Ian Hendry And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’ – Part 1

Ian Hendry’s Return To School – And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’

When Ian finished his period of National Service in 1951, he returned to work again on ‘civvy’ street. But this time it was  in London, working for a firm of estate agents in Edgware. Whilst there, he had occupied some of his spare time performing with a local amateur dramatics group, but by the end of 1952 he had finally made the decision to change his career path and follow his heart. After a long discussion with his parents in Ipswich, they finally accepted his decision and offered to back him through college.

He applied for a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama, based at that time in rooms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He was accepted and joined the course in January 1953, somewhat later than that years autumn intake students, but he would soon make up for lost time. This stage in Ian’s life is is detailed in the new biography ‘Send in the Clowns – The Yo Yo Life Of Ian Hendry’ by Gabriel Hershman

This decision would completely change the direction of his life from that point on. He was 22 years old, living in a bedsit in London and about to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an actor. His excitement at that point must have been immeasurable. An encounter that was about to happen next, would leave an impression on him that would last a lifetime.

The circus came to town.

Bertram Mills Circus – ‘ The Quality Show’

Bertram Wagstaff Mills (August 1873 – April 16, 1938) was a British circus owner who ran the Bertram Mills Circus. Originally from Paddington, London, his circus became famous in Britain for its Christmas shows at Olympia in West London. The circus occupied the Christmas season at Olympia from 1920 until 1966/ 1967 season, with a brief hiatus for the war years. In 1967, rising costs made it prohibitive for the circus to continue. The end of an era had come and the Bertram Mills Circus finally closed for business.

Elephants play 'Oranges and Lemons' at the Bertram Mills Circus, Olympia.
Elephants play ‘Oranges and Lemons’ at the Bertram Mills Circus, Olympia.

In 1920, however, he was about to oversee the renaissance of the British circus:

“The status in which he was regarded led to a French circus critic describing him as “the renovator of the British circus,” and throughout the British Isles, the show he had created in 1920 had become known asThe Quality Show“—a title it bore proudly until its closure in 1967. Without a shadow of doubt, Mills did indeed prove to be the saviour of the British circus for his generation, and perhaps, the United Kingdom will never see another era in which this form of entertainment was held in such reverence.”

Extract from  Bertram Mills Circus in Circopedia

It [Bertram Mills Circus] very quickly became a household name and the annual Christmas event. He made a point of inviting orphans to see the shows for free. By 1930 (its heyday would last for the next thirty years, when it was without exception the best and most famous live show) he had inaugurated a touring circus which became unique amongst British circuses, always appearing at Olympia for the Christmas season.

The guest lists of the time very clearly indicate the renown of his show. The Royal family (who were great supporters) came every year, Winston Churchill and other similar dignitaries from Britain and abroad were also annual guests.”

Extract from Bertram Mills Circus in Wikipedia

At Olympia, the circus was also organised around a huge funfair, or carnival, with attractions that have included the Plate-Lipped Women from the Congo and the Giraffe-Necked Women from Upper Burma—who were also exhibited with enormous success by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States. Ringling’s famous gorilla, Gargantua, was also a star attraction.

Editor’s Note: For an overview of the circus in Britain in the 20th Century:

Read: Overview of 20th Century Circus – Including Bertram Mills Circus 

Coco The Clown
Coco The Clown

Coco The Clown And The Bertram Mills Circus

Coco, whose real name was Nicolai Poliakoff, was born in Latvia in 1900. His parents worked in the theatre when Nicolai was born, but both lost their jobs a few years later and, in order to survive, Nicolai started busking from the age of five. In 1929 Nicolai, or Coco as he was then called, came to England with his young wife Valentina and began working for Bertram Mills’ Circus.

Technically, Coco is not a clown but an ‘Auguste’; a foolish character on the receiving end of buckets of water and custard pies.

His makeup exaggerates his features, making the eyes and mouth larger and his costume is usually too big and is characterised by braces holding up colourful trousers and extra large shoes.

When the outbreak of the Second World War caused the suspension of the Bertram Mills circus, he worked briefly as a hotel porter, labourer, and a performer in pantomime, before enlisting in the Pioneer Corps, arranging shows at the garrison theatre at Sandwich, Kent. Invalided out of the forces with a damaged lung and arthritis, he was demobilized on 8 August 1941, and then worked for ENSA, performing in various theatres for the troops with his son Michael Polakovs (1923–2009). In 1942 he and his son were engaged for the Blackpool Tower circus Easter and summer programmes, and were joined there in 1943 by his daughter Tamara. They remained in Blackpool for each summer and Easter programme until 1946, often sharing the limelight with the French clowns the Cairolis. During the winter season Coco and his family made appearances at the King’s Hall Christmas circus at Belle Vue, Manchester, or toured with Tom Arnold’s stage circus presentations.”

“In 1947, the year after Bertram Mills circus reopened, Coco and his family returned to Britain’s ‘Quality Show’. He appeared on tour with Mills every summer thereafter until the closure of the touring show in October 1964 and at the Grand Hall, Olympia, London, each winter from 1947–8 until the last Christmas show in the winter of 1966–7. He had become an indispensable member of the Mills’ clown team, working first with his children Michael, Sascha, and Tamara until they left to join Billy Smart’s circus, but also with other members of the Mills clown equipe, including Percy Huxter, Alby Austin, and Jackie Sloan. His name became synonymous with that of the Bertram Mills circus and he quickly became its biggest star attraction in a branch of the entertainment industry that did not normally promote individuals as featured artistes.”

Extracts from  Coco The Clown Mini-Biography

Coco The Clown Olympia London 1
Coco The Clown Olympia London

Ian Hendry Meets Coco The Clown

It is within this context that Ian Hendry first met Coco The Clown.

Ian, had just started studying at the Central School Of Speech And Drama in January 1953. The school, as mentioned previously, was based in rooms at The Royal Albert Hall.

Coco The Clown, was by then well-established with The Bertram Mills Circus and had become a well known celebrity figure in Britain.

During the Christmas season, Bertam Mills Circus occupied some land near to the Royal Albert Hall, where they would keep their temporary accommodation/ caravans, lorries and animals.

It was one day in winter then, that a young impressionable student called Ian Hendry met Coco, Britain’s most famous clown.

Read Part 2 of this article: Ian Hendry And ‘The Circus That Came To Town’ – Part 2 


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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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