His father was a stockbroker and grand-master in the Freemasons. Gerry Cottle was educated at Rutlish School, Merton Park, south London and left home in 1961 at age 16 to join the Robert Brothers Circus.
Cottle started by doing menial tasks, but worked his way up to have his own juggling act, billed as Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler, and then to own his own show, which opened in July 1970, with just five performers. He established his Big Top in 1974 and ran it until 2003. By the mid-1970s the Gerry Cottle Circus was touring Britain with three shows. In 1975 he purchased a farm in Surrey to use as a winter headquarters, and lived there for 30 years. He has also presented the Moscow State Circus and Chinese State Circus in Britain. In 1995 his Circus of Horrors debuted at the Glastonbury Festival and has toured the world since then. This was a collaborative venture with Archaos, a French contemporary circus.
In 2003 he auctioned off much of his circus paraphernalia in order to concentrate on running Wookey Hole caves, a tourist attraction in Somerset. In 2012 he celebrated fifty years in the business with a new show, Turbo Circus: 50 Acts In 100 Minutes, on a 31-week tour. In 2017 after losing hundreds of thousands of pounds his circus finally closed its doors for the last time in October.
Gerry Cottle’s Circus originally toured with a variety of animals including horses, zebras, elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, and llamas. The 1980s saw an increase in public opinion against animal acts. Cottle sold his last elephant and in 1993 had a non-animal circus. In 2012 he said that he now reluctantly supports the ban on circus animal acts, which he says will improve the image of circuses in Britain.
After purchasing Wookey Hole Caves, a tourist attraction that featured show caves, penny arcades and restaurants, he added a theatre, circus museum, hotel and circus school. At the latter, local youth train in a wide range of circus skills, and perform at the theatre and in Cottle's new touring show, Turbo Circus.
He married Betty Fossett, youngest daughter of circus showman Jim Fossett, in 1968, and has three daughters and a son. In the 1980s he became addicted to cocaine and was jailed. His daughters set up Cottle Sisters Circus. He is separated from Betty and has another partner, Anna Carter of Carter's Steam Fair.
- Gerry Cottle on Desert Island Discs
- "Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus" by Gerry Cottle with Helen Batten at Goodreads
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