Gerry Cottle dead: Circus legend who ran away at 15 is killed by coronavirus
Gerry Cottle and Brian Austen (Image: BBC)
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He was the boy who ran away to join the circus – and stayed there for the rest of his life.
Gerry Cottle, who died in hospital in Bath this week aged 75 after contracting coronavirus, became one of Britain’s best known kings of the Big Top.
From virtually nothing he went on to run a string of circuses all over the world, and in later years reluctantly pioneered animal-free circuses.
His agent Mark Borkowski calling him “the last of the great circus showmen”.
Cottle was just eight when he first went to a show, Jack Hilton’s Circus at Earl’s Court, at Christmas and was captivated by a tiny woman making polar bears jump through hoops.
Vowing to own Britain’s biggest circus one day he went home and put on a performance for his family, with his sister and cousin on hand to impersonate the bears.
Sarah Cottle with her father Gerry Cottle
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The showman later taught himself to juggle with his mother’s oranges and even bunked off school to go to Chessington Zoo circus.
He said: “I worked in riding stables for pocket money or free rides and at 11 I’d cycle five miles to Chessington Zoo circus, where they taught me basics such as the unicycle.”
Seven years later, Cottle ran away to join the Robert Brothers Circus in Newcastle, leaving a tape recorded message for his parents which said: “Please do not under any circumstances try to find me. I have gone forever. I have joined the circus.”
He hailed from Surrey, with a stockbroker father and an air hostess mother who knew him as Gerald. His grandfather had also been a stockbroker and it was assumed he would follow suit.
Rani the Indian elephant crossing the road
But with grammar school exams just weeks away, Cottle took to the road.
“There was no point getting qualifications,” he said. “They weren’t going to help me where I was going as I said in the message I left for Mum and Dad.
“If there was anything I was running away from, it was the deadly greyness of suburban life in the ‘50s. Perhaps that was why I was so attracted to the circus from the very first time I was taken to see one.”
Early tasks included shovelling elephant dung and scattering sawdust but Cottle embraced circus life.
Sharing a bunk with Butter Bean the Midget, he made his debut in the ring as the back end of a pantomime horse and later became Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler, also trying his hand at fire eating, unicycling and being a clown.
Cottle “never wanted to be the greatest juggler or trapeze artist – I wanted to be the big boss.”
The travelling circus community was a tough one to infiltrate with most owners dating back several generations – he was known as a “josser” or outsider.
In 1968, he made a wise move in marrying Betty Fossett, a skilled animal handler from one of the oldest circus family dynasties.
By the time the showman was 25 he had set up his first outfit with partner Brian Austen.
The Cottle and Austen Circus, jokingly called the Smallest Circus on Earth, saw six staff working out of a converted bread van and an old flower show tent.
Their first animals were a couple of Shetland ponies which back then to Cottle was just as exciting as buying a whole herd of elephants.
“I was chief clown,” he said. “We were always doing stunts. My sister-in-law walked the wire with washing hanging underneath, we’d take the zebras across zebra crossings.”
By the mid ‘70s Cottle was going it alone and was given a big break when the BBC invited him to host the Seaside Special variety show from his Big Top.
The Gerry Cottle Circus was soon touring the land with three different shows, 1,500-strong audiences and 150 trucks moving trapeze artistes, jugglers and clowns – not to mention lions, elephants, chimpanzees and polar bears.
On one occasion in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, Cottle’s Big Top was destroyed by a gale.
Trick riders Michael Austen, Gerry Cottle and Edward
The showman’s elephants would bathe in the sea in places like Weymouth.
“You had to keep an eye on them, though,” he joked. “Given the chance, they’d swim off to France.”
“We were the only circus to go to Orkney and Shetland, the first to go to Guernsey and Jersey,” added the impresario, who became the proud owner of the world’s largest caravan – 55ft long with seven bedrooms, and the world’s longest limousine – 72ft with a Jacuzzi in the back. (“It wasn’t much fun trying to get it around the South Circular,” he said.)
“We went to the Middle East, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Russia. I remember when we were in Russia in those days it took two days to make a phone call.”
In Iran, Cottle’s ice-skating chimps were impounded by customs and on another occasion, he flew four elephants to Oman for the Sultan’s Christmas party.
“It was a fantastic bit of publicity, if nothing else, four elephants getting on a plane,” he later recalled.
“They put us in the middle of the desert and I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight than our Big Top in the twilight with a long line of limousines coming over the dunes towards us.”
Cottle was a man who “always tried to do things differently,” once saying: “I’ve had a strong man who used to lift an elephant and then have a car driven over him – I love gimmick acts.”
He staged the World’s Largest Custard Pie Fight Ever and put his head inside a crocodile’s mouth on another memorable occasion.
The high-flyer met the Queen, saying “she reminded me of my mum”.
And despite taking a different path in life to his father and grandfather, his dad remained supportive.
“He came the first couple of years when I had my own circus,” said Cottle.
“He retired early but then died within a year when he was 60, from cancer. It was very sad and made me even more convinced that you have to grab life and live it.”
The showman embraced that mantra and became the first owner for decades to head into the centre of London, parking his four elephants on Clapham Common in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
But as the latter decade continued there was an increasing backlash against using animals in circus acts and Cottle would soon be touring animal-free.
Gerry Cottle has tragically died from coronavirus
He later recalled Haringey council in London holding a meeting to decide whether his clowns could use a live duck that quacked in time to the trombone “encouraged by a secret tickle on the bottom”.
The subsequent press coverage led to a headline: “The borough where you can eat a duck but can’t watch it perform.”
In 2014, talking about animal acts he said: “I now support the ban. We may have gone from a country where a circus wasn’t a circus without at least one elephant to a place where you can’t even have a performing duck, but I have reluctantly decided to move on.”
He said he still missed “the smell, sawdust and atmosphere, the feathers and sequins, the sound of elephants trumpeting and horses exercising”.
Gerry Cottle in the early days
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Instead the impresario vowed to continue his circuses with the help of “razzmatazz, daredevil acts and magic” .
He managed the Moscow State Circus and Chinese State Circus in the mid 1990s and in 1995 launched the adults-only Circus of Horrors, a mix of horror, bizarre and burlesque.
Cottle retired from travelling entertainment in 2003 and bought Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset, adding a clown museum and circus school to the tourist attraction. By 2006, he had taken to the road once more with a new travelling circus of school graduates.
The showman is survived by Betty, who he separated from in the 1990s but remained on good terms with, three daughters and a son, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.