Circuses Facing Shortage of Tightrope Walkers

Christopher Hope, Telegraph (London), March 2, 2009

Big top performers have been subject to a new points based system which was introduced at end of November to crack down on illegal immigration.

But circus ringmasters will tell MPs that problems with the computer software and poor awareness among British embassy staff is causing delays ahead of the busy circus season.

Around half of the 500 circus performers who come to the UK every year need new short term visas, lasting a few months, because they are coming from outside the European Union.

However, teething problems mean that circuses are running short of some performers from outside the European Union.

The worst hit acts are likely to be horse riders flying trapeze artists, acrobats and tightrope or high wire troupes which traditionally come from South America and Russia.

The issue will be raised in front of MPs on the Commons’ home affairs select committee.

Martin Lacey, owner of the Great British Circus, said that he had to draft in emergency performers at short notice because of the problems.

He said: “We have got clowns in the Ukraine who cannot come to work. I have got Mongolian riders stuck in Ulan Batur and the British embassy is being most unhelpful.

“The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. I have got a clown who is using a flying trapeze artist as his stooge because his stooge is stranded in Mexico. It is a mess.”

Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, said: “The introduction of the new system has been rushed through–and the technology cannot cope.

It was too early to say how badly the delays would affect the circus season, which reaches its peak just before Easter.

He said: “We don’t know how long the applications are going to take.

“We are finding that British embassies around the world who receive the applications do not understand the system and we are getting knocked back.”

The association said internet software used for the new system was also not set up properly to deal with large troupes of performers, and was aimed at individual applicants.

Mr Clay said: “A lot of it is being done online but it is not as good as it could be. No one had a trial run. It should not have been rushed like this.”

Part of the problem was that performers had to leave their passports with a local British embassy for up to two weeks.

This hardly suited the lifestyle of performers who are rarely on one place for more than a week.

He said: “We are dealing with people who are constantly on tour. At some stage they have to leave their passports. If they are on tour they have to go back to retrieve them.”

British circuses are forced to rely heavily on foreign talent because of a tradition of foreign state circuses supplying tumblers, high wire acts, acrobats and trapeze artists.

He said: “The people who go to the circus schools in Britain want to learn the skills as a hobby but not as a career. They want to perform occasionally at the weekend.

“We get a lot of acts from eastern European countries, China and Mongolia where they have a long standing tradition of state circus schools.”

Mr Clay said the new system was an improvement on the old scheme, which could involve a Mexican troupe in Italy having to fly back to their central America to apply for a British visa.

The new system also allows registered circus owners to vouchsafe for the stature of performers coming to the UK. Previously the performers had to prove their international standing.

A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “We welcome the contribution of performers but it is important that everyone who comes to this country plays by the same rules.

“We are determined to deliver a system of border security which is among the most secure in the world.

“That is why we have introduced the new points based system–part of the biggest shake up to the immigration system in a generation.

“It is a fair, transparent and objective system that will enable potential migrants to assess their likelihood of making a successful application.”


Foreign actors, singers and dancers, along with other workers from outside the European Union, have been subject to a new points-based system which was introduced at the end of November to crack down on illegal immigration.

Officials from the Royal Opera House told MPs that performances in Covent Garden might be cancelled because of problems getting border clearance for famous stars who are drafted in from overseas at short notice.

The problems arose once a year when a principal singer or dancer star was struck down with an illness and a replacement has to be found from overseas.

Ruth Jarratt, the company’s director of policy development, said: “You have got to find someone who knows the repertoire and has sufficient standing on the Covent Garden stage–and be free at the time.

MPs on the Home Affairs select committee were told that obtaining new “biometric” passports was too long to react in time–10 days, compared with just 24 hours under the old system.

This meant that performances were now more likely to be cancelled if a star fell ill. Ms Jarratt said: “If you cannot get someone in time, you cannot put the show on with someone who is not good enough. It is going to be very difficult to get artists into the country at short notice.”

Previously the Royal Opera House has relied on high level help from the Home Secretary to ensure that the show can go on at Covent Garden The last emergency came in January last year when Anna Netrebko, one of the world’s greatest opera stars, was struck down with a bronchial condition during a run of shows when she was playing the role of Violetta in La Traviata.

Ms Jarratt said: “Netrebko had received outstanding reviews and the replacement needed to deliver a performance that would not disappoint an audience who had in large part booked specifically to hear her.

“The Albanian Ermonela Jaho had the right artistic credentials and was reported by her agent to have an Italian passport but it transpired that she merely had Italian residency.

“High level Home Office help made it possible to resolve the issue, otherwise the performance would have to be cancelled and around £200,000 worth of tickets refunded. This pragmatic action would not be possible under the new system.”

Some years earlier, Ms Jarratt said Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, had personally intervened when a lead singer in the opera Boris Godunov cancelled on the morning of a performance.

She said: “Most singers who know the role and are sufficiently distinguished in it are Russian. At the time prompt action at the Home Office meant that the Royal Opera House were able to secure a work permit in time for the substitute to make his entrance on cue.”

Talks were ongoing with the UK Borders Agency, part of the Home Office, about how to deal with a future emergency, she said.

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