The circus showman Gerry Cottle has died of Covid-19 at the age of 75. His agent, Mark Borkowski, announced that Cottle had been in hospital in Bath after contracting the virus.
A dynamic champion of circus with a lifelong passion for entertaining, Cottle toured his circus spectaculars around the UK and internationally for more than three decades before taking over Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset in 2003. There, he developed a host of popular visitor attractions alongside the limestone caves. The complex has a clown museum, a fairy garden, circus shows and a circus school and three resident witches. He recently staged a £1m magic show starring his daughter and granddaughter at the caves.
Cottle was born in Carshalton, Surrey. His father and grandfather worked in the City but, as he told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1984, he was entranced by the circus from the age of eight when he saw his first show at Earls Court. He decided early on that he wanted to run a circus rather than perform: “I never wanted to be the greatest juggler or trapeze artist – I wanted to be the big boss.” At 15, Cottle actually did run off to join a circus, leaving a note for his parents (“I have gone forever”), and learned the ropes with a handful of travelling troupes, trying his hand at juggling and fire-eating. Over the years he also worked in theatre, pantomime, light entertainment and variety.
He pitched his big top around the UK under the banner Gerry Cottle’s Circus as well as other guises and was featured on the BBC’s Seaside Special programme. Cottle presented traditional family shows, with illusions and stunts, but also experimented with different waves of circus styles including the ghoulish, adults-only Circus of Horrors, unveiled at Glastonbury in 1995, and presenting the Moscow and Chinese state circuses. At one stage, his shows featured a group of ice-skating chimpanzees but he later lent his support to the ban on wild animals in circus.
Cottle had the over-the-top flair of an impresario. His productions included a double-barrelled human cannon, he travelled in a 55ft-long caravan with seven rooms and he purchased a 75ft stretch Cadillac with a whirlpool bath. He celebrated 50 years in the business with a 100-minute show packed with 50 acts.
Borkowski called Cottle “the last of the great circus showmen” and the variety star Mat Ricardo labelled him “a very nice, enthusiastic dude”. Cottle, said Ricardo, wasn’t fussed about the opposing camps of traditional and new circus but saw all entertainers as part of “the same legacy and artform”. The contemporary circus organisation Jacksons Lane tweeted that “his influence will be felt far into the future”.
Cottle is survived by his wife, Betty; three daughters and a son; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.