Jérôme Savary et moi

3rd April 2019

John Wyver writes: Last night a Tweet by Kirsty Sedgman set me off down a memory rabbit-hole. Following a path through the magical world of the internet has revealed to me just a little of what television and the theatre meant to my 17-year-old self. Like some of the best tales, this one involves a young boy (well, I was 17) running away to a circus, and it also features a not-so-nice stepmother (evil is too strong), a box full of dreams and a round house, filled with delight and possibilities.

The circus first, however, and not just any circus, but ladies and gentlemen… Le Grand Magic Circus, from a 1973 French television clip (I know nothing more about the source). This comes complete with copulating zebras:

Extending her research into audience engagement and response, Kirsty Sedgman used Twitter to ask:

Which prompted me to recall seeing Jérôme Savary’s Le Grand Magic Circus at the Roundhouse in what I guessed might have been 1972. This was an exuberant, totally bonkers, participatory send-up of a circus show, although with exceptionally skilful performers. It ended with everyone being invited into the ‘ring’, which I *think* was in fact on an elevated stage in the round, and dancing manically with the cast, the ‘animals’ and each other. I remember it still as exciting, subversive (I had crossed the fourth wall!), sexy, liberatory and above all FUN.

How did I get here?

My first clue was a post on the Roundhouse’s 50th anniversary site by Toby Philpott, ‘I First Joined the Circus at the Roundhouse’. He recalls his own – rather more exotic – encounter with Savary’s troupe:

I first joined a circus at The Roundhouse. Jerome Savary’s ‘Le Grand Magic Circus’ were playing, and I went to see them on Boxing Day 1972, and was knocked out by their joyous anarchy. I was trying to make a living as a street juggler, at the time, and was hanging around in the bar on New Year’s Eve when I was spotted, and beckoned into the arena by a performer.

They threw me on to juggle at the end, then let me leave my gear in the dressing room, telling me to entertain the queues outside for the rest of the run. One night I was backstage chatting to two performers as they prepared for an entrance, and they were taking their clothes off, so I joined them, and found myself running right through the audience, stark naked, just for the hell of it! 

Jérôme Savary, who died in 2013, is rather forgotten now, at least in Britain, but in the 1970s and ’80s he was a significant figure, especially in France. As Wikipedia details, he lived a rich life in Buenos Aires, Paris and New York, where he hung out with Lenny BruceJack KerouacAllen GinsbergCount Basie, and Thelonious Monk. Returning to Paris he founded his own theatrical company in 1965, which transformed into Le Grand Magic Circus. Later he became a distinguished opera director, and he staged Rossini’s Le comte Ory for Glyndebourne in 1997. Rather wonderfully, Warner Classics has posted the full video of this production, conducted by Andrew Davis, on YouTube:

Toby Philpott’s delightful recollection confirmed that Le Grand Magic Circus began at the Roundhouse in December 1972, and this reminded me that I had bought my ticket because I had seen an item about the show on television. Which the invaluable BBC Genome informs me was the edition of the Saturday night arts programme, Full House, which for a single season sprawled across several hours of the BBC2 schedule. Transmission was on 16 December 1972, when the programme also featured Adrian Mitchell reading his poetry and Countdown, a short play by Alan Ayckbourn with Sheila Hancock and Clive Dunn. I must have watched this at the new home in Maidstone of my father, Ron, and my step-mother, Marie.

I was 17 at the end of 1972, and still dealing with the death of my mother, Mary, some five years before, and with the arrival of Marie, with whom it’s fair to say I never established a warm relationship. On weekdays during school terms I stayed with a relative in Whitstable (so that I could continue with my direct grant scholarship at Kent College) and I went back to Maidstone only at weekends and for holidays.

For a boy with few friends outside school, television really was a magic box, opening up worlds elsewhere in The Wednesday Play, classic serials, foreign feature films and, especially, arts programmes. I feel like I watched every episode of Full House – and indeed with my friend Mick Charlesworth (now Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin) I sat in the studio audience for an edition three months later, on 17 March, when we saw Osibisa in the studio, along with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriot playing part of the two piano work Visions de l’Amen, plus a sequence of poetry performed by, among others, Brian Patten, Alan Brownjohn and Glenda Jackson.

The family was spending – rather extraordinarily – the Christmas of 1972, presumably because this was the first with Marie, at a hotel in London. And with no other plans, after seeing Full House with Jérôme Savary, I must have rung up to book a single ticket for the show on Christmas Eve. Marie, I imagine, was dismissive, as she was of so much in my life, and my father I expect was uncomprehending. So on what was probably our first evening in the hotel I ran away alone to Le Grand Magic Circus – and, as I still remember vividly, it was WONDERFUL.


  1. Jamie Medhurst says:

    Wonderful story John! You must stop posting such fascinating material – too much of a distraction from my research!

  2. John Wyver says:

    Thanks, Jamie – get back to the 1930s!

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