Article by Alasdair Hooper: This year marks the 250th anniversary of circus in the UK and, for Billericay, the ever-popular Circus Wonderland returns this week.
Held for three weeks, from September 20 until October 7, Sun Corner in Billericay has suddenly been packed out with trucks and a circus tent as the show rolls back into town.
Those who occupy the caravans are performers that hone their skills for each show on a nightly basis. However, while there may be an array of talents on show, a Circus is never really complete without a clown.
Paul Carpenter, along with his comedy partner for 16 years Kriss Freear, are very much the faces of this colourful circus. While the pair serve as managers of the company, they also take on the role of clowns each night - The Popolinos.
Each show Paul - or ‘Mr Popol’ - and Kriss - also known as ‘Kakehole’ - transform into their characters to entertain and bring joy to their audiences.
“It completely mesmerised me. I always loved the circus but when I was young I thought it was something you really had to be born into,”
“I'm not from a circus family - nor is Kakehole - but like me he really loved it from an early age. My father took me to see a circus when I was four years old as a surprise and it completely mesmerised me. I got home, I turned my toy farmyard into a toy circus and I started collecting clown posters. It was like a changing moment in my life but I didn’t really think then what it would become. I was also into performing arts and theatre, did a degree in drama, and then what happened was I saw an advert in the stage newspaper for young people wanting to train as clowns and I thought that would be fun. It was a sort of gap year, a lot of my friends were going off backpacking as they do, and I thought I would join the circus for a few months.”
Following Paul’s first taste of the circus life, the soon-to-be clown turned back to theatre and acting. However, he soon met his long-time partner after visiting another circus and catching the bug for entertaining.
“I met Kriss who was working in another show as Kakehole and I used to visit the circus where he was. Everyone used to say you two would make a great double act and it went from there really. Kakehole is really the funny clown - I’m a clown but I am not funny. I’m the serious clown and I’m the white face clown, which means I am a very traditional figure with the white makeup, the white pointed hat and the sparkling costumes - I am very glamorous. Basically I am the straight man to Kakehole’s messing about. I tell him off, he upsets me and takes the mickey out of me and that’s where the comedy comes from. When we first started I wanted to be the funny one because that’s what I had always done. I didn’t want to be the one all the kids hated, because I do get booed, but over time it has become very successful. Now I have learnt that it’s better to be booed than to have no reaction at all. Bring on the hate, I don’t mind now. There has been a lot in the media about clowns being scary”
Whether it is down to horror movies, frightening TV shows or the odd Halloween craze, clowns are often considered scary. Should you ask a group of people about their opinions on clowns - traditionally a character that exemplified fun - you can be almost certain someone will say they find them terrifying.
For Paul, who has always believed that clowns should be there to entertain and be a source of comedy, this perception can be somewhat frustrating.
“A lot of circuses now the clowns aren’t really clowns. I know that’s a funny thing to say but there has been a lot in the media about clowns being scary. It’s called Coulrophobia - the fear of clowns - and it does seem to be on the increase. It’s not helped by movies such as It and a couple of years ago there was that craze of people wearing rubber clown masks and jumping out on people in the street when it was near Halloween. It got a lot of attention in the media and we were actually getting people phoning up the circus going ‘have you got any scary clowns? Of course we are not trying to scare people, but we were very conscious of that, and it’s something we do hear a lot with people walking in the tent. But then I think well why have you come to a circus?”
As part of their efforts, Paul and Kriss often hold what they aptly call ‘clownselling’ whereby they help people battle their phobia.
Soon enough, once they see the entertaining purpose of their act, the pair hope they can change a few people’s minds.
“The upsetting thing is that it has become a cliche that clowns are scary. As soon as you mention to someone you’re a clown they say ‘I’m scared of clowns.' Are you really or are you just saying that? We have met people that are properly scared - we had a lady who was shaking and crying and didn’t want to go in the tent. To me that is someone with a proper clown phobia. The thing is children are so susceptible and when they hear their parents say I don’t like clowns that immediately puts it in their head.” It’s a magnified version of ourselves”
For Paul and Kriss to be doing their act for as long as they have clearly honed their performances to perfection.
While Kakehole may be the more mischievous individual compared to traditional whiteface clown, Mr Popol’s orderly persona the performance is not that far from reality.
“We are ourselves in the ring - it’s a magnified version of ourselves - but if you could see us in real life you will understand that I am a control freak. I like everything to be perfect, I’m very highly organised and I like everything to run smoothly. Kriss is not like that. He is a practical joker, he loves playing tricks on people, he gets bored, he likes things to be different and he loves winding me up. Basically we just magnify it in the ring.”
The Popolinos have won Best Circus Comedy Act in the Circus Friends Association awards on two occasions, so their act clearly goes down a storm.
The big top is ready for the show on Sun Corner
“It must be something about Billericay and Essex”
While the circus celebrates 250 years across the country, for Circus Wonderland it is the seventh year they have visited Billericay. Why? Because it’s just like home.
“Billericay is one of our favourite venues, we come here every year. We seem to know so many people here and we have other towns that we visit every year but not to the extent of Billericay for knowing people. It’s quite incredible and I think it must be something about Billericay and Essex. The people are so friendly, they like to be entertained, they love the circus and they are very loyal. We have people that come every year to see us without fail. Billericay is great because we are on Sun Corner at the end of the High Street, I can just pop over the road and you’re in the centre of things. There’s not many sites where we are so close to the town, it’s just fabulous. I go down the street and I just know so many people now in the different shops and the cafes.”
For more information on show times and tickets for Circus Wonderland go to their website here.
Article by Alasdair Hooper, EssexLive