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Carol Gandey, circus director: Gandeys Circus and Gandey World Class Productions


An inteview by The Widow Stanton

Circus director Carol Gandey – of Gandeys Circus – was The Widow’s 2020 Person of the Year, chosen for her for sterling efforts to keep touring circus as a viable artform in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic, and also for the inspirational work she undertook in securing a large grant from the Arts Recovery Fund with what it termed an “exceptional” application. She has worked in what is a male-dominated industry for 45 years. Carol chats to Liz Arratoon about the problems Gandeys faced last year during the lockdown, and its plans for 2021.

The Widow Stanton: Which shows did you have running or in the pipeline?
Carol Gandey: Gandeys had produced three shows pre-lockdown – we had shows in Hong Kong and Singapore, but in December 2019 word was filtering in about Wuhan. Hong Kong closed early because of it. The third show, Gandeys Circus Unbelievable Tour, started touring in the UK in February and was closed two weeks later. The costs of these closures were substantial. At that time we also had Circus Starr in the UK, Gandeys in Malaysia and the theatre and cabaret tour of the UK with the Lady Boys of Bangkok in pre-production. These shows were never opened.


How did the virus most affect you?

2020 was a challenging year for everyone within circus all over the world. Anxiety over loved ones catching the disease – families could be anywhere worldwide when tours were cancelled – was utmost in people’s minds. Our tour in Hong Kong was cut short and lost money. We had to bring artists and equipment back to the UK, and repatriate overseas artists, all of which was challenging.

Production costs and losses ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds. In addition we refunded tens of thousands of pounds in advance ticket sales. Artists were stranded in the UK as flights home were cancelled and borders closed. They had no redress to public funds and so no income. Suppliers who were owed money included local authorities, who were owed rent for sites agreed for 2020. But we were grateful for the help given by the government for the furlough of PAYE staff and the local authority money for rated premises.


What happened to the artists who couldn’t get home?
I’m fortunate to live in the countryside, and Phillip [Gandey] and I were able to provide accommodation, electricity and living expenses for them. Thirty-three people lived with us from March until July. They were exceptional, taking the lockdown very seriously and restricting visits to the ‘outside world’. They concentrated on rehearsing and practising new skills. We erected a tent in the fields with an outside trapeze rig. The weather was great and they made the best of their confinement. I would say that given the circumstances this was a happy time; not one they would have hoped for but they were amazingly good natured and positive.

How did you begin to consider the logistics of reopening your shows?
We felt we were in a unique position to be in the vanguard of reopening events and so closely followed the science around the transmission of Covid and produced air-flow plans to submit to the Association of Circus Proprietors and the government. We worked alongside Butlins to produce a working model to allow the circus to trial an opening at its resort in Skegness. The test showed an air-flow pattern that gave the government the confidence to allow circus to open in reduced-seating-capacity circumstances. This meant we could engage our artists and others in the UK to perform at Butlins’ three resorts over the summer.


The government took a very long time to help the arts in general. Did you have a plan?

Throughout this period I was lobbying the government and the Arts Council, and anyone on an email list, to support circus as a relevant artform that provides quality skills in performance, social and economic benefits along with a lot more. I had been collecting and collating statistics on this for some time to be able to produce fact sheets to support my claims. Other industry people had been simultaneously lobbying.

We were thrilled to see circus included in the Arts Council Recovery Fund. I applied for Gandey Productions for a grant to cover the losses incurred during 2020 due to the Covid lockdown, plus a survival package to include some performances last autumn at reduced capacity, and the production costs for opening again this year.


Gandeys was awarded the biggest grant – £1.1million – of any UK circus company. Why do your think application stood out?

I imagine because we are the largest operator in the UK and produce shows for export. We had invested heavily in productions pre-Covid and had commitments to third parties moving forward that benefitted the artform and many communities. We have a commitment to affordable ticket pricing and supporting social projects alongside fundraising for local and national charities. Further, and importantly for an Arts Council Fund, we produce to a very high standard, our artists are internationally acclaimed and our production values are significant.

What does this recognition mean for the circus industry?
I believe the support of circus by the Arts Council is a dynamic and profound change in funding that will bring circus as a performing art closer to the mainstream public in the UK. Circus is possibly the most accessible artform to the wider population geographically, socially and financially.


How might Brexit affect the industry?

Who knows yet? There is still a lot of small print to be reviewed, and however it works there will be more bureaucracy and uncertainty. Additional issues for artists will be the import and export of props and vehicles and the rules around members of the EU driving in the UK, which will impact on them travelling with their own vehicles and caravans. In addition there will be changes to insurances and health cover, and not forgetting the changes to the exchange rate due to Brexit. We are uncertain of those consequences after a period of relative stability.

Artists looking at these barriers may decide the paperwork and risks are too complicated and prefer to stay in Europe. All this will cost more and ultimately reflect on the ticket price. This is always a worry for touring circus in the UK as it tries hard to be an affordable form of art. Yet another issue for us is that we operate annually in Belfast and are expecting some challenges working there as different rules will apply even though it is part of the United Kingdom.

We have factored Brexit into our strategy for 2021 and beyond. We cannot stress the financial difficulties and the maintaining of a high level of morale over this period. However, we are resilient and we will keep looking forward in positive ways. And when I say we, I mean the whole team here at Gandeys, which includes our office staff, financial support, engineering and technical teams, production teams to include lighting designer, choreographer, music production, set and prop designers, and all the artists who have been so supportive with their attitudes and ideas.


What can you tell us about your plans for 2021?
We have taken this time of closure to look forward to this coming year; to reimagine our productions, researching acts and skills and production techniques, and to consider and test new ways of working; logistically, digitally and financially. We intend to continue to communicate with our circus audiences, to improve training, safety and security and Covid measures, and to review and re-target our environmental and social policies and charitable work.

We are a flexible organisation and will respond to the Covid directives of the government as best suited to our company and our audiences, always with the safety of others at the core of our operations.

See Gandeys Circus website and Facebook

for more posts, articles and interviews from The Widow Stanton visit www.thewidowstanton.com


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