A circus that reaches the furthest parts

The hour-long show featured highly skilled performances.The hour-long show featured highly skilled performances.
The hour-long show featured highly skilled performances.
​There’s nothing like a circus for entertainment across the generations and close on 3000 islanders, from the very young to the fairly old, were able to enjoy the experience last week by going no further than Tong recreation ground.

​The Circus Montini takes the culture back to a tradition of touring troupes pitching their tent in towns and villages across Europe so that the circus came to the people and everyone, rich and poor, urban and rural, could share in the experience.

Lewis and many other relatively small communities can thank Tony Hopkins, the owner of Circus Montini, for upholding that tradition.

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Tony has been in the business for 40 years and could be found in Tong last week behind the catering counter, selling burgers and chips. In circus life, everyone is a multi-tasker.

The hour-plus show was brilliant. It featured half a dozen acts, each highly-skilled and flawless in performance. We thrilled to the Hungarian acrobat working the aerial “silks”; marvelled at the balance of an Argentinian unicyclist; puzzled over how the Ethiopian girls managed to keep the plates spinning with their feet …

Then there was Petro the clown with the full complement of humour, pathos and audience participation thrown in.

They say that behind every clown there is a sad story and Petro is no exception. He is from Kharkov in Ukraine which was one of the first towns to be bombed by the Russians. Petro fled with his wife and daughter and they gained refugee status in the UK, now living in York.

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You don’t have to be an accountant to work out that the economics of all this must be pretty marginal. There were 340 seats in the tent, nine performances at around 90 per cent capacity and, as Tony points out, ”we pay VAT on every ticket”.

Then count in the 28 wages to be paid, plus a fleet of vans, caravans and cars to transport the people, tents and equipment across the Minch.

“I suppose it’s a labour of love”, says Tony, and while he hasn’t stayed in business as a circus promoter for 40 years without making the numbers add up, it’s entirely believable that part of the motivation for an annual summer tour of Scotland’s west coast is that “I like it up here. It’s really nice to bring pleasure to people, particularly the children, who otherwise might never see a circus”.

Tony does not come from a circus background. “I’m from Leeds. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father a grocer.

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"I trained as a teacher then took a year out to work with a circus. That was 40 years ago. I liked it so much that I decided to start my own small circus”.

Initially, it was called the Circus Fiesta. “I wanted it to be like the Heineken advert – reaching the parts that other circuses didn’t. The second year, we started to come to the West Highlands.

"In 1986, we went to Orkney. The first time we reached Lewis was in 1989. I remember that we weren’t even allowed to take down the tent on a Sunday.

“As we grew and put on a bigger show, I was approached by other circus people to run their circuses. For a number of years, we were running Billy Smart’s Circus but it all got too big and Circus Montini has taken us back to our roots.”

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Brexit and the war in Ukraine have affected recruitment. “Before the war, 30 per cent of circus acts across Europe came from Russia.

"As for Brexit, it hasn’t helped us in any way, or anyone else for that matter. The artistes we bring from the EU, like the jugglers and break-dancers in the current show, now need certificates of sponsorship, visas, health insurance … It all costs time and money”.

Most performers used to come from circus families. “Now”, says Tony, “it’s about 50-50. There are so many circus schools”.

The antipodiste artistes, to give them their professional title, came through “an agent who runs a circus school for poor kids in Ethiopia. She has lots of acts she sends all over the world”. And that now includes Tong recreation ground.

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Every circus needs a ringmaster even when there isn’t quite a ring.

This role is fulfilled by a flamboyant Italian, Mattias Conte, who comes from Milan and went through performance schools in Milan, Buenos Aires and Turin. Now, when he’s not on the road, he lives in Portugal. Circus is nothing if not international.

When he’s not doing circus work, Mattias puts on a solo show in the grounds of big music festivals in Spain or just busks in the streets of Europe’s cities.

“Circuses do not have enough work to give us a salary all year round”, he says. “Busking is a very good training gym. You have an audience every day”.

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The advantage he finds in travelling with a circus is that it stays in each location for a few days. “It gives time to enjoy the place you are visiting”, Mattias explains from beneath his top hat.

With nine shows at Tong in four days, there might not have been quite enough time to sample the Lewis nightlife before the circus packed its trunk, said goodbye to the island and headed for Fort William, to start all over again on Tuesday.

Tony had spent Friday morning in the CalMac office, negotiating a place on the ferry for an extra caravan they needed.

“The on-line booking system really doesn’t work”, he said. “I feel sorry for the people in the office who get the flak. Someone at the top of the organisation should take responsibility”.

Wise words from a man with 40 years experience of running a circus. Haste ye back!