Performers put on a breathtaking spectacle inside the big top
But for the past three decades, this former secondary school drama teacher and son of a dairy farmer has run his own circus, the eponymously titled Zippos – billed as “Britain’s favourite”. “I couldn’t keep falling into orchestra pits and missing the carefully placed cushions forever. It’s fun to watch someone fall off stage into a drum kit, but the fact is that it really does hurt,” says Martin, 67, with a deadpan twinkle. So, instead, he’s the man behind the scenes, juggling reams of paperwork, avoiding health and safety banana skins and bending over backwards to help his contortionists, acrobats and other performers, many of whom come from far flung corners of the globe.
“London is a bit of a shock if you live in a Mongolian yurt, so it’s my job to look after them.”
He presides over his circus like a headmaster among a school of unruly students, thrives off the variety and doesn’t consider it work.
The challenges he awoke to the morning we spoke included a request from Cuban acrobat Johanner who “wants to marry an English girl and could I organise it”.
Sounds like a job for the ringmaster, but Martin takes it in his stride.
“The deal is that I ask my family of performers to do things which are difficult and often very dangerous. They do those things, but in return they have all sorts of problems domestically and I sort them out.
“The day you wake up and think ‘here we go again’ don’t do it any more. Instead, every morning, we’re having another adventure. Whether it’s trying to book a troupe of red list African artistes into Covid quarantine hotels – all full – or sorting out a christening – we use a bowl inside the ringmaster’s top hat.”
Such is the life of a circus director and it’s clear that Martin’s avuncular nature and eye for detail make him suited to the role.
One would imagine that a man who went to drama school and “broke his mother’s heart by becoming a vagabond” – his lavish description of paying his £70-a-month mortgage by busking as a clown in Covent Garden – might not be suited to all the boring minutiae involved in running a circus in the modern era. But one would be wrong.
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“It’s all about detail; as it is as a circus performer. I study every aspect. If you have in your mind a clear idea of what it should be like, it’s easy to see when it’s not like that.”
This might not be the most prosaic description of how to run an arts company ever uttered.
As the son of a dairy man who also ran a milk bar in Oxford for many years, Burton only took up clowning as a stopgap in the 1970s when he couldn’t get a job teaching drama. He joined a mime company in Winchester to get some performing experience and started doing more edgy physical comedy routines with a company of clowns based in Bournemouth.
He nearly died when he was set alight by an aircraft distress flare in a locked trunk. “Unfortunately, it all went horribly wrong and I spent a year in a military burns unit having skin grafts. It was only the thick clown make-up that saved my face. You think you’re invincible in your 20s.”
These days, Martin has very different challenges, and more of them than usual, with not one but two productions underway.
First is his traditional touring circus with its 1,000-person big top and noisy highlight, the Globe of Death, which sees three motorcyclists battling on full-size bikes inside a steel cage.
The circus got back on the road in May and has played ten venues this year to date. It’s loved by families who can turn up with a bag of popcorn and marvel at the human spectacle, an accessible bit of stardust, and maybe the odd fallen sequin or two.
In the Globe of Death three performers battle it out on full-size bike
“The appeal of circus comes in part because it’s non verbal,” enthuses the circus impresario. “All circuses have, to a greater or lesser extent, family appeal. There is something for everyone. Mum can think ‘if I hadn’t married this fat old slob I could be with this gorgeous man on the trapeze’.
“And dad can look at the girls in feathers. And the kids can think it’s magical and fun, which it certainly is.”
His second production is Cirque Berserk, a lavish and edgy theatrical show which opens next week in the West End of London. Martin describes it as “much more rock and roll”, framed by the elaborate stage surround.
“A proscenium arch is a great way of focusing an audience’s attention; Berserk is all about detail,” he adds.
“Part of the magic of all circus stems from the fact that, unlike theatre, circus artistes are their own group or bubble. We don’t have people coming in by train or tube, they are living with us.” In his case at the 50-acre circus property he owns near Newbury, Berkshire. “The children who live with us do tasks to earn pocket money; everyone has to pull their weight or it all falls apart.”
The opportunity to put on Cirque Berserk at the Garrick came about after current conditions meant the show would not appear on the Edinburgh Fringe, as it has done for the past two years. Berserk holds the record for selling more tickets at the Fringe than any other show.
“Many of the performers appear in both shows in a very different way. I was slightly worried opening in a theatre at the moment. A circus tent is perceived as outdoors, but would people want to go into a building in London?” He needn’t have worried. The show sold £55,000 worth of tickets on the first day.
“Zippos is also socially distanced, and every show is full. You could say every show is half empty, because there are only half the seats…” Boom boom. “…but there is clearly a massive appetite among the public.”
But, he says darkly: “Enid Blyton has a lot to answer for.” Mystified, I ask why.
“Mr Galliano’s Circus, of course,” he declares. “Everyone’s mental picture: Elephants with swaying trunks; tigers on pedestals; and a moustachioed red-coated ringmaster sticking his head in the mouth of a lion. All of which is more in her imagination than reality.”
And all of which has led Martin to dodge his fair share of “bottles of poison” mailed to his home from activists under the mistaken impression that Zippos features exotic animals.
It NEVER has, but the misunderstanding continues and for this reason Martin keeps his family entirely out of the frame when it comes to discussing circus matters. There’s an awkward pause while he tells me that his wife is in fact a “significant travel PR” before he’s back in winning form and making a joke.
“I did once see someone put their head in a lion’s mouth – apparently the lion had terribly bad breath.” He guffaws.
Artistes have replaced animals as the big attraction with their acrobatics and balancing acts
These days, of course, there are no wild animals allowed in UK circuses, but Martin would like someone to tell that to the police.
“There are no wild animals in British circuses any more, so why, when winching our lorry out of a bush at 4am one morning did the police ask ‘are there lions and tigers in there?’’’
The only exotic creatures at Zippos are the human performers and Martin, who spends the off-season travelling the world, judging international circus competitions and scouting for talent, takes every opportunity to show off their plumage.
By way of illustration, he tells me about the recent Covid vaccinations which he arranged for his troupe in his uniquely theatrical way.
“Circus artists tend to have terrible clothes,” he says. “They all wear shell suits and put all their clothing effort into their ring costumes. Men and women will sit there for hours, sewing sequins onto impossible things.
“So when we have an event, as we did a couple of months ago [for the vaccinations], we take them all in their best circus costumes. We have weddings here. I ask them to wear their costumes. We have a christening, they wear them.
“They attend funerals in their costumes. Yes, it’s a marketing opportunity that keeps the image alive. But they are also their best clothes.”
● Cirque Berserk opens at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End on Wednesday August 25. For more information and for tickets visit www.cirqueberserk.co.uk