Bertram Mills Circus, Olympia London

Ian Hendry And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’ – Part 2

For Part 1 of this article: Ian Hendry And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’ – Part 1

The Golden Age Of The Circus In Britain

Nearly a century has passed since the conception of Bertram Mills’ original circus, so it may be hard to comprehend the enormous social and entertainment impact this show brought to Great Britain.

When Ian Hendry met Coco The Clown for the first time and discovered The Bertram Mills Circus in 1953, this entertainment form was in it’s heyday. It was glamorous, exotic and exciting. It attracted all facets of society. No-one was excluded, it was a form of  entertainment for everyone. This aspect would certainly have appealed strongly to Ian’s sensibilities. Ian’s friendship with Coco and The Bertram Mills Circus is detailed in the new biography ‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

No wonder it made such a huge impression on him. It was a world that would have immediately captured his already renowned imagination, taking him to another place, to somewhere magical.  The intensity and immediacy of the performances, the intimacy and interactions with the audience, the gasps and the laughter. The ‘child inside’ him would have been itching to join in with the fun.

It’s easy to join the bandwagon of today’s political correctness and dismiss the traditional circus as something from the ‘dark ages’. The use of exotic animals to entertain audiences, being seen as an exploitation and their treatment cruel. Times change, tastes change, perspectives change. Change is the only constant.

Bertram Mills Circus Programme 1954
Bertram Mills Circus Programme 1954

The Circus In The 1950’s – A Moment In Time

To really understand the significance of the circus at that time, we need to be able to ‘picture’ the period.

For a moment, let’s travel back in time to the early 1950’s. It was a time before television had begun to play such a dominant role in family entertainment, before natural history and travel programmes brought wild animals and the world into the living room.  A time before the arrival of cheaper air travel, which then opened up a world of possibilities and the chance of actually visiting these ‘exotic’ places, to see the wild animals and to explore the different cultures.

In a sense it was a time when the circus brought their version of the world to us. Not a real world of course, but one of make-believe and imagination. It was time when the circus held a special place in the hearts and minds of the people.

After the end of the Second World War, life in London was finally beginning to return to some normality. Buildings, roads and infrastructure were largely repaired. The period of fear, rationing and thrift was left behind and people began to look forwards, not backwards, with optimism. And for a while, at least, the circus became a national institution.

A night out in Olympia, with family or friends, watching the greatest human performance and animal acts from all over Europe was a key part of the social calendar. The sawdust covered big ring, the lights, the noise, the laughter and the surprises. The circus gave people an experience that thrilled them.

And Ian was certainly no exception.

Coco The Clown, Bertram Mills Circus, Olympia, London
Coco The Clown, Bertram Mills Circus, Olympia, London

A Closing Of The Circle – The ‘Circus Ring Of Life’

Much later in his life, in 1980, Ian gave a ‘life-story’ exclusive for the Sunday People news-paper. It is no coincidence that in that piece he acknowledged a very special time in his life. He dressed up as a clown, with make-up that gave reference to the style used by Coco, so that he could be photographed for the article.

If you look closely at the photograph, it appears as if Ian has taken his slip-on leather shoes (his footwear of choice) and turned up the leather tongues to shield his ankles and complete his clown’s outfit. Improvisation, perhaps, brought on by the necessity of the moment. He strikes a pose, standing on his left foot and appears to be holding something between the fingers and thumb of his left hand. We can only guess what it is that he is holding, but it has been suggested that it may be the tears of a clown.

Just like the big ring in the circus, he had finally come full circle to the beginning again. Maybe, in some small way, that felt like ‘going home’.

You can see that picture here:

See:  Ian The Clown


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Further Reading

A detailed account of Ian’s friendship with Coco The Clown and his early encounters with The Bertram Mills Circus is included in the new biography of his life.

Read:  ‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

Send In The Clowns - The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry


Neil Hendry

Editor, The Official Website of Ian Hendry

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2 Responses to “Ian Hendry And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’ – Part 2”

  1. Chris Williams

    Fascinating about Ian’s link with Coco the clown and I’m looking forward to reading about it in detail in Gabriel Hershman’s book.

    That photo of Ian dressed up as a clown is a complete juxtapose to him as Staff Sergeant Williams in The Hill and demonstrates vividly his versatility and diversity as an actor. This is a side of him I knew nothing about and only adds to the enigma that is Ian Hendry. As Staff Williams I think he was in his villainous ‘hard man’ element, and the performance and portrayal of this character should have secured his place as a ‘must have’ in British films and TV. You can’t help but hate the bullying tyrant that Staff Williams is and Ian cranks up the tension in the film to fever pitch, outclassing Sean Connery by a mile despite his worldwide success as Bond. He was so good it should have secured the lead role in Get Carter for instance and possibly the lead in the TV series Callan or similar roles.

    I would have loved to have seen Ian as No.2 in an episode of The Prisoner.

    I’ve got to mention here the scene in McVicar (one of my favourite films) where Ian plays the bent copper. A masterful performance and he completely steals the scene from Billy Murray in seconds. In saying all this I’m getting that feeling again ‘why didn’t we see him on TV more, he’s brilliant’. For me that is what makes his life such a puzzle.

    • Neil Hendry, Editor

      Hi Chris,

      Firstly, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Yes, The Hill is a great film and certainly a ‘hidden gem’. One of my favourites and always enjoy watching Harry Andrews too.

      The McVicar scene is excellent. I only saw it for the first time this year…..wonderful cameo role. For people who haven’t seen it, the link below is for the whole movie, but I have set it to start at the point Ian comes appears (it’s at time 1:26:22 if you need to find it manually):

      Watch => Ian Hendry in McVicar


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