Gerry Cottle – Circus impresario
Born April 7, 1945; died January 13, 2021
Gerry Cottle, who has died aged 75 after contracting COVID-19, was an irrepressible showman, whose decision as a teenager to run away and join the circus became a marker for his entire life. From his beginnings as a suburban kid in a humdrum town, he went on to own the biggest travelling circus in the UK.
At his 1970s peak, Cottle also provided the Big Top venue for BBC TV’s 1970s Saturday night variety show, Seaside Special, which he also hosted. As with his entire career, he did this without pretentions, retaining the enthusiasm that first inspired his life-long move into circus.
Cottle was quick as well to move with the times, always one publicity stunt ahead of the rest. Prior to pioneering the UK’s first animal free circus, he won a case against Edinburgh Council regarding the use of wild animals on city land. In the end, only a duck that quacked in time with a trombone remained in his show, before Haringey Council convened a special meeting to outlaw it.
There were other elements he couldn’t control, and during a run in Galashiels, his Big Top was destroyed by a gale. It would take a lot more than natural disaster, however, to keep Cottle down.
Cottle’s personal life too was something of a high wire act, as he became ringmaster of his own misfortunes. Bankruptcy, cocaine, sex addiction and rehab were all on the bill, as Cottle juggled with the highs everyday life couldn’t provide.
Even Cottle’s grandest failures were memorable. A Rock and Roll Circus and a shark show were but two of his schemes. More successfully, he produced the Chinese State Circus, Moscow State Circus, and co-founded Circus of Horrors. Latterly, he bought and ran the Wookey Hole tourist attraction in Somerset, where he opened a circus school and museum before embarking on a new set of adventures.
Gerry Ward Cottle was born in Carshalton, Surrey, to Reg and Joan Cottle. His father was a stockbroker and freemason, his mother a former air stewardess. Such an anonymous middle class background was presumed to guarantee a respectable future for their son, who attended Rutlish Grammar School in Merton Park, the alma mater of another circus boy, future Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. A family outing to see Jack Hilton’s circus at Earl’s Court in 1953 opened the then eight-year-old Cottle’s eyes to another world, however, and subsequently changed his life.
Cottle began juggling in the family garden, and was hired by his father to perform at Masonic ladies nights, soon graduating to local fetes. He began helping out at the permanent circus at Chessington Zoo before running away to Robert Brothers Circus aged fifteen. He recorded a message announcing his departure for his parents, which a friend played to them down the line from a phone box. When he was eventually brought home, Cottle received surprising support for his vocation from his headmaster, and he never looked back.
With the circus world a tight knit dynasty, Cottle was regarded as an outsider, and began his career cleaning up elephant dung. As he told Roy Plomley in a 1984 edition of Desert Island Discs, he always wanted to be boss, and kept a notebook of his observations of how the business was run. From Robert Brothers, he spent three years with Gandeys Circus, juggling and clowning as he learnt the managerial ropes. He then joined the James Brothers Circus, partly to keep an eye on teenage trick horse rider Betty Fossett. The pair married in 1968, and stayed together until the 1990s.
In 1970, Cottle set out on his own, co-founding the Embassy Circus on a pig farm. What was initially a five-person operation housed in a flower show tent soon expanded. Within a few years, The Gerry Cottle Circus had two shows on the road, employing sixty staff.
By now the king of British circus, Cottle became the cover star of Radio Times on the back of a documentary, What Do You Expect, Elephants? He came a cropper, however, after losing a fortune from a doomed tour of Iran just as the 1979 revolution kicked in.
Cottle’s taste for the high life saw him enter rehab, where he was told he was diagnosed as primarily a sex addict. He gave up his excesses for good after being stopped on the M25 by police, who found fourteen kilograms of cocaine in his car.
With old school circus not the draw it once was, Cottle attempted to reinvent his artform, co-founding Circus of Horrors in 1995. He nevertheless remained sceptical about slick modern spectacles by the likes of Cirque du Soleil. “They’d die in Basingstoke,” he said. Latterly, Cottle toured new shows with his circus school graduates. The high-octane Wow! was billed as ‘a circus like no other’.
A cavalcade of Cottle’s adventures were contained in his 2006 memoir, co-written with Helen Batten, Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus. As the self-mythologising title suggests, Cottle can be regarded as the last of the great old time hucksters, who turned his entire life into a circus.
He is survived by four children, Gerry Junior, Sarah, April and Juliette-Anne, known as Polly. He is also survived by several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The Herald, March 9th 2020