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'I've been diagnosed with a year to live... the circus is my lifeline and I'm happiest on the show'

As Giffords begins its iconic summer tour, the woman who created it is coming to terms with terminal cancer. Nell Gifford tells Susannah Butter why she won't keep her illness a secret

Showtime: Nell Gifford is running her circus while dealing with terminal cancer
Showtime: Nell Gifford is running her circus while dealing with terminal cancer

By Susannah Butter

The sound of a trumpet player tuning up comes from the walled garden of Chiswick House. Giffords Circus has come to town and there's an hour to go before showtime. A dance troupe from Havana are stroking the horses and excitement is in the air after a visit from Phoebe Waller-Bridge earlier in the week. The actor beamed throughout the Summer of Love-inspired show, entitled Xanadu.

Behind the star-spangled pleasure dome where the performance unfolds, the circus's founder, Nell Gifford (44), is fiddling with the sequins on a silver tablecloth, pushing them into sculptural ridges. She created the circus with her then-husband Toti Gifford in 2000 and her life is interwoven with its story - her nine-year-old twins are in the show, she produced Xanadu, and she rides a horse in it. So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer it felt natural to tell the circus. "I hate secrets, they are corrosive," she says in her baritone voice. "The more people are open about cancer the less scary it is."

The cancer has spread to her bone and lymph. She's feeling depleted today after a morning of chemotherapy but didn't want to cancel our interview. "I have heavy drugs in my system," she says, smoothing out her red floral skirt. "I usually do more than I am at the moment but I'm beaten down by chemo. It's put a bit of a kibosh on my creativity."

Gifford found a lump in her breast in 2015. "I have a poor outlook," she says, plainly. "I've been diagnosed with a year to live and things like that and I can hardly remember the feeling of being without cancer. But I'm having loads of treatment under an incredible oncologist, ducking and diving through the NHS and private system. In fact, I should check to make sure the oncologist hasn't texted me."

Her thick blonde hair is falling out, for the third time, and she is planning to shave it - back into the style she had when she was a student. "It's not anything to be scared of when you've had hair loss before," Gifford says, running her orange painted fingernails through her bob. "It's annoying because it's just grown back but so what? It's falling out already."

She and her children, Red and Cecil, have jokes about wigs and they are friends with her oncologist. "It's a lot for the children to take on. But if they didn't know they wouldn't be processing it, and they will have to sometime. We are doing it together. It's hard on their childhood but they have their imaginary worlds they can go to. That is where childhood happens, in a way."

Getting to this point of "fortitude" was "a long, hard slog ... It's been horrific. I've been in mental-health hospitals, I had a six-month breakdown. I'm propped up by antidepressants. You can think: 'What would my life be like if I didn't have cancer?' I'd love to be able to be on point and do the shows well and go out clubbing tonight, meet people, do some business, get projects going, but I'll probably end up in a chair listening to Radio 4." She looks down at her chunky white trainers. "But I'll probably feel better tomorrow."

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The circus "has become a lifeline", she continues, brightening as a colleague brings her a brown paper bag of cherries. "It always has been. It's a support system, I'm the happiest I am here on the show. It probably props me up more than I prop it up. In the most calamitous times it's been what I've turned to and what's contained me and where I've felt safe. It's the community, being by the horses; knowing you have your tribe; it's cool."

The first circus Gifford went to was in Hyde Park, as a child. "It was Moscow State Circus. I loved the horses. It made me cry. The circus always makes me cry - it's always been something I wanted to dissolve myself into. It's emotional - it's an extreme, an intensity I want to experience. I don't like things that aren't intense."

Gifford grew up in Wiltshire with her younger sister, Clover (Stroud), who recounts their childhood in her memoir The Wild Other. Clover writes that Nell was always dramatic. She broke nearly every bone in her body riding ponies, kept a menagerie of baby animals she had rescued, and dreamed of being a monkey trainer. Their film director father, Rick, let them roam free as long as they tried their best at school and they were close to their mother Charlotte. She had three children from a previous marriage, including ceramicist Emma Bridgewater. The circus sells Emma's crockery and Emma's daughter 'Lil Rice' is in Xanadu, and is a talented acrobat.

Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus
Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus

When Gifford was 18, Charlotte fell from her horse, suffering a severe brain injury. She spent the final 22 years of her life in care. After the accident Gifford went to New York State and worked at Circus Flora.

"I was just being an 18-year-old drifting around trying to help and being looked after by a sweet circus family," she smiles, twirling a cherry stalk around.

She returned to study English at Oxford but remained committed to the circus. "I joined the first troupe in town, it was the Nineties and the circus was in a downtrodden time. I did whatever was needed, mucking out horses."

Did her mother's accident make her scared of horses? "They're a managed risk. The cruelty to animals thing annoys me because these horses are dignified with work. It's a partnership."

There's a line in Xanadu about creating worlds: "A dream you dream alone is just a dream - a dream you dream together is a reality". That is what she and Toti, a landscape gardener who she met at a friend's farm near Cheltenham, did when they started Giffords. "The point was to make a beautiful village green circus where people could have a good time and relax. We used bits from the house, cut up curtains for costumes, we still do."

Female circus directors are rare and Gifford says "all the usual pressures that face women bringing up children and running around multi-tasking apply in the circus but it's always been a place for diversity and artistic expression." She still does whatever is needed, from production to HR.

Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus
Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus

"There's endless management but I love it all. I like to work intensely." Do all her family work this hard? "Emma does. Confidence breeds confidence I guess." Having twins wasn't a surprise because they were conceived through IVF and "it is a miracle they are there". They live part-time with their father on his farm when they're not on tour with Gifford or at her house in Stroud. "The farm's good for them because it's heady like the circus". Saying that, even in the Big Top there can be tedium. "It's hot, people are tired, they don't always want to play with you."

It's why she doesn't understand the phrase "political circus". "I don't get what it means, there's nothing unplanned about the circus." What did she make of The Greatest Showman film? "It's not to my taste but it's good to celebrate the circus as it's an undervalued art form."

A gold signet ring on her finger catches the sunlight. It has an N and a P engraved on it: P is 'the Cuban', as she calls her boyfriend. They met when he came here with a dance troupe.

"The circus is good at bringing diversity to the provinces," she says. "English rural life can be lacking in diversity and people can be surprised to see Cuban dancers in the local pub. I've seen clips of Cubans in Oxfordshire teaching the locals to salsa. It's good for the kids - rural kids have a hard time getting out of small horizons and we employ lots of young people."

Since her diagnosis she has started painting every day. That, listening to BBC Radio 6 Music and burning incense, is "a happy place, like a festival for one". She's reading Dante's Inferno, slowly, and a book about spiritual transformation. "Cancer is boring," she says. "I don't like how it makes you think about yourself all the time. I like making things and trying to adjust things visually outside myself to get away from it."

She can't think about life after this tour. "I don't know anymore, I don't plan," she says. "There's chemo, two children, a circus to run. I hope the circus goes on. I'm trying to build something stable but maybe it won't."

Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus
Spectacular show: performers at Giffords Circus

For now, there is Xanadu. "We wanted it to be like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, with hippies," says Gifford, who is responsible for "the more poetic side". It is directed by Cal McCrystal, whose past projects include Paddington. "He loves jokes," she says. "I'm not a jokey person so he does that." She particularly enjoys the show's finale. "It's like a David Lynch film - everything seems to be in slow motion, it is cinematic and intense. It is an ecstatic, transporting experience," she says.

© EVENING STANDARD

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