Andrew Lewis pays tribute to a circus industry legend who sadly passed away at the end of last year.
The passing of Phillip Gandey (Phillip George Briggs) on Tuesday 12 December at the age of just 67 rocked the circus world.
Phillip, together with wife Carol and their artistes and staff, built the Gandey’s Circus brand from a single-pole Big Top show into an international company, which staged productions all over the UK, the Far East, mainland Europe and the Middle East.
Packed with a wealth of top artistes, their shows were often dubbed ‘ahead of their time’ due to their creative staging, production ideas and music and lighting, with many circuses following their trend.
Britain’s youngest circus director
Phillip Gandey grew up with his father’s show, a single-pole Big Top touring show which presented traditional family circus entertainment in the North West and Midlands. Tenting during the summer season, the show often provided acts to theatre pantomimes in the winter.
In 1973 Phillip’s father, Joe, died suddenly whilst the show was touring in Scotland, leaving Phillip to become the youngest circus director in Britain at the age of just 17. Together with his mother Mary, Phillip ran the circus for the remainder of that season, and the following year entered into a single season partnership with Alun Davies. Alun had a very good dog act, and the show was billed as Davies and Gandey’s Circus.
As the 1970s progressed, so did Gandey’s Circus, with the show steadily increasing in size and bringing in much bigger acts. Martin Lacey and his group of male African lions joined the show, as did animals from Mary Chipperfield, including an elephant.
There were still regular house acts alongside the bigger stars of the sawdust ring, such as Royalle’s Dogs, the Brett Montana western act and Starr the clown. Brett Montana and Starr were both the alter egos of Phillip.
Through the 1980s and 90s the circus continued to expand, moving from the single-pole Big Top to larger and more modern Big Tops as time went on. The company also expanded into Big Top and seating hire, providing acts, animals and equipment for TV and film work. Gandey’s Circus was on the rise, and this led to the company creating additional units, sometimes on tour and sometimes as a static second unit.
At Christmas the circus appeared in numerous indoor venues across the UK, and there were eight winter productions under the Royalles Circus Spectacular title at the Worthing Pavilion Theatre, as well as a one-off production alongside Irvin’s funfair at the London Docklands Arena. Gandey’s also often tented over the festive period, and to date is the only UK circus to stage a show in Madeira.
Additional shows such as International Big Top Circus, Circus Starr, Moscow Circus on Ice, Circus USA and Cirque Surreal were added to the portfolio in the 1990s. With the final appearances of Gandey’s Circus with animals during the 1994 season, the company began to concentrate on other shows and productions both at home and abroad. In 1999 Phillip made history by taking the first ever circus to Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese State Circus continued to be hugely successful for the company for several years, along with Cirque Surreal and Gandey’s Big TV Circus show, featuring numerous acts that had appeared on TV. Phillip appeared as a judge on two series of the TV show Cirque de Celebrite (2006 and 2007).
In 2005 Phillip and Carol Gandey, together with Robert and Nikki Fossett, launched the big equestrian theatre show, Spirit of the Horse, which toured for several seasons both in the UK and abroad. However, one of the biggest successes for the company, both in the theatres and at the Edinburgh Festival, is the hit cabaret show ‘The Ladyboys of Bangkok’.
The show goes on
In more recent times Gandey’s Circus has returned to the road, to great acclaim. For 12 years now the company have supplied Big Top shows to Butlin’s Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness resorts, gaining new audiences and another way of promoting quality circus and the Gandey brand. They have also featured in numerous TV programmes.
Gandey’s has also won a number of awards, not only for individual acts within the show but for Gandey’s Circus itself, which won the CFA Award for Best Circus with Animals several times.
Due to his successes within the industry, Phillip was invited to appear as a judge at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, the circus world’s biggest festival. In September 2021, Phillip and Carol were presented with the CFA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Phillip met his wife Carol Ann Stevens when she came to Gandey’s Circus, then a small outfit, as part of her business degree. After completing her studies, Carol stayed with the circus and the couple married in November 1980.
She went on to play an active part within the circus programme, presenting horses and dogs in addition to appearing as a Ringmistress. Together, Phillip and Carol worked hard to bring Gandey’s to the forefront of British tenting circuses, achieving that with some style.
The couple had three children, Hayley, Mariska and Coral. Both Hayley and Mariska continue to play an active part in the circus today, whilst Coral has settled outside of the circus business.
The funeral service for Phillip Gandey took place at St Oswald’s Church, Brereton, on Thursday 21 December, 2023.