By Dominique Jando
A very popular British clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., Jacko Fossett (1922-2004) belonged to the English branch of the extremely prolific Fossett circus family, whose origins date back to the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland. So numerous the Fossett clan is that it was once said that every circus in the British Isles harbored at least one Fossett! (Jacko Fossett said: "It's not a family, it's a disease!") The family produced several good clowns, among whom Harry Fossett ("Funny Harry"), Tommy Fossett, better known as "Professor Grimble," and Jacko's own father, also known as "Jacko." The junior Jacko Fossett, however, enjoyed a very successful career that spanned nearly sixty years not only in the British Isles, but also abroad.
He was born Robert George John Francis Fossett on November 11, 1922, in Kingston upon Hull, a port city in East Yorkshire where his father, John Fossett, was performing as a clown with the Sir Robert Fossett Circus. His mother was Maria e Fossett, née Proctor, a tightwireSee Tight Wire. artist who came from a large family of fairground entertainers. Jack (as Jacko Fossett was known to his friends and family) had three elder sisters, Margaret, Emmie, and Louise, who, as a trio, performed a trapeze act.
Jack was sent to Northampton, the English Fossetts' family seat, to receive a formal academic education, while John Fossett and the rest of the family went on to work with Fred Astley's Royal Circus in Scarborough, Yorkshire's very popular holiday resort—John clowning as usual as "Comical Jacko" and his daughters presenting their trapeze act. Then, in 1930, the family joined the Chapman Circus of George Bruce Chapman (1885-1935), one of Britain's foremost animal dealers and a pioneer of the circus-menagerie in the United Kingdom.
Chapman had just started his circus venture with some help from the Fossetts, and his enterprise became immediately a major circus that went in open competition with the nascent touring version of Bertram Mills Circus, Britain's premier circus. Sadly, John Fossett died during the first Chapman season in 1930, and the family had to survive on the sole Fossett Sisters' trapeze act. In 1934, Jack rejoined the family, and made his debut as a clown under the guidance of the versatile clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.-acrobat Jimmy Scott (1915-1996).
The family left Chapman at the end of the season, and returned to the new Sir Robert Fossett's Circus, now under the management of Jack's uncle, Robert Fossett IV. Jimmy Scott also joined Robert Fossett's circus and continued Jack's clown education. As for Jack's sisters, they added to their repertoire the Fossett's family bareback riding act (known as the Quebecs), which included Robert and Mary Fossett, and Mary's sons, Bobby and Tommy Roberts, Jack's first cousins. Then, when Emmy left the family in 1939 to marry John Manders (who hailed from a well-known traveling-menagerie family), Jack replaced her as the "bearer" in his sisters' trapeze act.
As WWII was lurking around the corner, the Fossetts' aerial act performed in variety theaters and, in the winter of 1939, with Stanley Parker's Circus at Earls Court in London. There, Jack's sisters introduced him to the Reid Twins, Constance (Connie) and Marjorie, who had a "mirrored" acrobatic act that required an empty but heavy mirror frame. They needed help to move their prop, and Jack obliged. The Reid Twins were very attractive, and he fell in love with Constance (1923-2005). They began a long and patient courtship that would be imposed on them by two decades of conflicting contracts, and would finally tie the knot in October 1960 at Oundle, North Northamptonshire, right after the twins had retired their act!
From Robert Brothers to Bertram Mills
Soon, however, WWII was in full bloom, and Jack enlisted in the Royal Air Force. He was dispatched to the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), which provided entertainment for the British armed forces during the war. There, he found himself in the company of the then-unknown Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, a few other post-war show business luminaries, as well as another great clown in the making, Don Saunders. In such company, Jack was indeed in a good environment to develop his comedic skills.Robert Bros. Circus, which Bobby and Tommy had formed as soon as the skies began to clear in 1944. It is there that Jack began to work exclusively as a clown under his father's old stage name, Jacko—acting at the same time as the show's tent master. His clown repertoire included a boxing bout with a kangaroo named Sidney, which became one of his trademarks. (There would be actually eight different Sidneys during Jacko's long career.) He also met there a young equestrian and ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. with whom he struck a life-long friendship, Norman Barrett.
The post-war years were a boon for the circus in the United Kingdom, and Robert Bros. Circus quickly became one of Britain's major traveling circuses. Jacko, who was the show's principal clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., began to catch the attention of other circuses' managers, among whom Cyril Mills who offered him a contract with Bertram Mills Circus. Yet, Jacko was happy where he was, within his family. Not ready to work elsewhere, even in one of Europe's most prestigious circuses, he politely declined Mills's offer. Jacko Fossett would stay with Robert Bros. Circus for a total of fourteen years.
Eventually, though, the situation changed: Bertram Mills's iconic clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., the very popular Coco, was aging and in ill health and, in the winter of 1961, victim of a bout of influenza, he had to be replaced in the show at London's Olympia. Cyril Mills needed now a clown with enough stature to take Coco's place in case of another health problem. (Bertram Mills had a permanent troupe of clowns, in addition to the guest clowns featured in each season's new show.) He went back to Jacko Fossett, who finally accepted. Jacko made his debut with Bertram Mills Circus on the tenting show in 1962.
At Bertram Mills, Jacko Fossett reunited with his old mentor, Jimmy Scott (who worked only in the winter shows at Olympia), and met his future partner, Little Billy Merchant (1919-2001), a talented diminutive augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. who had joined Mills in 1950. In 1963, Jacko's old friend from his Robert Bros. Circus days, Norman Barrett, also came aboard, and would become Bertram Mills Circus's last ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show.. The veteran Coco remained with the show until its closure in 1967—although his participation to the show in the last years was more symbolic than truly active—and so did Jacko, Jimmy Scott, and Norman Barrett. (Little Billy left in 1965 and didn't participate in the two "last" seasons at Olympia.)
From Britain to The Continent
Jacko did only three touring seasons with Bertram Mills. In the sixties, the economic situation had changed, and since it was not possible for the Mills brothers to maintain a tenting show with the same standards of quality their father had demanded when the traveling unit was created in 1930, they stopped touring at the end of the 1964 season. They tried to maintain the Olympia holiday season in London, but they eventually met with the same problems and preferred to call it quits in 1967, while it was still time, to everyone's consternation.Schumanns, the legendary equestrian family that had been long associated with Bertram Mills Circus, had asked Jacko Fossett to join their prestigious Cirkus Schumann in Denmark, along with Antonio, a midget augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. from the Mills troupe. There, they partnered with another diminutive augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. named Kiki (Otto Moskovitz, 1908-1985), a good Romanian comic who was a Cirkus Schumann's favorite. When Kiki retired in 1968, Jacko called Little Billy Merchant to replace him; it was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration.
That same year, Jacko Fossett and Little Billy were invited to perform for the winter season at the Belle Vue International Circus at Manchester's Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. Founded in 1929, it was, after Mills, the biggest winter show in England, and it had the longest winter season: six to seven weeks. In 1975, Jacko was rejoined there by his old friend, Norman Barrett, who became the show's ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. in replacement of Nelly Jane Benneweis. (From 1929 to 1970, Belle Vue's legendary ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. had been the indestructible George Lockhart—1883-1979). Jacko, and Norman would appear each winter at Belle Vue until 1982, when the show was sadly discontinued.
Meanwhile, for the summer season, Jacko and Little Billy remained with Cirkus Schumann until 1969, at which point, facing the same financial realities as the Mills brothers, the Schumanns also called it quits. Since 1916, Cirkus Schumann, Denmark's premier circus, had played the longest part of its season at the Cirkusbygningen ("circus building") of Copenhagen. After the Schumanns' closing, their main competition, Cirkus Benneweis, succeeded them at the Cirkusbygningen while maintaining their tenting unit. Jacko Fossett and Little Billy, who had quickly become popular figures in Copenhagen, were immediately re-hired by Eli Benneweis.
In all, Jacko Fossett spent seven summer seasons in Denmark. In 1973, he returned to England, where he and Billy became a fixture of Billy Russell's Circus at the Hippodrome of Great Yarmouth (a popular British seaside resort in Norfolk), which was then under the management of John Russell (Billy Russell's son) and Ben Dean. Jacko and Little Billy would be featured at the Hippodrome for six consecutive summer seasons, from 1973 to 1979. (The Hippodrome is still active today.) During all that time, Jacko and Little Billy also appeared in several circus performances hosted on British television by the Chipperfields and Billy Smart.
Jacko and Little Billy, however, continued to work occasionally abroad. In the winter of 1973, they went to work for one month at the Kronebau, Circus Krone's building in Munich. Jacko had known Carl Sembach, Frieda Krone's husband (and Circus Krone's co-director with his wife), when he was still a lion trainer and was contracted by Chapman, in the early 1930s. Jacko and Little Billy were quite successful at the Kronebau, but their next engagement was in Paris, billed as "Les Fossetts," at the Cirque Pinder-Jean Richard, where they flopped miserably.Achille Zavatta or the Barios, for instance, and even by the greatest British clown at the time, Blackpool Tower Circus's Charlie Cairoli, who was of French origin.
Nonetheless, in 1978, they did well at the Cirque de la Voix du Nord in Lille, near the French-Belgian border, and then they won an award at the Festival International des Clowns held in the seaside resort of Blankenberge in Belgium. Then at the end of the 1978-1979 winter season at Belle Vue, Little Billy Merchant, who was now nearing his sixtieth birthday and had been in the ring or on stage for forty-one years, decided to retire from performing. He went back home to Reading, in Berkshire, and in 1984, he moved to Skegness, a Lincolnshire seaside resort, where he and Fossett would eventually reunite. Said Jacko Fossett, Little Billy was "the best partner I have ever had, and the one with whom I never had an argument."
Jacko Fossett had another bad experience when he participated in the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo in 1983. The first night didn't go well, but the festival's ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show., Sergio, who was also a well-seasoned clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., helped him adapt his material and style to French audiences, and he fared much better the second night. However, he was generally well received when he performed abroad, including in such shows as the huge ATA (Artisten Tiere Attraktionen) at Vienna's Stadthalle, or Michael Edgley's The World's Greatest Circus Spectacular in Australia (1983). He also performed in Puerto Rico, and in Italy with Enis Togni.
In 1990, Jacko was able to fulfill an old dream: working at the legendary Blackpool Tower Circus, home of superlative clowning thanks to Charlie Cairoli. Cairoli had passed away in 1980 and had never been replaced by a similar resident star clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.; indeed, he would have been a very hard act to follow! After Charlie's death, the circus had hired a string of guest clowns, some of whom extremely talented. Jacko went to perform at Blackpool the year before the circus was taken over by Laci Endresz, whose son, the talented augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. Mooky, has since become the Tower Circus's resident star clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team..
Unfortunately, it was not a good season for Jacko: He suffered a heart attack in the middle of the season, and he was told by his doctors that it was time for him to retire from the ring. He was sixty-nine. He reappeared for the last time in the ring at the last performance of the season, to receive a special award presented to him by the Circus Friends Association of Great Britain. He would return to Blackpool in 2000 to receive a Life Achievement Award from the trade newspaper The World's Fair. Billy Merchant received a similar award presented to him in Skegness by the Circus Friends Association of Great Britain.
Jacko Fossett retired to Skegness, where he and Connie shared a house with Connie's twin sister, Marjorie, at 6 North Shore Road. Connie had served as Jacko's partner in some entrées, and their marriage had been a very successful one. Of course, it was not always easy to be Jacko's wife: "I used to lie in bed at night," he recalled, "and a gag would come to me. I'd have to wake up my wife and she'd have to write it down in case I forgot it by the morning." In Skegness, Jacko had reunited with his old friend and partner, Billy Merchant. In their last years, they retired to the same nursing home. Billy passed away on May 26, 2001. Jacko followed him three years later, on June 1, 2004. Connie died the following year on May 9, 2005. Jacko Fossett and Little Billy Merchant had been two of Britain's best augustes of the second half of the twentieth century, and two of the most beloved.
- Biography: Little Billy Merchant