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Work Life: Nell Gifford, Circus Owner

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Nell Gifford, 40, runs vintage-style circus company Giffords Circus with her husband Toti. They live in the Cotswolds with their three-year-old twins, daughter Red and son Cecil.

"I first ran away to the circus when I was 18. It was during my gap year before starting at Oxford University.

My family doesn’t have a circus background but my brother knew someone at Circus Flora in America and I spent a month travelling across New York State, painting the lorries and riding a horse in the parade. I came home to get my English degree but once I graduated I found work with the Chinese State Circus selling ice creams and riding elephants and that was it. I had the circus bug.

Twenty-two years later I’m the boss of my own circus and in charge of producing a new 90-minute show every year. I’m involved in everything from designing the programme to discovering new acts. We spend most of the year preparing then, from May to September, we perform one or two shows a day, with six shows at the weekend. It’s an intense schedule and I often feel weary, but I love it.

I get up around 8am and our nanny Daniella helps get the twins ready. They’ll have bacon for breakfast while I have porridge and lots of coffee. Our usual home is a former garden centre turned farm in Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds but during the months we’re on the road we live in a restored Thirties showman’s wagon, towed by a vintage lorry. It’s got a TV and proper kitchen so we can live a normal family life. After breakfast I change straight into my sports gear and work out for an hour, doing a mixture of running, aerobics and strength training with one of the gymnasts from the show.

Toti and I met in 1998 and we got married and set up Giffords Circus the same year – it was a whirlwind. We built our own wagon and started touring, recruiting acts as we went. Toti runs a landscaping business and also oversees the logistics of the circus, organising our transportation and equipment. Meanwhile my sister [the ceramics designer Emma Bridgewater] designs special Giffords mugs as part of our merchandise.

It takes four months to train the animals for their parts in the show. We own four horses, one donkey, four chickens, three ducks and a goose called Brian. Brian’s role is mainly waddling in and out of the ring but the horses perform complex dressage and have gymnasts vaulting off them so it takes a lot of time and patience. All the animals have weekly health checks and vets on call 24-7. Britain is banning the use of wild animals in circuses from 2015 but we’ve never used them anyway and never will.

We live in a restored thirties wagon towed by a vintage lorry.

Once the animals are ready, our troupe of 50, including performers such as clowns and acrobats, a five-piece band, a director, a musical director, a choreographer and animal trainers have just three weeks to learn the entire show before performances start. After that, we have a two-hour rehearsal every week where I remind everyone to point their toes and smile. You never know who’s watching – Vivienne Westwood was in the audience once.

At the weekend we have shows at 5pm and 7.30pm so I don’t get time for dinner. Instead we’ll have big shared lunches of soup, salad and pork from our farm. On a free weekday afternoon I’ll paint circus scenes onto the wagons or spend it with the children. They usually have a sleep in the afternoon – sometimes I join them because I’m so tired.

It takes me an hour to get ready for each show. I have a cameo in this year’s production as a circus owner who gets a custard pie in the face from Tweedy the Clown. I wear a tight corset, jodhpurs, riding boots, false eyelashes and a big pirate hat. Lindsay Pugh, a costume designer for films [including Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory], spends two months getting our outfits together, but this one was designed by my friend Penny Rose [creator of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow look in Pirates Of The Caribbean].

I love watching the show but I feel responsible for every last thing. There are some hold-your-breath moments; from one of our hand-balancers spinning upside down on one hand at the top of a flight of stairs, to jugglers throwing fire while a woman singing opera stands between them. During the interval I’ll sell programmes and chat to the audience.

By midnight, I’m exhausted and we switch off the main generator that powers the circus so it becomes quiet and dark. Although as the boss, I can have 24-hour power, but it’s rare that I stay awake past then anyway.”

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