Written evidence submitted by the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain


Impact of Covid 19 on DCMS Sectors; Circuses


1. Circus has a proud 250-year history: without the public subsidy that characterises many other art forms, it brings entertainment and enjoyment to communities in every corner of the nation.

2. Circus is never well understood by policy makers and rules devised for very different organisations can pose big challenges for circus: often circus falls through the cracks of public policy and suffers as a result. This has been the case in the current pandemic, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the industry.

3. However, the nature of circus means it can adapt quickly to change: with the right policy framework most circuses could reopen with only a few days’ notice, bringing safe entertainment to our communities once again.

Introduction and background

The Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain represents around half of the traditional and classic circus in the UK today. Membership is open to all circuses large and small, static in buildings and theatres and of course the traditional Big Top format. The continuing existence of such a wide range of circuses is testimony to the enduring popularity of the art form among British audiences.

While the circus as we know it today has its origins in London just over 250 years ago, the Association has been in existence since 1932 meeting the challenges of two World Wars and the advent of television and computer gaming, always working to ensure that live family entertainment and culture will survive through its members. No other live entertainment is so inclusive and diverse with its performers and performance often bringing three generations of a family together at the same show.

Traditional and classic circus makes a huge impression on families and the local economy each year; most larger villages, towns and cities getting at least one visit from a touring circus in each season between February/March through to October/November. In addition, visits by families to the resorts of Blackpool and Great Yarmouth often include a visit to one of the two remaining permanent circus buildings in the UK, the Tower Circus in Blackpool and the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, preserving the heritage of the original purpose of these buildings for over one hundred years.

Expenditure by people paying a visit to the circus from rural areas also has an effect on local business with patrons often combining a visit to the circus with stopping off at the market or a local restaurant to make a full day of it. Of course, the extra money in the economy gained from the management, performers and staff who all contribute locally while on tour can also be significant.

Preserving the cultural heritage of the traditional circus is challenging with rising costs and new regulations to uphold. The role of the Association is to promote the highest standards and ideals within the industry and be a consultative body giving advice and assistance to central and local government on circus-related matters. We find such engagement challenging at all times as the entrepreneurial, unsubsidised art from that is modern British circus, is genuinely unique. Regulations are often developed which take no account of the specific needs of circus; this is again the case in this crisis.


What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?

Theatres and other entertainments like the Circus were closed on the 17th March 2020 to help restrict the spread of the virus.

UK circus it fell into one of two categories, those circuses who had opened prior to this and those circuses who were just about to open. The circuses who were open had only been so for one, two or three weeks.

Of the circuses who had yet to open, some had performers who had just arrived in the UK and started rehearsals and other performers who had just received their vignette in their passports ready to travel.

Immediately closure was announced, circuses on tour had to return to their base (winter quarters) and all circuses had no possibility of earning any money. Any advance ticket money had to be returned and advance payments for advertising and marketing were lost. Advance ground/site rent deposits had been paid out and a whole expensive period prior to opening became a straight commercial loss, with circuses often having spent many thousands on refurbishment, testing of vehicles, travel and visa costs for non-EU performers. Financial reserves are very low or even non-existent prior to the first weeks on tour and especially prior to the Easter period when a circus would be expected to recoup some of the heavy winter investment.

For most circus audiences the exotic attraction of performers from far flung corners of the globe coupled with a shortage of home-grown professional performers results in many artistes arriving here on tier 5 visas complete with quite understandable work restrictions. Performers here from other countries suddenly had to try to return to their home country. The race was on to obtain air tickets, with prices rising considerably in the days following the closure announcement. Some routes were closed for performers returning by land and slowly the flights disappeared with around 60 performers still stranded here, with no recourse to public funds but simply unable to return home. A request to change or relax these restrictions due to the extraordinary conditions currently to enable for them to work picking fruit, for example, was refused by the Home Office.  This means that those who were unable to return home they now rely on food banks which is appalling considering their talent.


How effectively has the support provided by the DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies address the sectors needs?

The circus sector, and the other showmen, fairground operators, who tour throughout the UK have not been eligible for the grants from Local Authorities because they don’t pay business rates at their bases as they don’t trade there. The £617 million top-up to local Authorities announced on 9th May is still to be applied for as application forms and guidance only recently came out. (One member who tried to fill out a form, and despite the scheme being lauded as for businesses who don’t pay business rates, discovered the second question asked how much rates the business paid.) The scheme is all discretionary and, perhaps understandably, leaning towards help for businesses trading twelve months of the year in one place.

Circuses are reluctant to take on more debt especially with no current possibility of opening and with all the expenditure paid out up front already this makes the CBILS scheme out of the question. The bounce back loan, although a better option, does need applicants to have some sort of indication as to them being able to pay it back in the future by trading, which is as yet, for circuses, far from certain.

Deferrals for VAT, self-assessment and short-term holiday payments, although welcome, don’t help with the constant worry of insurance companies and financial institutions still demanding instalments or threatening cancelling policies and not renewing them once this is all over. The lack of any government grant support for the sector, with very specific needs and seasonality, means the sector will need a huge injection of funds to survive unless it can start performances very soon.

The engagement by government with these issues has been disappointing. DCMS relies on Arts Council England to supply them with details of the sector but ACE has never properly engaged with us, probably because we are an unsubsidised and popular art form. An emergency fund for the creative sector was announced on the 24th March by ACE to help organisations and individuals who were affected by the virus, but the application form made it clear that a precondition of grants was the ability to demonstrate a clear history of receiving public funding previously. The Association regards this precondition as disgraceful and believes that a fund set up to help in this situation should have been accessible to all. ACE is supposed to help diverse and inclusive arts projects and the traditional commercial circus is the most inclusive and diverse art there is. We hope that ACE will be open to real engagement with our sector in the future.

In short, commercial circus, precisely because it has not needed help in the past has been forgotten and ignored in this crisis. The significant social, cultural and economic contribution made by circus to the UK, including the significant tax revenue generated, do not merit special treatment, but simple equality of engagement with other arts sectors. Our members and the chairman have written countless emails to many within the DCMS but are simply advised, eventually, to look at the Gov.Uk website to examine policies and schemes that have been developed without nay account of our particular circumstances.

What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid 19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?

The prospect of a severe recession, combined with falling through the cracks of financial support schemes, the seasonal aspect of the business and the season getting shorter by the week, makes a package of measures to help us through to opening and crucially through the first year of trading are urgently needed.

. Specific measures that would help include;


But most importantly, is getting our circuses open. The busy part of the season is in the summer school holidays which is fast approaching so help to get open safely as soon as possible is the priority. Despite over 30 emails asking to be part of the conversations going forward on taskforces or working groups we still have not received any news.

Crucially we believe there are special factors which would enable us to open earlier than other parts of the performing arts sector by virtue of the physical environment in which we operate.












2018 was the year when the great British invention reached its 250th Birthday, if help isn’t received soon then the Traditional Circus will cease, something none of us want to see.


Paul Archer, Secretary the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, May 2020