The Teens Keeping the Circus Alive in a Dying Town

We spoke to photographer Nick Warner about the necessity of the town's greatest pride.

by Joe Bish
Mar 1 2017, 4:13pm

Top photo by Roni, Liv, and Becky. All photos by Nick Warner

For 15 years, Nick Warner has been documenting the lives of the people working at the Hippodrome Circus in his hometown of Great Yarmouth, England. Opened in 1903, it's the only circus building left in the UK still being used for its original purpose, and it's become something of a local rite of passage for teenagers to train there for shows during the summer.

We had a chat with Warner about the importance of the circus to the people of Great Yarmouth and the continual cultural impact it has.

VICE: Can you tell me about the circus building? I don't think I've ever come across that before as a concept. I always thought circuses were roving tents.
Nick Warner: Yeah, it's pretty crazy actually—that it's there, and no one really knows about it. It's an 800 seater, and it's owned by my best friend from school. It's been in their family for three generations, so I sort of grew up spending my time there. All my friends and I did, so we knew it quite intricately. It's a pretty insane building—the ring itself is like a wooden-floored ring, as you might imagine, and underneath the ring is a pool of water. Halfway through the show the ring drops to the water so that the whole thing becomes a swimming pool. I think it's one of three in the world that do that. It's a really crazy place, and it's just one row back from the seafront in Great Yarmouth, which is my hometown. It's a huge deal in that part of Norfolk, but outside of that, people just don't know it's there.

Is this like a Saturday job for the teenagers you photographed, or are they fully engrossed in it?
They do four [seasons of] shows a year now at the Hippodrome, up from two. So they have a summer show and a Christmas show, and they have an Easter and a Halloween show. Yarmouth is like Blackpool—a holiday town. For a large part, in regards to the younger guys who work there, they're not in school or college while they're working. It's pretty intense—two shows a day, seven days a week. And the summer show is, I think, about 12 weeks they're on it. It's a really immersive job. The Halloween show, for example, is much shorter—it's like ten days or something.

How long do they have to train for each performance?
I mostly shoot the dancers. They all work with a choreographer that's based there, and I think they're probably a month or a couple of months in rehearsal. They're at each show from inception to opening, with two months for the actual rehearsals. But obviously it's much longer than that in the making. I actually spoke to Jack [Jay, the venue owner] today, and they're putting the groundwork in for the summer show, which starts in June. But they've got to do—between now and then—the Easter show, which requires planning and choreographing and stuff like that. So it's a full-time operation—any time there's not a show on there they're training and prepping for the next show.

It sounds a bit like quite an outlandish youth center in a way—taking people in and teaching them something that isn't drinking beer in a park or smoking 40 cigarettes up in a tree.
I think it very much is something that local people are quite proud of and quite drawn to. It's amazing, because while the circus on the whole is just dying on its ass, somehow in Yarmouth this show is flourishing. Since Jack took over, we've gone from two shows a year to four shows a year. They're sinking a lot of money into more ambitious set design and stuff like that. And very few people from outside of Norfolk come to see the show. It's the same people going every year because it's this community effort to support it and see it flourish. Part of that is because so many young people are going through there, and there's a great prospect for people who are working. There are a couple of guys a bit younger than me who grew up at the circus here as well and have gone to London and studied at the Circus Space, which is now called the National Centre for Circus Arts in Hackney. And they're now going on to the world-class circus performance.

"Yarmouth as a town is worse than it's ever been. But somehow, at the circus specifically, business is booming."

It sounds like it's almost a community safe haven in a way, somewhere you can go and have a chance at doing something that isn't depressing when you're living in a dying seaside town.
Exactly. I don't know what the demographic is specifically within the town itself, but there's a very large migrant community in Yarmouth, so there are a lot of Eastern Europeans and Europeans coming in, and they have their own circus culture. It's mad, because the cost of putting on something like that isn't cheap, and, like everywhere else, tickets aren't that cheap. For what you're getting, it's good, but tickets can be £12 [$15], £15 [$18], £18 [$22], maybe £20 [$25] sometimes—and yet people are going, in Yarmouth. People who've got very little will go because it's important to them that it keeps going.

It must be one of the biggest attractions there, right?
Yarmouth as a town is worse than it's ever been. You go along the seafront, and you walk through the town center... compared to what it was like when I grew up there, it's way worse. Sixty to 70 percent of the shops are boarded up. There's no one there. People go to Norwich if they need to shop, or if they want to go out. The golden mile, which is the seafront, down where the circus is, where all the arcades and all the tiny sort of beach stuff is—a lot of that is closed down. But somehow, at the circus specifically, business is booming. I don't know if you ever appreciate how big of a deal that is—that it's selling out loads, all seasons, in Yarmouth. There are loads of shows in London that aren't selling out, ever.

See more photos below.

Liv and Miles


Miles and Roni



Roni, Becky, and Tonie


Liv and Tonie


Photographs: @nick_fotograph
Make up: @meglindow
Production: @natachalacey

Follow Joe Bish on Twitter.