led to some run-ins with the law.
In 1991, Gerry was socialising with what he later called “some bad boys.” He was caught by the police with 14 grams of cocaine and was lucky to escape with a fine.
Of his wild years, he said in 2007: “Sex was an obsession and I’m not proud of it. I was the husband from hell. But I’ve had the same girlfriend now for four years and been off drugs for nearly ten.”
He had started at the very bottom of the circus business – “Shovelling up elephant sh*t is definitely the worst job in the circus,” he once said – and he became one of its greatest showmen.
- In the News
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