Jon Sopel has a new book out this month – A Year at the Circus. But the BBC’s North America editor hasn’t spent the last 12 months taming roaring lions in a sawdust ring or swinging on a trapeze wearing a skin-tight sparkly leotard. He’s been covering Trump’s presidency. And the ‘circus’ he refers to is the chaos and infighting inside the Oval Office. The book’s jacket shows a picture of the White House with a red and white striped circus tent perched over the stucco roof railings. ‘At the heart of Washington, there is a circus. It's raucous, noisy and full of clowns,’ Sopel declares.
This distinguished member of the White House Press Corp is not alone as a political commentator in using circus to describe incompetence. During the Conservative party leadership contest, Rory Stewart called his rival a ‘clown’ who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear button, and the CBI's Carolyn Fairburn called on politicians to stop the 'circus' when parliament rejected Theresa May's Brexit deal earlier this year.
But the White House is no circus and PM Boris is definitely not a clown. Because describing something as a ‘circus’ or someone as a ‘clown’ to say they're incompetent is completely inaccurate and insulting to circus people like me. While veteran reporter Sopel may have the insight of spending several decades dealing with politicians and press briefings, he’s clearly never peeped behind the red velvet ring doors. If he did, he’d discover that circuses aren’t chaotic. They’re extremely efficient machines built on trust and teamwork.
How could it be otherwise? Tented touring circuses have to build up and pull down a giant big top within hours, then stage up to three live two-hour shows in one day. You can’t forget to hitch up your caravan correctly or lose a tent peg. Behind the scenes at a circus you’ll find neatly coiled ropes, props always left in exactly the same position, performers warming up with exercises that ensure they’re both safe and superb in the ring. When your home is a tiny 11 foot caravan, as mine was, you mustn’t be messy. There’s no excuse if you can’t find your sparkly skimpy costume. Every show, you listen out for your music cue to leave the caravan and make your way backstage, ready to enter the ring. Every performer and ring crew member knows the show simply can't go on unless everyone reliably, accurately and cooperatively plays their part.
Teamwork is crucial. You can’t be endangering your act or your safety with backstabbing and infighting. Although a circus may contain over a dozen different nationalities, your only loyalty is to the show. If your fellow artiste doesn’t tie the rope correctly or check your rig, it doesn’t only affect your performance. You could die. You have to trust your circus co-workers quite literally with your life.
But this barrage of circus insults shows something else about our relationship with Britain’s most popular art form. It reveals that circus is embedded in our language and conversation. We grow up with them. Jumbo, leotard, ring-fenced, ringmaster, jumping through hoops – they’re all taken from the ring. Ringmaster Chris Barltrop, incensed by the media’s misuse of circus terms, has even compiled a ‘How to Say Circus’ guide for the press which suggests some positive circus alternatives.
There are many of them. Sopel himself writes in the blurb of his book, ‘From Kim Jong-un and Kavanaugh to Merkel and the Mueller Inquiry – this is your insider guide to the Washington Circus. Roll up, roll up...’. Roll up! Roll up! This familiar call to gather together at the entrance to a circus performance is one of the best-known and most powerful phrases in the English language. There’s no equivalent welcoming phrase used at the theatre or before a classical music concert. Can you imagine a booted and buttoned barker outside the Royal Opera House shouting ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ Only circus is known for a call that warmly welcomes everyone in.
The circus is a place of not only of warm welcomes, but unearthly wonders and practical efficiency. It’s not a byword for incompetence. Let’s show some respect to the real clowns and well-run circuses that are currently ending their summer season tours. Let’s use the word ‘circus’ to symbolise an organisation that functions like clockwork and is built on team spirit. Wouldn’t that kind of circus-efficient government, led by a real expert clown, be a wonderful thing?
Dea Birkett is ringmaster of Circus250.