MARTIN Burton sees himself as the original Boy Who Ran Away to The Circus. “I broke my mother’s heart,” he says.

“I had a drama degree and was working in a mime company, run by Lindsay Kemp,” he goes on. “At that time there was a young man called David Bowie in the same company. Bowie left quite soon after I joined.”

Burton had promised his parents that he would get mime out of his system and return home. “I was,” he says, “thoroughly crap at mime but, using the same skills and being able to speak turned me into a successful clown, Zippo, and I have worked as a clown all over the world, mostly in the southern hemisphere, performing in places I couldn’t afford to go to unless someone is playing me to go there.

“I had a great early career, it was fantastic. I was a successful performer, travelling all over the world. What more do you want in life?”


Martin Burton. Photograph by Piet-Hein Out

Some 32 years ago Burton took the bold step of establishing Zippos Circus. It is on the road constantly and has been a frequent visitor to Scotland. Last night it opened at the Queens Park Recreation Park and will be there until Sunday, when it relocates to Victoria Park until June 17. Thereafter it embarks on a Scottish tour until August 6: Greenock, Falkirk, Inverurie, Peterhead, Banff, Wick,Tain, Elgin, Kirkintilloch, Ayr. You can’t say they don’t work hard for their money.

“Last year was a tremendous year for business,” Burton adds. “Zippos is a very popular brand and even in a recession - should that be ‘especially in a recession’? - we entertain lots of people. Last year we played to about 150,000 people in total between Easter and November.”

Burton, however, has a second iron in the fire, so to speak. Five years ago he devised a circus-in-a-theatre show, Cirque Berserk, which, as it happens, is in the city at the same time as Zippos. It begins a three-night run at the King’s Theatre tomorrow night.


Both Zippos and Cirque Berserk, he believes, have helped keep circus alive and flourishing in its 250th year. The tradition was began in 1768 when one Philip Astley, a soldier and horseman, performed in a circus ring in London.

Aside from the obvious fact that Zippos takes place in the traditional touring Big Top, and Berserk in an unmoveable bricks-and-mortar building, what’s the distinction between the two shows?

“It’s an interesting idea that we’re competing with ourselves,” acknowledges Burton. “I remember that Sainsburys was in our town centre and it opened up another store down the road. I asked the manager, ‘what’s the idea of competing against yourselves?’ He said, ‘Well, if you have to compete with somebody it’s better to compete with yourself than with somebody strange.

“Berserk is specifically made for theatre, and it’s also made for a slightly older age-group than Zippos. Zippos is a traditional Big Top circus, and the animals are part of that because they’re recreating what Astley did when he invented the circus ring. It is what it is, and it’s an important part of what we do. We’ve never included wild animals in our circus, though,” he adds, “and as I’m sure you’re aware, wild animals have been banned from use in travelling circuses in Scotland.”

Cirque Berserk, for its part, has an international range of acts, from Africa, Mongolia, France, the Czech Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Hungary. Their routines include remarkable mid-air acrobatics, the high-speed throwing of knives and axes at human targets,the motor-bike Globe of Death, the tower of chairs, the aerial pole.

The Mustache Brothers, from Brazil, specialise in physical comedy. Odka, from Mongolia, can shoot an arrow with unerring aim with her feet while standing on her hands. As for the Globe of Death, the ‘petrol-fuelled hair-raiser’ staged by the Lucius Team, this is said to be the first time it is being demonstrated live on stage in the UK, with up to four bikers riding upside down in the globe at speeds of up to 60mph.

Such a cosmopolitan array of acts doesn’t end up in one show by accident, of course. It’s the result of extensive research, which in turn is the result of lots and lots of air-miles. Burton often finds himself living out of a suitcase as he scours the planet in search of new and promising acts.

“Our range of acts is extremely inclusive,” he says. “I keep on reading stuff about inclusivity. How it works in the circus is this: we don’t care where you come from, or what colour your skin is, or whether you’re able-bodied or disabled, tall or short. We don’t care about which sex you are. We only care about the act you do in the circus ring. That’s the beginning and the end of it, really. If what you do in the ring is great, we love you to death.

“I spend a lot of my time travelling around the world, looking for acts,” he continues. “Today I’ve just finished organising my flights to Cuba. I’m going back there next month for another scouting trip, where we will hopefully book more Cuban acrobats.

“I like Cubans very much. They’re Russian-trained, so they’re extremely well trained – but, unlike Russians, they’re not miserable. They have the Caribbean in their life, and they do the same as the Russian acrobats but with a great smile on their face.

“Havana is an amazing place,” he agrees. “I first went there 25 years ago, to the State Circus School, which is really good and is very well appointed. They have a Circus Festival in Cuba, which is why I’m going back, and it has the best air-conditioned circus tent I’ve ever been in. That’s important, of course, because it’s very hot over there in June and July.”


Given that he has spent his life in the circus, and has seen hundreds if not thousands of acts, is he capable of still being surprised by a new or emerging act?

“Yes,” he says. “That’s a bit like asking the late Ken Dodd if there’s a new joke. The new acts are variants of old acts but there are people who are doing things in new and exciting ways, things with a 21st-century twist to them, and that’s great.

“The circus has progressed in 250 years and it’s a point that we’re making in Zippos this year. We’re not just celebrating the anniversary, we’re actually showing where we think the future of the circus actually lies.

“We think the future lies with the young people who nowadays are joining the circus. The top of the bill act that closes the Zippos show are two young acrobats, 14 and 15 years old, who have a great act and a great future ahead of them.” The Garcia brothers, with their eye-catching hand-balancing skills, are the sons of another Zippos act, the daredevil, Pablo.

For a form of entertainment that is 250 years old, the circus, Burton is convinced, will never die, and will continue to evolve.

“There are lots of things that make the circus great, and Astley’s great invention was the 44ft-diameter circus ring. What works for me is that I can bring in acts from, say, South America, and they’ll find the performance space here exactly the same as it was back home. Whether my Big Top is up at Queen’s Park in Glasgow, or up in Brighton, its size never changes.

“There will be a continuing diversity of people doing incredible physical skills but I think that technology is one of the things that will help the circus evolve. Fifty years ago, circus tents were made of cotton, and were very flammable. Nowadays the tent is made from a fireproof plastic.

“Climbing ropes are now made from Kevlar – it’s about as thick as a piece of cotton but will take the same weight and have the same specifications as the old 12mm climbing ropes that were in use fifty years ago.

“And the material that is used for the performers’ costumes themselves is so much stronger and better than it used to be.

“All the lights we use in Zippos shows now are LED. The curtains are all flameproof. The seating is state-of-the-art. Might I say, the seating was bought especially to satisfy Glasgow Building Control, which is very particular about such things.

“All of this helps the human beings in the circus do they things they have always done in the circus ring, but to do them better.”


For the audiences, though, (many of whom saw their very first circus as children) the basic elements of the circus have never changed. The bright lights and colours, the ring, the clowns, the slapstick, the daring high-wire acts. And, of course, the red-coated ringmaster.

Zippos’ ringmaster is Norman Barrett MBE, a 25-year veteran of Blackpool Tower Circus and the Manchester Belle Vue circus, who was awarded his gong, for services to entertainment, in 2010. He has worked with Zippos for 16 years. He is, The Stage magazine observed just a couple of years ago, “like an affably gruff grandad narrating the flow of acts with clarity and expertly improvised patter.”

As for Martin Burton, the circus can still make his pulse race as fast as it did all when he himself was young. The teenager who ran away to the circus is still addicted to the thrill of it all. “Indeed,” he says. “I don’t think it will never go away.” How old is he? “ I’m 64 now,” comes the voice down the line. He pauses. “Remind me. Didn’t the Beatles have something to say about that age?”