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Ringing the changes sees circus soar to new heights

Jack JayCircus ringmaster Jack Jay is gearing up for a showbiz summer off Great Yarmouth seafront – instead of “performing” at the Rio Olympics in Brazil. He has chosen the Golden Mile ahead of Copacabana Beach because of the growing success of the family-run seaside show, and his own increasingly key role in it.

So the 27-year-old is happily swapping the five rings of the sports games for the spectacular single ring of the historic Hippodrome.

He made his Olympic debut in 2012 when the London games appealed for
arena presenters, and organisers snapped up his stage skills – honed amid clowns, acrobats and aerial acts - to front shooting events.

And, after being kept on by target shooting officials to tour the globe fronting their World Cup, Jack had his sights set on Brazil this summer where he would have been introducing competitors and doing arena announcements and commentary.

But the popularity of the Hippodrome's summer show, which Jack also devises - along with expansion of the season into Christmas, Halloween and Easter pirates versions - means the performer is needed back home.

“It is disappointing but I hope to do the Olympics again one day – maybe Tokyo 2020 - but the circus is the main priority now.

“My commitments have grown considerably and I want to be here, particularly now I am so involved performing in the show.”

Jack’s passion for the circus is captured in a new short film produced by the Greater Yarmouth Tourism and Business Improvement District, which is promoting the area’s attractions and some the people involved in them.

And the success story of the circus mirrors the improving fortunes of the regenerating resort.

The pacey variety format, adding slick modern production to traditional circus acts in a unique setting, means that what was just an eight-week summer circus is now doing nearly 20 weeks in its different seasonal guises.

Jack explained: “We have looked to rejuvenate the show and expand into times when the venue would have been shut.

“We have gone from strength to strength over the past 10 years during the toughest time for circuses and seaside towns.”

The building also recently hosted a watery version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and a concert by Billy Bragg, which Jack hopes will also introduce a new audience to the delights of the Hippodrome.

“This is part of our cultural history – but we are not a museum. We are a living, breathing thing,” he explained.

“We should be proud of the circus performing tradition and it should be on the same ranking as ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“There are no big egos among the acts – just people from all the world who spend a lifetime perfecting a routine that lasts just a few minutes – and who want to pass on their experience to others,” said Jack.

He cut his circus teeth with pre-show plate-spinning plates at the family-run circus just behind the resort’s Golden Mile.

One of his earliest memories is of accidentally kicking a football into the water tank feeding the arena’s spectacular showpiece “sinking ring”.

He recalled: “It blocked a valve and there was no water for the show that night. I got a stern talking to when dad found out – but he was also secretly pleased because the story attracted publicity!”

The Jays, who ran a string of seafront entertainment ventures, initially bought the unique Edwardian building in 1978 to stop it being snapped up by rival bingo operators.

But Jack’s dad Peter used his showbiz experience, as a drummer in a band who toured with the Beatles, to add some “pop” to the traditional circus and help fuel its revival.

“Circus had started to fade, having been on TV every bank holiday,” said Jack. “It was in a time warp. We wanted the best and felt the show could be slicker.”

He has always had a passion for the family circus and never considered university after leaving school - just wanting to learn the family business through the “school of hard knocks” in front of live audiences.

His role developed to being a drummer, adding dramatic rolls to recorded music, then a “voices off” announcer, before he teamed up with comic Johnny Mac in 2009 to step into the spotlight and compere the show.

Jack devises the productions, writes comedy, picks performers and directs – adding a modern twist to time-honoured circus acts, including acrobats and jugglers.

“We wanted to re-energise the comedy element of circus. Not everyone likes clowns. So we have comedy characters and jokes. There are no big shoes but there is slapstick and buckets of water,” he said.

Circus heritage is all around the audience – with a gallery of bygone pictures and posters on the walls. And a museum in former horse stables is a kaleidoscope of fascinating ephemera from clowns’ outfits, and props, to a poster announcing the opening night in 1903 where the acts include baby Tilley and her 12 Forest-Bred Lions.

The Hippodrome is a family affair. Dad Peter still acts as a creative consultant sounding board for show ideas, while mum Christine books the acts from all around the world, and organises work permits. One brother Ben is a member of the management team. The other, Joe, is the only family member not involved – but still does an aerial “act”, through rope access work in the oil industry.

Jack praised the work of the Greater Yarmouth Tourism and Business Improvement District, which is using £2.4m raised from local levy payers to increase visitors and spending to benefit a wide range of traders. It is backing a range of events – including a new air show for 2017 – and doing extra promotion, including the short films.

“Anything that is getting Great Yarmouth back on the map in a positive way is massively important. We need to change misconceptions. There is so much going on here in a very vibrant place.

“Trade is up year on year but BID investment in the town is exactly what we need to do – because if you stand still in this business you go backwards,” added Jack whose dad Peter is on the BID board.

“The Great British seaside is on the up and Great Yarmouth is up there among the best of them.”

BID chairman Gareth Brown said: “The Hippodrome is such a fantastic and unique venue that is alive with an atmosphere as soon as you step through the doors. It’s variety of attractions appeal to people of all ages. We are delighted that the venue is doing well, and that Jack is a big supporter of the BID’s efforts to attract even more visitors to enjoy the shows and the resort’s many other places to go.”

The Hippodrome summer circus runs from July 13 to September 18 2016.