Ringmaster, Equestrian, Animal Trainer
By Don Stacey
Over many years, Norman Barrett has become the most loved and best known circus personality in Great Britain—regarded as "The World’s Greatest Ringmaster," and dubbed by leading British newspaper The Observer, "The Ringmaster’s Ringmaster." He was born in 1935, made his professional debut in the sawdust ring at the age of twelve, and as these lines were written in 2011, showed no sign of retirement. The best comments ever made about this most charming man were written by Ken Dodd, Britain’s legendary stand-up comedian: "A smashing bloke and a very very nice man… A loyal friend and a very very very nice man." Quite an amazing epitaph for anybody!
Barrett’s Canadian Circus
The man known today as a "Lord of the Ring" was born Arthur Norman Barrett on November 20, 1935 in York, England to farming folk, George and Winifred Barrett, who were at the time taking a break from the circus life they enjoyed. Norman’s grandfather, also George Barrett, had been the owner of a small iron and steel works in Bradford, West Yorkshire; it was there that Norman’s father developed his love of horses, since the company’s products were delivered by dray horses.
After their father’s death, George Jnr. and his brother, Arthur, inherited the business, but after Arthur’s death, George lost no time in selling up. He settled in Little Ouseburn, near York, where he bought a farm called The Low Farm. There he had a stock of farm animals, some of which he quickly started training—small animals like dogs, geese, a pony, and even a fox. George met Norman’s mother at a local dance; the daughter of an architect, Winifred worked as a children’s nurse for a neighbouring farmer. George and Winifred married in 1921.
Four years later, the Barretts met up with the Rosaire family, who ran a circus. George Barrett having already trained his own horses, the upshot was a partnership in a tenting circus, which opened at Ouseburn in 1925 under the title of Desmond and Barrett’s Amalgamated Monster Circus. It lasted but a couple of month; by June, the Barretts and the Rosaires parted company, and George and Winifred launched the Barrett’s Canadian Circus, a horse-drawn affair with twenty caravans and wagons and up to one hundred horses and ponies. The backbone of the show was the large and talented Yelding family, who was to play a big part in Norman’s life story.
Norman himself inherited his love of horses from his father, and he wrote of him: "Dad was a very good animal trainer, very kind to his animals, and always more concerned, when he got to a new ground, about water for animals than where the tent was going. It would have reassured those people who are concerned about the treatment of circus animals, and surprised them, to see how he looked after his horses."
In November 1931, George Barrett took a break from tenting, and sold fifty horses and ponies, an Indian elephant, and his tent and wagons at auction, and returned to "serious" farming. He retained some performing horses in training for his own interest, and from 1943, he trained and presented dogs and horses for other shows. George was also fond of show jumping, and from an early age, Norman was introduced to horses and horse shows.
Norman was a student at Ripon Grammar School when George Barrett re-started the family’s tenting circus in 1948. At the age of seventeen, in 1952, Norman Barrett was presenting horses and a team of dogs with Barrett’s Circus. Among the cast were Freddie and Olga Yelding and their daughter, Sue, Norman’s future wife. But that same year, George Barrett sold up his show again, for financial reasons. One by one, he had sold his seven farms to keep the show running; for George Barrett, circus was more a passion than a business. Norman went on to work with other circuses as a juggler and a 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.. His father’s last essay into circus ownership came in 1956, but it was a flop. George Barrett died four years later, in 1960.
Still in his teens, Norman Barrett worked for shows like Robert Gandey’s Circus and Cody’s Circus—where, in 1954, he formally met Sue Yelding, who was seventeen at the time. As a clown to begin with, Norman presented geese, and helped Sue with her dog act. Then, in 1956 the Yeldings moved to the Robert Brothers Circus, one of Britain’s larger tenting circuses, and Norman followed them—or more accurately, followed Sue, his new girlfriend with the long blond hair.
Ringmaster For Bertram Mills Circus
It was for Robert Brothers Circus that Norman became ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. for the first time, in the winter of 1956-1957. At the same time, he was involved in many acts, including juggling with Bobby Roberts Jnr. and presenting animals. Late in 1959, his big chance in show business came when he joined Bertram Mills Circus as an assistant animal trainer and presenter. His uncle, Tony Yelding, was the show’s senior Equestrian Director, or Ringmaster.
Norman’s first job for this most prestigious of all British circuses was to present Palominos and ponies at the Belle Vue International Circus, Manchester, which were part of the contingent of Mills animal acts featured at this big winter circus. (Mills’ horses were renowned in European circuses; even the greatest trainers in the business, Schumann and Knie, acknowledged their quality and beauty). Before that, on December 12, 1959, Norman had married Sue Yelding; his honeymoon was spent rehearsing the Mills Palominos and ponies for the Belle Vue engagement. His mentor at Bertram Mills Circus was the Hagenbeck-trained Austrian, John Gindl, who developed Norman’s grounding in the training and presentation of the circus’s equine members.
When Norman first appeared at Belle Vue, the ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. there was the veteran eighty-six-year-old George Lockhart. In the course of time, Barrett replaced him at Belle Vue and also at the Blackpool Tower Circus, where Lockhart had been officiating for many years—from 1914 to 1945 at the latter, and from 1929 to 1970 at Belle Vue. (And for that matter, it can be said that he replaced him also at Bertram Mills Circus, where Lockhart was the Ringmaster for the 1923-1924 season at Olympia.)
The following summer season (1960), Norman took the Mills horses to the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, the legendary circus building of the Norfolk seaside resort, and then he appeared in a Chipperfield’s Circus winter programme. Back to Bertram Mills’ winter quarters at Ascot, Norman trained as a high schoolA display of equestrian dressage by a rider mounting a horse and leading it into classic moves and steps. (From the French: Haute école) rider, and practised the spectacular riding-act, The CourierAn equestrian presentation created by Andrew Ducrow in 1827 as ''The Courier of St. Petersburg'', in which a rider stands on two galloping horses, one foot on each, and allows other horses to pass between his mounts, catching their reins as they pass, eventually holding the reins a group of galloping horses in front of him. (Also known in French as ''La Poste''.), which he performed during the summer season of 1961 in the Mills’ tenting show.
In that show, the Italian artiste Fabiola presented an act featuring doves; to replace her for the 1962 summer show, Norman's wife, Sue, trained pigeons for herself to present. It was at that time that the Royal Ballet needed trained pigeons for the ballet The Two Pigeons. Norman was approached and for some years thereafter, his mother accompanied the Royal Ballet on tour in Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland, in charge of the company’s feathered performers.
For the winter of 1961-1962, Norman Barrett became one of the Mills show’s three Equestrian Directors, eventually replacing his uncle Tony Yelding as his health declined. Then in 1963, when the other Equestrian Director, Frank Foster Jnr., was rushed to the hospital following a gas explosion in his living trailer, Norman remained alone. He quickly established himself as a true Master of the Ring, and he remains to this day (2011) one of the few truly gifted ringmasters, in the real sense of the word: Whereas most contemporary ringmasters are merely compères announcing the acts, a real ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. is in full technical charge of a performance.
Blackpool, Budgies And BBC
On January 29, 1964, after only four years of marriage, Norman and Sue were divorced. Norman recalled sitting in a divorce court in a suit he had bought from the veteran clown Jackie Fossett, as it was too small for Fossett. Norman had worn it only once, to get married in—and now he was wearing it to get divorced in. Over the years, Sue and Norman remained on friendly terms, and Sue remarried to another Mills trainer, chimpanzee expert Rudy Lenz, with whom she spent many years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States—where Sue and Rudy Lenz eventually settled. (They have retired in Sarasota, Florida.)
1964 also proved a memorable year for Norman, as he officiated as Ringmaster for the very last tenting season of the Bertram Mills Circus—although he remained at that post until 1967 for the last three seasons at Olympia, in London. After the Mills show had folded its tents, Norman worked as ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. for Circus Scott, then Sweden’s premier circus, and in the spring of 1966, he began his long association with the Blackpool Tower Circus, on the recommendation of his former employer, Cyril Mills.
During his first season as ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. in Blackpool, Norman met his second wife, Sally Glanville, who had been a professional ice-skater at Brighton and Blackpool, and with the internationally renowned ice show, Holiday On Ice. When they went to London for the very last season of the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia in 1966-1967, Norman and Sally planned a very quiet wedding at the local town hall. As always in the circus, however, word had leaked out and, as the show progressed that night, the band played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and confetti started flying, thanks to the clowns.
Sally’s only brief experience of tenting was with the very short-lived Paris sur Glace revue, a tenting show that had quickly failed—and she has no circus experience at all. So Norman settled down in Blackpool, where he reigned supreme at the Tower Circus for a quarter of a century. Loved and admired by the public, his fellow artistes and his crew, he became a major citizen of his adopted hometown—and the devoted "straight man" of the Tower Circus’ legendary 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., Charlie Cairoli.
During that period, Norman developed his own performing budgerigars’ act, which played not only at the circus, but also in cabaret and pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). in Britain, and in nightclubs on the continent during the winter season. Although he would present from time to time ponies or elephants at the Tower Circus, the decision to train budgies was a wise one: Unlike horses and other large animals, they didn’t need any big accommodation to transport, they were comparatively cheap, easily available, needed little space to live, ate little, and didn’t need any grooms or attendants. Norman found he could make as good a living with the birds as in the circus, and he has since taken them around the world into pantomimes, cabaret and television as well as circus, spending two or three months each winter presenting his bird act.
Norman still calls his budgies by the same names (like Pepe, Julio, Maurice, Freddy Halfpenny…) but of course, the actual birds have been replaced many times over nearly half a century. Actually, Norman has always two sets of budgies, so that the act is always fresh and the birds never tire. The unfailing success of his act resides in its tongue-in-cheek humour—the contrast between the size of the animals and the somehow grandiose style of presentation. For over twenty years, Norman’s budgie act has appeared each winter in Brussels, Belgium—something of a record.
Meanwhile, Norman and Sally’s son, Guy, was born in September 1971, and his subsequent education meant that they had to remain in Blackpool for most of the year, even though the budgie act might well have given Norman constant work overseas. Sadly, Guy’s early affliction with asthma meant the boy was unable to visit the Tower Circus for years, due to an allergy to horsehair. Guy subsequently became a talented magician and illusionist, and an even more talented maker and designer of magic apparatus.
From 1976 until its eventual closure in 1981, Norman Barrett became also the ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. for the Belle Vue International Circus in Manchester each winter, and for four years, for the Spectrum Centre in Warrington, near Liverpool—scene of a short-lived winter circus presentation. Norman also officiated as ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. for the popular annual TV show, Circus World Championships, which was produced by BBC and then by ITV from 1976 to 1986, and he appeared in numerous television circus specials, which gave him national and even international exposure. He was also featured in 1985 in a BBC game-show series called Anything Goes, which was set at the Blackpool Tower Circus.
From 1983 on, Norman worked alongside Peter Jay, the Tower Circus’ new producer. Norman’s skills as a ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. and his bravery were tested in the summer season of 1986 when, with two ring boys, he went to the aid of a lion trainer, Luis Palacio, who was savagely attacked by one of his lions during his act. The trainer subsequently underwent a nine-hour emergency surgery, and his life was in the balance for days. (He eventually survived, and was able to return to the Tower Circus in 1988 to present a dangerously mixed group of lions, tigers, leopards, striped hyenas, and a wolf.)
Norman’s last season at the Tower Circus was in 1990. On October 5 of that year, he was the "victim" chosen for Thames Television’s presentation of the longstanding favourite TV show, This Is Your Life, staged at the Blackpool Tower—the first time this show had been produced out of London. Beside the usual surprise guests, another surprise backstage was the producer of the show, John Fisher, for whom Norman had worked in the popular TV series, The Paul Daniel’s Magic Show, and had acted as magic consultant for another of his later TV magic programmes.
Norman Barrett, MBE
When the Blackpool Tower owners banned the use of animals at the Tower Circus, and Peter Jay’s tenancy came to an end, Jay built a new circus arena at nearby Blackpool Pleasure Beach, the Superdome Circus, where he continued to present traditional circus with animals from 1991 to 1997, and where Norman Barrett followed him. As a ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show., Norman made a few appearances in Europe, notably at the 19th Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris in 1996, which had staged a tribute to the world’s most famous ringmasters; he shared the bill with Michel Palmer, Tim Holst, and Paul Binder among others.
Then, Paul Binder, who wanted to take a lesser role in the ring of the Big Apple Circus, started courting him, and Norman was tempted to join that big American show; he finally accepted when the Superdome Circus was discontinued. During the 1998-1999 season, Norman appeared in Happy On!, the Big Apple Circus production of that season, which featured his old friend Katja Schumann, from his Bertram Mills Circus days, and starred the great clown Bello Nock.
Norman Barrett proved a big success with American audiences, both as a ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. and with his bird act, and he was kept on by the company for its new venture, Oops! &mdas; The Big Apple Circus Stage Show, which toured the United States in 1999-2000 and was directed by the Oscar® and Tony® award-winning British stage designer, Tony Walton. After two years in the United States, and without the security of the Blackpool Tower Circus, Peter Jay’s Superdome, the Belle Vue Circus and other such venues, Norman returned to Britain as an itinerant circus performer, as he had started.
He had last tented in Sweden with Circus Scott, and he found himself a niche with a growing British travelling show, Zippo’s Circus, where he appeared both as ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. and with his budgerigar act. With two touring units and various stage and winter spectaculars, Martin Burton’s Zippo’s Circus is now acknowledged as one of Britain’s biggest and best circuses, and Norman has become firmly established with this show, where he has developed more as a compère-host, bringing his friendly personality to the role. In 2008, having first entered the ring at age twelve at Barrett’s Circus, Norman celebrated at Zippo’s Circus his sixtieth year in the sawdust ring.
In Britain’s New Year’s Honours List of January 2010, Norman Barrett received the greatest accolade of his long career: He was made Member of the British Empire (MBE). It is extremely rare for someone from the world of circus to be included in the Honour List; among the few ones who were given this distinction were the legendary British clown Coco (Polakovs), for services to Road Safety; clown Alec Halls, for wartime services; and acrobat Johnny Hutch, for services to the Theatre. Norman’s MBE award brought a new acknowledgement of the place circus holds in British life and culture. Norman himself commented, "As well as being over the Moon personally, I am also delighted for the circus industry, and all my friends and colleagues within it. Awards of this nature are very rarely given to individuals in my profession, especially when compared to other forms of entertainment such as film and theatre. This is a real boost for the circus, and in my view, gives the art form the recognition it truly deserves and, sadly in modern times, so rarely gets."
His employer, Martin Burton, added, "Norman, with his inimitable style and showmanship, is recognized across the globe as the world’s greatest living ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show.. This award finally gives him the accolade he deserves." Norman Barrett’s greatly enjoyable autobiography, Ringmaster — My Life In Showbusiness, was published in 1994. In 2011, as enthusiastic about circus life as when he first entered it, he said: "Every day is to be enjoyed and there is nothing more satisfying than when I am out there, in the ring, entertaining audiences. How many people can say they have loved the job they’ve been doing for over sixty years?"
In July, 2011, Norman Barrett was inducted in the International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana (USA).
- Video: Norman Barrett, budgie act, in the Big Apple Circus production of Happy On! (1998)
- Norman Barrett (as told to Geoff Stevens), Ringmaster — My Life In Showbusiness (Harlow, Aardvark Publishing, 1994) — ISBN 1-872904-05-X