Preview: The Happiness Machine

25 09 2012

Celebrating the 20th birthday of The Invisible Circus, The Happiness Machine comes to the Big Top @ Creative Common for what promises to be a spectacular new theatrical circus show from the team best known in Bristol for putting on the incomparable Carny Ville.

The Invisible Circus promise their biggest and boldest show yet, with an ensemble cast of performers, actors and musicians “and an insatiable appetite for adventure”.

Creative Director Doug Francis says: “This year is the 20th anniversary of The Invisible Circus and bringing such a big troupe of amazing people together for the devising and creation of The Happiness Machine is the perfect celebration.”

The Happiness Machine, from October 4-21, will be the final event of the year to take place at the Big Top, which in its debut season has seen everything from Damon Albarn leading dozens of musicians off a train for Africa Express, to a cross-dressing Finnish zombie band playing a live score to a 1924 silent film about Martians.

For more info, visit

Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal

25 01 2011

Naomi Smyth started as a spectator when the Invisible Circus squatted the old Audi garage on Cheltenham Road, a few minutes walk from her home in Montpelier. She then became an observer, filming the group for the first time when they received their eviction notice on September 29, 2006 and following them until September 2009. While still filming, she became an active participant in one of the most vibrant artistic communities in Bristol. Was the bejeezus scared out of you in the Haunted House at last year’s Carny Ville? That was Naomi’s doing.

Naomi has now turned more than 300 hours of footage into a feature-length documentary which will have its world premiere at the Cube on February 5.

The film, Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal, is a behind-the-scenes look at the Invisible Circus as they faced eviction after eviction before finding legal homes at the Pro-Cathedral in Clifton and then at the former fire and police station and courts complex in Bridewell.

“I wanted to tell the story of something that was very grass roots and ad-hoc,” Naomi told us over a soya milk coffee in Cafe Kino. “It is about building something established, licensed to manage a building that could be signed off by health and safety.

“It was about the challenge of setting a price for tickets, getting reviews, all that stuff and how that was going to happen, especially with the mix of crew that there was.”

Naomi went from being on the periphery of that crew to at its creative centre. When not filming, she was part of the discussions about how closely a group founded by squatters could work closely with property developers.

The film features footage from the huge Carny Ville shows and everything that happened for those shows and more to be made. There are also interviews with the Invisible Circus and Artspace Lifespace members, as well as Jonathan Brecknell from Hotwells-based Urban Creation, the owners of the Pro-Cathedral, which remains empty.

Naomi’s film is a look at one of the most exciting stories to happen in Bristol in recent years and she was in a unique position to document Invisible Circus supremo Doug Francis and his cohorts as they let their imaginations run riot.

“There are some things from the early days that I wish I had filmed, or pressed people more in the first place,” Naomi says wistfully. “But in terms of the editing, it was mostly a relief to get rid of things.”

After its premiere, Naomi (left) will look for a venue in Bristol to screen the film on a short run, and also send it to European documentary film festivals.

She has got an idea for her next project, about the breakdown of our civilisation, but that is still in its infancy.

For now, Naomi is looking forward to seeing people’s reaction to No Dress Rehearsal at the premiere.

“I feel so proud to have been part of all of this,” Naomi says. “I was inspired to make the film in the first place by the way back at the beginning the circus reinvigorated in me what I love about live performance.

“The people in the film have been the most patient. They knew first that I was making the film and they had the longest wait for me to get it finished. I think they like it.”

On the night of the world premiere of Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal at the Cube on Saturday, February 5, there will be walkabout performances from 7pm.

The film begins at 8pm. Afterwards, there will be a Q&A with Naomi and the Invisible Circus’ Doug Francis. Music will be provided by The Triangulators and DJ Jules.

Tickets cost £7 and £5 concessions. For more information and to watch the trailer, visit

Preview: Joseph, Christ’s Super Step Dad

17 12 2010

A Nativity for non-believers is taking place at the Old Fire Station next week. Joseph, Christ’s Super Step Dad will feature a cast and crew made up of Invisible Circus regulars, including ringmaster Doug Francis as Father Christmas. Other characters include the Pope, Easter Bunny and Voice of God.

Joseph, Christ’s Super Step Dad is written and directed by Dave Lovatt, produced by Katie Dunn, with music from David Taylor (best known for his Pip’s Jukebox at Carny Ville) who also plays Joseph..

The show takes place at the Old Fire Station on December 20, 21 and 22. Tickets cost £10 or £8 and are available from the Bristol Ticket Shop.

Review: Carny Ville 2010

4 10 2010

You have to expect the unexpected at Carny Ville, but what I was not expecting was shitting glitter for days afterwards. That’s what happens when you’re drinking scrumpy next to an erupting glitter gun and are having too much fun to sieve through the pint glass for its sparkly new contents.

A doubt still remains over whether this is the last time the sprawling former police, fire and court complex on Silver Street in Bristol city centre can play host to Carny Ville, its annual extravaganza of the spectacular and bizarre.

But if this is indeed its last hurrah, boy have they gone out with an almighty glitter gun-style bang.

At Carny Ville, you leave your sanity at the door and expect the unexpected.

Hosted by The Invisible Circus, it is a dazzling array of street performance, art, circus skills, music and haunted house.

But that barely sums it up, because the joy of Carny Ville is wandering around the site and coming across gloriously unexpected delights, sometimes finding them by mistake.

There was Pip’s Jukebox, a man in a box playing requests on his guitar in a bluegrass style; the Micro-Arcade, a voice-controlled human arcade machine; and the Photo Booth, a Victorian parlour where this reviewer was served champagne cocktails by a waitress dressed as a lamp shade.

As usual, Carny Ville’s paying guests had made an almighty effort to match if not better the costumes of the performers. Human cats mixed with sailors as four tracksuited hoodlums were plucked from the theatre area by trolly dollies the Sleazy Jets and transformed into orange hot pant-clad gymnasts.

All around and above our heads in the central courtyard, performers juggled fire, walked on a tightrope licking with flames, danced synchronised routines dangling from wires (left) and hula-hooped to their hearts content in a magnificently choreographed routine.

It was difficult to know where to look, as Invisible Circus ring master Doug Fransisco roared his approval and the Carny Villains band struck up some rumbustious tunes.

Carny Ville is an extraordinarily diverse festival showcasing and celebrating all that Bristol’s creative scenes do best.

If they do need a new home after this year’s event, Bristol should bend over backwards to allow them to remain in our city. Let the glitz, the glamour and the glitter continue.

Carny Ville returns for one last time from October 7-10. Visit for more information.

Thanks to Spencer Dixey for the photographs.

Preview: Carny Ville 2010

22 09 2010

How to describe Carny Ville, the awesome spectacle that returns to the Bridewell Island in Bristol city centre for possibly one last time next month? Let’s leave the explanation to Doug Francisco, ring master extraordinaire and the lead creative genius behind this astonishing production.

“Carny Ville is a multifaceted pan dimensional interactive wonderland, a free fall high dive entertainment joy ride, a carnival of life, a celebration of freedom, a night like no other,” Doug explains with typical lack of hyperbole.

Will there be any surprises this year, Doug? “That would ruin the surprise! But welcome to Carny World, the future future theme park version of the glory that once was, spectacular daredevil aerial feats and dazzling circus skills, fire and fenzy, passion and splendor, bizzare rituals, unnatural acts, performed live on stage!”

Carny Ville truly has to be seen, to be experienced to be believed. Its incarnation last year it was without doubt one of our highlights of 2009 (read all about it here) and next month’s show, which runs from October 1st to 3rd and 7th to 10th, promises to be bigger and better than ever before.

Immerse yourself into a fantastical world of wonder, with fire-belching lamp posts, bearded ladies and a whole host of colourful characters walking among you, appearing on stage and performing high above you.

According to Doug (who can be seen hanging above the crowd in the photo above), Carny Ville is “a collective vision, a shared dream”, where around 30 people come together and agree the theme and arc of a story before people pick up and run with each element.

“It’s a magical process,” he says. “Alchemists boil down cutlery and produce gold, druids chant and trance for visions of what will be, no one is really sure how it happens, it just magically comes together, usually at the last minute.”

There is a chance that this forthcoming Carny Ville may be its last hurrah. The former police station and fire station complex that the Invisible Circus inhabit is due to be turned into the headquarters of the My Place youth project.

But with the economy as it is, and government spending cuts on the horizon, there is real doubt whether the imposing space will be redeveloped any time soon.

Since their arrival at the Island from the Pro-Cathedral in Clifton, however, it has been a memorable journey.

Doug says: “It has been a real journey for all involved. Carny Villes have certainly been a real high, bringing something so big and spectacular to life in the middle of a city centre is a real victory for creativity over commercialism.

“We are looking at a variety of options (for the future) though nothing is confirmed. We have broken even with the Artspace Lifespace project here at the Island. Although this is  a victory in many ways, we are assured we have to take into account the thousands of volunteer hours it has taken to make it happen.

“It has been exhausting and deeply challenging as well as uplifting and fulfilling. It would be good if the powers that be, or the great and the good – if they are indeed out there – would get together and support us a bit more whole heartedly. We have a lot of energy and enthusiasm about what is possible but we only have so much to pour into such big projects and not be able to support our crew in return.

“It would be nice of some doors would open and some spaces be offered. We have an amazing community of people here in our project and in the wider Bristol community. We could do so much, but it often feels like we are treading water and ultimately you can ony do that for so long.

“We have given our all for the past five years, if Bristol wants us it should make some efforts to keep us, we have really only just scratched the surface.”

Carny Ville takes place at the Old Fire Station, Silver Street, between October 1st and 3rd, and 7th and 10th. Tickets cost £20 and £15 concessions and are available from Bristol Ticket Shop. Telephone 0117 929 9008.

For more information, visit

Highlights of 2009 III: Carny Ville

30 12 2009

As people queued around the block to get into this year’s Carny Ville at the former Bridewell police and fire station, passers-by appeared flummoxed. Many of those in the queue were as extravagantly dressed as the people they were about to see, with the instruction to come in Victorian costume followed by most of the crowd.

There were handlebar moustaches at every turn, top hats, corsets and basques. And as these ragtag characters waited patiently in line to be allowed in to the Island, they were entertained by jugglers, skaters and two young children dressed as tigers being pushed around in a pram with a cage on top.

Once inside, Victorian lampposts spouted fire, a bearded lady entertained the crowd from a makeshift stage, a large man in a red dress was on DJ duty, and old-fashioned funfair games with a twist provided welcome relief, that’s if you wanted to play ping pong against the devil or knock over dismembered heads in the coconut shy.

This was just what was taking place outside, in an area that once upon a time was where police cars parked and firemen trained for duty.

Now, out of one of the windows of the tower at the centre of the Island, an accordian player serenaded the crowd below; and nearby two acrobats first used two pieces of silk suspended 30ft up to perform a choreographed dance in the air, and then grew gasps with a death-defying trapeze routine.

Inside, everywhere you looked there was something new to make you laugh, smile or do a double take. Doug Francis and his cohorts from Artspace Lifespace and the Invisible Circus had done a quite fantastic job, with Doug reprising his role as ringmaster at the indoor circus with aplomb.

Elsewhere, characters mingled with the crowd – jesters, dancers, singers, acrobats and a priest reading a sermon from a travelling wooden pulpit.

There was also Pip’s Jukebox, a small box inside which Pip on his guitar could play any song you requested, as long as you didn’t mind it played in a country and western style. Two particular favourites were his takes on Mark Morrison and Jurassic 5.

Carny Ville attracted more than one thousand people to the Island during its four days in May, and has to be one of the most visually spectacular, bizarre and fantastical events that Bristol has ever seen.