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23 août 2007

A high-wire act

Gerry Cottle, showman and former circus impresario, and his PA, Louise Prior


Gerry sold his final circus interests four years ago to buy Wookey Hole in Somerset, where visitors explore haunted caves, see a working paper mill, eat in the Big Top restaurant and can enjoy a show put on by graduates of Gerry’s new circus school. In all of this, he is helped by Louise Prior, who is operations and events manager “and Gerry’s PA in my spare time”.

Formerly a special needs teacher, she went to university as a mature student and fell into events management by accident: “I went on holiday to Zimbabwe and met some wonderful singers. I thought British people should hear them, so arranged a tour.” She worked at the Glastonbury Festival, Womad and the Eden Project, before going to Wookey Hole after Gerry bought it.

Would she have taken the job if she had known of his past? “He’s very open about his life and we’ve all done things we shouldn’t have,” she says. “I read his book in draft and it sums up his drive, vision and energy. He’s very hands-on, as am I. We get 250,000 visitors a year and there’s always a lot to do. We’ll both clear tables and pick up litter. I always get in to work before Gerry and have 45 minutes to myself. When he arrives, we go through the post and e-mails, which I have to print out as Gerry doesn’t do computers. He hand-writes everything and I’m one of only a few who can read his writing. Gerry always has projects on the go, like his circus school. It has 400 seats and trained 50 local children at Easter to juggle, ride unicycles and do low-wire walking. Much was derelict when we came here but Gerry has transformed it. We do weddings — people get married in the caves — and receptions, and Hallowe’en nights, and now he’s planning a hotel. It’s never boring.”

Confessions of a Showman
, by Gerry Cottle with Helen Batten, is published by Vision Paperbacks tomorrow.

Rosalind Renshaw (The Times online)

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