Martin Burton: circus founder

29 Apr

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Founder and director of Zippos Circus, Martin Burton, sprinkles his fabulous tales of big top life with some tidbits about Islington clowns. Interview by Nicola Baird.

20130428_103716“I spent a year in intensive care after a fire eating accident,” admits the unflappable Martin Burton, 59, “so I promised my mother I wouldn’t do it again.”

Fortunately clowning wasn’t off limits. During the interview – held in Martin’s carpeted office (a cosy trailer) lined with circus memorabilia – he shows me a large skin graft scar braceleting his wrist. “Well, I was 25 and invincible! But the audience never know if something goes wrong,” he jokes and then recounts how the amazing Lucius Team motorbike stunt – four leather clad riders and their bikes seemingly defying gravity in a circular steel cage – have had one slip-up. “They really look after their equipment,” says Martin, “but one time there were three laid in the bottom and the fourth one had to keep going round and round above them [in the Globe of Death]. The problem was that he was getting increasingly dizzy, but he couldn’t come down without hurting the others.”

Nell, 12, meets Scooby (a rescue horse who now stars in the circus) and Martin Burton, owner of Zippos Circus.

Nell, 12, meets Scooby (a riding school rescue horse who now stars in the circus with Nicky de Neumann) and Martin Burton, owner of Zippos Circus.

The death-defying acts on motorbikes, horses, trapeze or ropes are as much a part of the circus’s appeal as the carefree life on the road.

Red tail-coated ringmaster Norman Barrett puts it succinctly, “You are never too old or too young or too cool for the circus.” That’s certainly the case when my family visit – grannies, teens and tots seem equally gripped by the action. The circus gives away 100 tickets to the “parish needy” but London’s massively successful theatre producer – think Blood Brothers, Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – and Everton Football Club chairman Bill Kenwright and family (including his partner Railway Children actress/political activist Jennie Seagrove) are just some of the famous faces spotted recently in the 1,000-seater big top at Finsbury Park.

Even the Queen’s had Zippos Circus set up in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

Trials of a clown
Martin began working as a clown in 1976. “I toured places where I wanted to go – Australia, Singapore, Bali, Philippines and Malaysia – but couldn’t afford to holiday. For quite a while I did theatrics, but a friend in the 1980s said I must get a circus, and that’s how Zippos began.

Hercules juggles tyres.

Hercules juggles tyres.

We actually started Zippos on Highbury Fields and we did amazing business, but slowly something changed and we no longer go there. The last visit to Highbury Fields was in 2004 when Paul Newman (yes THE Paul Newman, star of The Color of Money, Cool Hand Luke and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) joined us for one performance. He was giving money to a number of charities including Clown Care which sends clowns into hospitals. Then we were trying to send clowns into Chernobyl. There’s research in America that shows that if clowns cheer children up then they recover more quickly, so the insurance companies like to use clowns to get people out of hospital. It also means in the US clowns get highly paid.”

That year Martin battled with Islington’s Head of Parks to put down aluminium tracks so that the taxi drivers chauffering a party of circus-going children in wheelchairs could drive across Highbury Fields to the big top. Islington wasn’t keen. “At the last minute the mayor – a woman – accepted an invitation to come to Zippos,” explained Martin, “and then I found out she was in a wheelchair. I told the Head of Parks that I’d be telling his Mayor, Cllr Doreen Scott, as I pushed her across the fields ‘it’s all your fault’. In a flash we had permission.”

Pete May bravely stands in as a flower with Zippos Circus clowns.

Pete May bravely stands in as a flower with Zippos Circus clowns.

Clown guide
“To be a clown you have to be willing to metaphorically and physically stand naked in front of an audience. That’s why women generally make bad clowns – they’ve got more self respect…” When Martin sees me shudder (at the thought of being naked you understand in an English winter, not just the anti-women line) he adds, “I’ve seen clowns all over the world and I think Andrea from our show’s clowns is the best lady clown.”

England’s most famous clown has close links with Islington. Joseph Grimaldi (1778 -1837)  was just four when he made his first appearance at Sadler’s Wells, Islington. He had a tough childhood, in a performing family explains Martin. “He’d be at Sadler’s Wells for the first act then run over the fields to the theatre at Covent Garden, it was all fields then.”

Martin Zippo Burton's clown is the top row, in red.

Martin Zippo Burton’s clown is the top row, in red.

Grimaldi introduced the white face paint and two-sided personality of the clown that’s still used today. Traditionally clowns paint their face makeup on to a chicken’s egg to register the design.

Martin’s clown cabinet includes egg-heads of Zippo’s Delbosq Clowns, Martin Zippos Burton and Norman Barrett (for once not kitted out as ringmaster). There’s also a large collection at Wookey Hole, Somerset.

Nearer home Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, is famous for holding a service to remember clowns, attended predominantly by clowns, on the first Sunday of February.  Grimaldi is buried at St James’ Church, Pentonville Road in Clerkenwell.

Come to the circus

The Globe of Death can have four motorbikes tearing round inside it - seemingly defying gravity.

The Globe of Death can have four motorbikes tearing round inside it – seemingly defying gravity.

“In order to sell tickets we have to promote the romantic idea of the circus,” explains Martin. “You’ll read in the press ‘Last week I looked out of their window and saw the circus had come. Now it’s moved on and there’s just a fairy ring left in the park where the big top was pitched.’ The reality is a circus is where people live, we’re a travelling village. For me today its 2pm on Sunday and I’m in my office making sure that all the vehicles comply with the low emission zone in London. I’m always doing health and safety. People are surprised how highly qualified we have to be.”

“Everywhere we go is different, this is just cosmopolitan London. Most important people seem to quite like Zippos Circus and are happy to see horses on Finsbury Park. “And I love coming to Finsbury Park. There’s a great bagel shop with the best and biggest chocolate croissants in London . And I’ve been into Lidl about five times already this weekend.”  On the sofa there’s a Lidl bag full of red wine bottles.

There’s one small hitch. Finsbury Park is run by Harringey, which Martin remembers as “the first London council to ban performing animals 40 years ago. Islington did follow eventually and I even know what act was the problem. We had three Italian clowns who put a duck down their trousers. Actually I had a pet Indian runner duck which I trained to sit in the oven when people came round for dinner…” It’s a funny aside, but he swiftly comes back to the point which is that the few animals used in the circus are cared for extremely well – nothing like the circus followed in the novel and film Like Water For Elephants. “We’re only allowed to bring horses, dogs and birds into Finsbury Park by special permission of the council. And there’s a vet check too [which you can read on the Zippos website].

Ringmaster Norman Barrett, MBE with his budgies (not badgers!).

Ringmaster Norman Barrett, MBE with his budgies (not badgers!).

Being on the road so much Martin has a million tales – many about animal care and his battle with authority. Most are hilarious. “We had a Romanian girl in the box office who was asked what animals we had. She said horses and budgies, but it sounded like badgers. Later six police armed with machine guns and two RSPCA officers turned up asking us why where we kept the wild badgers! I said “We’ve got budgies. The police went beserk at being called out wrongly.”

We were in Stevenage, Hertfordshire and had little Falabella ponies. One wore a headcollar with a nice foam horn. I took a photo one misty morning and it was really good – he looked like a unicorn and the press loved it. Then the Head of Leisure called me in to his office. He made me stand in front of his desk. I know about that, I had to stand in front of desks at school. He said we’ve approved animals but this doesn’t include unicorns… We were banned from Stevenage for having a unicorn!

Go join the circus

20130428_140906“The great secret is that wherever we go people think it’s their circus. In East Ham the audience will be from south Asia, Kerala on the southern tip of India where circuses come from – he points to a photo on his frame-filled wall – they think it’s their own. Last night in the restaurant in Green lanes the Turkish were claiming it.”

Martin lets them think it… but he’s also super-adaptable to particular community needs. Locally some Jewish families can only attend the circus if there are no women singers on the soundtrack and no female performers. This year this might mean one show with the horses on the sidelines, as they are ridden by equestrienne Nicky de Neumann.

Each year Zippos Circus offers fresh acts. This year the team of palomino ponies are gone and instead there is fascinating trick riding by Nicky de Neumann on her lovely horses and a tiny Welsh pony. “I was madly into ponies as a kid and then read an article about trick riding when I was 13,” says Nicky who went on to train as an actress and singer. The photo’s taken after the show with Zeus, an ex-Arab racer.

Each year Zippos Circus offers fresh acts. This year the team of palomino ponies are gone and instead there is fascinating trick riding by Nicky de Neumann on her lovely horses and a tiny Welsh pony. “I was madly into ponies as a kid and then read an article about trick riding when I was 13,” says Nicky who went on to train as an actress and singer. The photo is taken after the show with Zeus, an ex-Arab racer.

It’s also why Martin set up the Academy of Circus Arts, a unique big top training programme for people who want to runaway and join the circus. It runs from May – September each year and the 2013 intake is full. “There are always more girls and most want to learn aerial,” he explains.

For six months the circus trainees are on the road developing skills, suppleness and the ability to pitch a big tent, plus they hold a show open to the public each Saturday –Martin’s idea. “When I was training with Johnnie Hutch [the circus acrobat/theatre trainer who died in 2006 aged 93, see obituary here] we never used to bother to learn anything unless it was going to be in front of an audience. It’s the adrenalin… and how the circus performer learns what can I do for this show,” he adds.

More info:

Over to you

What made you get involved in Islington life – do you find it a way to make friends or something to be proud about doing?  By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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4 Responses to “Martin Burton: circus founder”

  1. Nicolette April 29, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    OMG Paul Newman was on Highbury Fields in 2004 and I wasn’t there! Sob.

    • Nicola Baird April 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

      Yes Nicolette, and he made a debut as a clown. He still looks like Paul Newman as a clown – there’s a photo in the top right corner, inside cover of Zippos “Carnaval” Circus programme… Nicola

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  1. 10 of the best Islington interviews | Islington Faces Blog - November 13, 2013

    […] Martin Burton, circus founder (29/04/13) – A fascinating interview in a circus wagon with the master of circus stories. Not only did my family sit in, I also had a cabinet of curios, mostly eggs painted with particular clown’s unique face make-up, staring at me. […]

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