Jack Jay talks about new chapter in colourful story of Great Yarmouth’s Hippodrome Circus

EDP Norfolk Tourism Awards 2014 at the Holiday Inn, Norwich North. Winners of Coastal Leisure award

EDP Norfolk Tourism Awards 2014 at the Holiday Inn, Norwich North. Winners of Coastal Leisure award Hippodrome Great Yarmouth Jack Jay talking with host David Whiteley. - Credit: Angela Sharpe

It has been, his father Peter Jay conceded, possibly 'the longest apprenticeship in history'.

Jack Jay, 26, cannot remember a time when he was not living the drama and excitement and soaking up the history backstage at the Hippodrome.

'I started at the age of nine or 10 spinning plates before the shows and I have been doing stuff here so long it has been a natural progression,' he said.

At the age of 15, he took over from his father - a pop star from the Beatles era - on drums at the summer and Christmas shows and the next stage of his apprenticeship came as a compere, initially 'a voice in the darkness', he recalled.

The stage lights finally beckoned in 2009 when Jack, a former pupil of Gorleston's Cliff Park High School, took to the ring at the Christmas show in a double act with Scottish comedian Johnny Mac.

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However, it has only been in the last two years that he has gradually taken over from his father more and more responsibility for the creative content and direction of the shows.

'This year has seen the biggest change,' he said, 'with me solely producing and directing the new Easter pirates and Halloween shows.'

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He acknowledged the enormous contribution his father had made in almost reinventing the circus genre, replacing animals and tired clowns with a fast-moving variety show - but even after the introduction of a Christmas show in 2001 Yarmouth's much loved Edwardian people's palace was still being used fewer than 10 weeks a year.

Jack, whose girlfriend Vikki Clarke is a dancer and aerialist at the Hippodrome, said: 'My father and I had talked about ways of extending the season in Yarmouth and that inspired this year's Easter pirates and Halloween shows.

'A lot of people came at Easter who had never been to the Hippodrome before because it tapped into a new audience, and on the back of that many families then gave the summer show a try making it our most successful one to date.'

The two new shows, which saw the start of a successful partnership with Gorleston scenery company 3D Creations, have increased the use of the Hippodrome to nearly 20 weeks and there are already plans to extend the run of next year's Easter show.

Jack, who wrote the script for both new shows, said: 'The Easter show was a huge production. It became apparent we needed something substantial and incredible, more of a film set than a stage set.'

Ian Westbrook's team at 3D Creations were familiar with the theme, having built a pirate town on location for the Pirates in the Caribbean film series, but it was still a challenge to construct a giant pirate's ship in pieces small enough to be transported through the doors at the Hippodrome.

Jack, whose mother Christine takes on the gargantuan task of booking acts and arranging travel from all parts of the world, said: 'For two months while it was being built I was over there nearly every day and they were over here nearly as much.'

The set dramatically changed the interior of the auditorium, much to Jack's satisfaction.

'One of my things is that I like the audience to feel the show has started as soon as they come through the door,' he said.

Because the pirates show was a new venture, they had put a two to three-year business plan in place, but Jack confessed that turned out to be unnecessary - it had 'taken off' straightaway.

'Halloween was just as successful with every show becoming an instant sell-out,' said Jack, whose brothers Joe and Ben are also involved in Hippodrome productions.

As hectic nine-hour a day rehearsals get under way for Saturday's opening of the Christmas circus, Peter confessed: 'I am writing copious notes but I am trying to stay out of it; we always think along the same lines in any case.'

Jack is happy to have seen the catchment for the Hippodrome extend dramatically with families now travelling from as far afield as Ipswich, but in the future he has ideas for reaching an even wider audience by taking shows to other venues.

He is also brimming with ideas for other buildings owned by the family, not least the old seafront Empire, closed for several years since its last incarnation as a night club.

He said: 'Maybe we are on the cusp of the right time to do something; one idea is a music venue which would also have space for young people to learn music and circus skills.'

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