Nell Gifford 1973-2019 founder of Giffords Circus

photograph of Nell in Joplin, 2006 (c) Andrew Rees

Nell Gifford grew up in Oxford, before moving aged seven to rural Minety on the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire border. As a child Nell would play for hours with her younger sister Clover, playing on their ponies and dreaming up magical worlds.

“I held the jewel of my childhood up to my eye, and through it I saw ponies and a dressing-up box and a tent, and that was Giffords Circus.” Nell Gifford

Nell ran away with a circus when she was eighteen, travelling to the US to work for Circus Flora and her brother-in-law Gerald Balding and fell instantly in love with this overlooked art form. She read English at New College Oxford and then following her graduation worked on several circuses; Bobby Robert’s, Santus Circus and the Chinese State Circus before joining Circus Roncalli in Germany, but throughout her travels she always kept her dream, remembered from childhood, of starting her own village green circus.

Together Nell and Toti Gifford (Nell’s former husband) realized this dream; spending every penny they had buying a round white tent from the Trade It newspaper, building a maroon and gold showmans’ wagon to live in. They advertised for performers and dancers in The Stage newspaper and held auditions in a dusty little theatre in Cheltenham which is now The Playhouse.

Nell’s vision was a miniature village green circus, that was bursting at the seams with rowdy and raucous audiences, who were entertained daily by a nomadic band of performers engrossed in the serious business of making magic.

Since that start in 2000 Giffords Circus has entertained over a million people, and has worked with some extraordinary circus performers and creative geniuses:– Tweedy the clown; Attila the Hungarian horseman from the Great Hungarian Plain; Ethiopian jugglers and longtime friends of the family Bibi and Bichu; The Donnert Family and their team of jockey riders flipping from horse to horse; Gabor Vosteen who played Mozart on five recorders, three in his mouth, one in each nostril; lovely Liverpudlian Michael Fletcher who stole the show as swinging 70’s ringmaster in Xanadu; the ethereal and inimitable clown Nancy Trotter Landry; Molly Molloy, the choreographer who redefines Burlesque; eccentric dancer Barry Grantham; the amazing Angela de Castro and of course the comedy genius that is Cal McCrystal.

Nell would travel to Cuba, Paris, Moscow, rural Hungary, Romania and beyond in search of talent and people who are prepared to give up their own life, temporarily, and throw in their lot with Nell and bring their mastery of a certain skill to the show.

Gypsy violinists, tap dancers, tight-rope walkers, trapeze artistes, stunt riders, opera singers, magicians, illusionists, gymnasts – all have inhabited Giffords Circus, and travelled with the Giffords family, stopping to set up camp on commons and village greens and welcome local families, farmers, weekenders, tourists, film stars, rock stars, artists, pensioners, shop keepers and school children who all so love our show and who make up our audience.

Nell grew up riding horses, so horses are at the heart Giffords Circus. The compelling relationship of human and horse is something that once experienced is hard to forget or turn away from. Horses inspire each new show and the shows revolve around them. For example the chestnut horses in The Cockerel Show, Red and Rooster, were a starting point for the bright colours and dynamic energy of that production. The pair of Shires who entered the ring with one man riding astride both of them was at the heart of our interpretation of War and Peace in 2011 – they were the undefeatable spirit of the Russian soldier.

Nell Gifford with Red and Cecil in Yasmine 2010

In 2010 Nell had Toti had twins Red and Cecil and they have made regular appearances in Giffords Circus shows since they were just babes in arms. In Xanudu 2019, Red appeared alongside her mother Nell in the ring, performing on horseback. Everything we do at Giffords Circus is for the future of Red and Cecil in loving memory of Nell.

A fellow of Gloucestershire and Hereford University, Nell published five books about circus life and history – Josser: The Secret Life of a Circus Girl, Who was…Philip Astley? The Inventor of the Circus and Giffords Circus: The First Ten Years, and most recently a children’s book  Nell & The Circus of Dreams published by Oxford University Press. Nell also co-wrote a cookery book The Giffords Circus Cook Book, published in March 2020 by Quadrille. Nell was also an accomplished artist and you can find out more about her artwork here.

Nell discovered she had breast cancer in 2015, and in 2019 before she passed away made this poignant film with Gem Hall, sharing her very personal experience of living a creative and inspiring life with cancer.

Despite living with a life limiting disease, Nell continued to live beyond its boundaries. She remained positive and surrounded herself with a team of creative and business professionals that continue to run the family business and carry on Nell’s vision for Giffords Circus, including her niece and circus artist Lil Rice who steps into the role of Producer.

“I've learned in circus if you want to learn something, you have to practice it every day. That's such a simple thing, actually repeating something to achieve something... if you repeat it enough times you will get better at it. You'll grow with it and you'll start to embody your medium.”

Nell Gifford 2019
The show Book tickets
(c) Tom Pilston


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