Gerry Cottle, international circus impresario, producer of variety shows, owner of Wookey Hole heritage leisure attraction and on occasions fairground owner / operator passed away on Wednesday 13th January.
7 April 1945 – 13 January 2021
All of his show business activities were all part of the art of Showmanship and capturing the interest of the public as well as the media, with many similarities to that of Billy Smart before him.
In a lifetime of pioneering production, Gerry reinvented circus as an artform with, initially small, then much larger shows that toured the UK and went on to conquer many parts of the world as far as Oman and South America.
In a career spanning over 60 years, Gerry also brought international troupes to the UK from Russia, China and across Africa and initiated all-human circuses before it was fashionable to do so.
At the same time Gerry launched a youth circus as a training academy to appeal to a younger and hitherto missing generation from the artform; this has become the model of many later circus schools that were established.
Several of its alumni including his three daughters, April, Sarah and Polly and their performer children, were present at his celebration 30 years on and as if to prove the point, there was a performance of the Wookey Hole Youth Circus that is the latest incarnation run by the former students under Gerry’s supervision.
This follows national tours of WOW with several of the students and professional artistes over recent years.
Over the years Gerry reached out to all sections of the previously disparate Circus and Variety artforms, bringing traditionalists and the contemporary together in artistic collaboration, working with Arts Council England; the Circus Arts Forum and others to raise both standards and public credibility; thus winning new audiences and spreading circus into wider artistic and theatrical disciplines.
This legacy, that was being celebrated, is visible with the Moscow State Circus and the Circus of Horrors currently on tour successfully in UK theatres nationally; as well as tenting productions of these and other shows thriving.
Gerry also successfully mounted a revival of Variety in Paignton in recent years.
At his 70th birthday celebration in 2015, the 250 strong guestlist included producers and performers from many original circus families; other circus and theatrical producers, with some coming from America and South Africa; Cardiff-based No Fit State; Bristol’s Invisible Circus; Gandey World Class Productions; Legendary ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE; London agents and critics among them. Gerry managed to raise almost £6,000 for prostate cancer charity campaign Men United; following a pattern of fundraising and charity activities that spanned his public career.
I have my own recollections from the many times of meeting Gerry and doing publicity for his shows and events (including a spell of billing the student show in Chelmsford, that was about 10 years ahead of its time).
His co-locations of circus with fairs were interesting experiments, recreating the combination of the two artforms in the past.
There were at least two with Bob Wilson’s Funfair at Ealing Common in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s; also with Carters Steam fair at Clapham Common in the freezing and snowy winter of 1984-5 (where the red diesel froze in the tanks o0f the generators) and latterly Reading at Easter 2017 in Prospect Park, again with Carters.
In 1991 at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, Gerry disclosed plans to me of his plan to travel a theme park with a circus and fair combined, along with stunt-show type acts – all three genres of outdoor entertainment of which were already travelling successfully independently. However, Gerry said his problem was ion convincing the leading Showmen to go off their usual routes to take part.
There were names with artwork created and he sent me these called Carnival 2000 and Xanadu. He already had the world’s longest limousine with its Jacuzzi that was on display at GDSF.
Gerry had a fair (called Carnival) alongside his Christmas circus at Wembley Arena that year; with French high-wire artiste Diddier Pasquette walking between the then Iconic art deco Wembley twin-towers, at the then self-titled ‘Venue of legends’; making front page news over that Christmas.
In 1992 Gerry surprisingly took on several of Smiths rides and transport at their famous sale; these were not theme park rides of course, but with their own traditional charm.
For the following Christmas season Gerry unveiled the ex-Smiths rides (along with others recruited for the event) and mounted e biggest poster campaign seen in London with 8-sheet posters (5×7 feet) right across the Capital and with a family-member stunt-motorcyclist riding from the ground to one of the Twin-Tower domes, in a follow-up to the previous year’s high-wire stunt.
The following spring saw the much-publicised, but short-lived, tour of the combined show (with variations) at Smugglers Wharf, Tooting; Crystal Palace (both in south London); Caterham, in Surrey and on to the Isle of Wight, for which there was still a poster on the speedway paybox some years later, after that ride and others left Gerry Cottle’s ownership.
Gerry was always generous with his time and support for all those in the business, as well as enthusiasts and others – most of whom he knew and would greet by name.
His legacy will be his enduring enthusiasm for the outdoor entertainment business; his uncompromising promotion of it and his making that vital connection with modern audiences. His legacy is the continuation of many of his projects and can-do approach to the entertainment business through his immediate family and many of those who he worked with, variously over 50 years.