Carrying on Nell Gifford's Legacy

  • Lil Rice
  • Giffords Tent 2018
  • Nell Gifford
  • Ringmaster and Michael Fletcher

Lil Rice’s life changed forever when she wrote to her aunt, Ringmistress Nell Gifford, asking for a job at the Circus.

Carrying on Nell Gifford’s Legacy: Nell’s Niece, Producer Lil Rice, on The Hooley

Lil Rice’s life changed forever when she wrote to her aunt, Ringmistress Nell Gifford, asking for a job at the Circus.

Lil talks to us ahead of Giffords’ 20th anniversary show, The Hooley — a Celtic-themed knees-up that will celebrate Nell’s life and work.

When did you get your start in circus life?

Way back, before the War and Peace tour in 2011. I was looking for a job and felt really uninspired by the Philosophy & Theology course I was doing up in Glasgow, so I wrote to Nell and told her I’d do whatever was needed. She invited me to come and stay and I assisted Nell during her planning for the show.

During the tour there was a brilliant hand-balancer named Pat Bradford — I think he came from a sixth or seventh generation Belgian circus family — who did an amazing tap-dancing, hand-balancing act. I asked him to teach me some circus; a bit of splits, some aerial… I worked with Pat after the shows every day for six months and then Nell persuaded me to apply for a circus school in London, which I didn’t even know existed. So it was all through Nell.

Everybody who went to Xanadu in 2019 will remember your unique act –

spinning around in a cyr wheel while somehow singing at the same time! Did you develop this act during your time in London?

Yes! I’ve always been able to sing, and the thing I always wanted to do in the circus, next to the circus discipline, was sing. You do see people in cyr wheels, but nobody was doing it while singing, so I decided to make that my discipline.

I spent the first two years learning the wheel, every day, for five or six hours a day, alongside flexibility, ballet and acrobatics. In my last year I had vocal coach lessons for two terms, working on breathing techniques for arching and stretching, learning how to keep my voice steady…

You’re now Producer at Giffords Circus. What sort of responsibilities have you taken on?

A lot of my responsibilities are things that Nell and I had been discussing over the last few years. When Nell got her second diagnosis in Spring 2018, she asked if I could shadow her. Most of the responsibilities are creative: keeping the look and the feel of Giffords going, the beautiful wagons, the way we go out on the road, the sign-writing…

In the everyday, I’m running the office, keeping my ear to the ground, making sure that everyone’s happy, knowing what’s going on, and working closely with Cal McCrystal, our incredible director. He’s now got the very sad job of doing it without Nellie.

2020 will be a very significant year for Giffords Circus — it’s the 20th anniversary, and also the last show Nell produced. What is the atmosphere like right now?

It’s really mixed. There’s a huge sadness that we all feel daily. But Nellie was a real trouper and a firm believer that the show must go on. So everybody is trying their best to keep that feeling.

The biggest thing I’ll be doing this year to keep Nell in the show is taking over the horse team, so I’m learning a new horseback act this year. And that’s something that’s going to be very new to me!

Everybody’s keeping Nellie in their hearts in very different ways — whether it’s through the acts we pick or in the through-line we keep going.

When do the first ideas for a show begin to emerge?

Cal and Nell would have started talking about their ideas by the end of January; sometimes, they’d pick up an idea they’d had four or five years ago that didn’t feel quite right at the time.

By July/August, the production team — basically Nell and Cal — would come up with the theme, and later on the name. That happened by the end of the tour, but it wouldn’t be announced until the next year.

Without going into spoilers, what can circus goers expect from The Hooley?

It’s a big Celtic party! That’s as far as I can go… but Cal always manages to create something completely magical. This year will be a tribute to Nell in all sorts of ways — we’ll be bringing the joy.

The fantastic illustrated map Giffords sent out caused a big splash in the Cotswolds. Will we see more of these lovely things in the future?

Last year, Nell hired a brilliant man named Joe Avery to run the art department; the map was his and Nell’s creation. Since then, Joe’s put out two great fliers. He spent a lot of time with Nell in the last few months, helping her with her big body of work for the February exhibition in London. He’s going to carry on with those ideas. Expect to see more beautiful artwork.

What is your favourite Giffords memory to date?

For me, it would have to be Nell’s act last year, when she rode with her daughter Red to The Kinks’ song Days. That song was first used years ago, in the 2008 or 2006 show; I also sang it at Nell’s funeral. Red will be the one carrying on the ‘family name’ after me. So yes, that would have to be my top memory.

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