Water Circus

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Charlie Cairoli & sea monster, Tower Circus 1956

'Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink' so went the song of the ancient mariner, or something like that. It is true that the briny seas at Blackpool, between Fleetwood's seadogs and Lytham Park's statue of mariner with harpoon, have inspired a number of activities in the town. Close by the windy steps leading down from the promenade, today shining smooth from modern shore defences along the Fylde coast, stands the extravagant labyrinth that is the Tower building housing the iron Blackpool Tower which looks out across the Irish Sea. Inside, tourists can still watch the popular Blackpool Tower Circus shows and although the stars and content have changed considerably since its 1894 Whit Monday opening, the style and panache still remain.

1899 poster for the Tower Circus, The Tower Company Archive

The Tower Aquatic and Variety Circus rapidly became a national institution, seeing in over the years thousands of acrobats, comedians, dancers, magicians, singers, clowns, musicians into its galaxy of entertainers and menagerie of exotic animals who were the stars of the early circus water shows. The animals may have gone, but the show goes on. While generations of modern circus goers recognize the traditions of legions of hefty elephants cheerfully trumpeting water over audiences or clever splashing clowns throwing buckets of soapy water at the heads of unfortunate viewers, few associate such large scale water antics with the actual theatre of circus as an entertainment or arts genre.

In their The Tower: A Century of Fun, Tait and Krupmann describe these performances displaying to gasping, adoring audiences of Victorian and Edwardian visitors all the latest daring tricks and technological feats of hydraulic engineering especially adapted for entertainment. These apparently largely involved operating lowered ring floors to create deep pools for floating galleons and fighting pirate ships to battle on the waves, watched by tail flipping mermaids and terrifying water beasts. For the leisure tastes of the late Victorian British public had become increasingly sophisticated from reading easily available reports from explorers in distant lands and wondrous tales of archaeological digs opening up ancient cultures, beginning to organize archaeology into a valid academic discipline and a source for media attention and moneymaking.

According to Pearson in 1991's The People's Palace, the ensuing national obsessions with flooding water and all things foreign meant that the fashionable Tower Aquatic and Variety Circus was sure to attract tourists visiting the seaside from around the country. The early Tower Circus offered state of the art shows to thrill audiences, enticing them to buy tickets for a wonderland of danger, refreshments and glamour in the hope they would admire the attractions and perhaps stay a little longer by the sea.

Tait and Krupermann claim that many parts of the early Tower Circus water performances and water finales imitated in Blackpool some of the acts in the – for most people - unattainable worlds of classic Paris shows like the Circus d'Hiver and Nouveau Cirque. In the 20th century circus water attractions extended scope to include North Shore's old Derby Baths, demolished not long ago, where the real film Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, once swam lengths to admiring fans or to the famous annual Bathing Beauty parades in the open air baths on the promenade, a magnet for holidaygoers, bathers, journalists and later the TV cameras.

The Tower Circus water finale 1953

In 2013 the Grundy Art Gallery even showed a popular rolling video set Inside the Tower Circus in which a 15ft latex dinosaur, floated in the circus ring, grinned toothily to a singing choir of smartly suited, middle-aged male singers whose smiling, genteel pleasure increased until the song's crescendo fully reddened the rippling waters of the circus ring below, perhaps in homage to the forgotten circus water shows of long ago.

These performances recall the public's singular love for harnessing the wild sea outside and taming the deep, shaping its waves into fabulous choreographed settings of glitter, feathers, sequins that made the dream water shows for which Blackpool Tower Circus originally became so famous.

Lynne Charoenkitsuksun

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