With their big top pedigree and death-defying stunts, Ruth Walker discovers that the Skating Willers, who appear as part of Fringe circus show La Clique, will send you into a spin – or worse – if you let them.
He is the great-grandson of Billy Smart, son of the Elephant Girl, born on a three-night stand in Arbroath. She is the former Playboy bunny who, by the look of her sliding effortlessly into the splits during warm-up, could still rock that famous cottontail should the fancy take her. She ran away with the circus to be with him – his French, fond-of-swearing father, saying simply: “If you’re going to f**keeng be eer you might as well get een the act.” He tossed her a pair of skates and that was it. She was officially a fledgling member of the Skating Willers.
Jean-Pierre Poissonnet and Wanda Azzario must trust each other implicitly. Their performance involves death-defying stunts atop a stage smaller than the average kitchen table and culminates in Poissonnet spinning Azzario round on a neck brace, her feet just centimetres from the faces of those in the front row. One false move – a small stone, perhaps, or, even a spot of dog food like that which nearly spelt disaster recently at their performance in La Clique at the Famous Spiegeltent in Edinburgh – and it would be all over for both performers and a significant section of their audience.
“I’ve had bruises, breaks, everything,” says Azzario. “But admit it: most of them were from my brother,” Poissonnet adds. “Not the time you dropped me on my neck in New York,” she fires back. “I was in a bend and I landed on my neck, then I stayed in the same position but fell off the table. I blacked out then came to just as he landed on top of me. When I came to again, there were doctors all around me and they wouldn’t let me move.”
[Jean-Pierre Poissonnet and Wanda Azzario backstage at the Spiegeltent – Photo: Douglas Robertson]
“My thing is that I never let go,” insists Poissonnet in his defence. “If you go down, I’m going down with you. We’ve fallen so many times in training. We just get up and do it again – unless we’re incapable of getting up.” Anyway, he adds, they were only out of action for four days. “The next Friday we were doing it again. And we got a standing ovation.”
They’re doing it all again in Edinburgh this month, having come out of semi-retirement to perform at the Fringe. And, for Poissonnet at least, playing Scotland must be a little like a homecoming. “Mum was the Elephant Girl in Billy Smart’s circus,” he says. “The reason they called her that is because she was riding elephants at the time. But everybody had to do everything on the show, whether it was the trapeze or training chimpanzees or whatever.
“My father was a French roller-skater who came across from Paris to do a season with the circus. He met my mother, they fell in love, they married in 1959 and I was born in 1960 in Arbroath, on a three-day stand with the circus. It just happened to be the city we were in at the time. In fact, it was lucky because, where the circus ground used to be, Arbroath Infirmary was just behind us. There’s a picture of me on the front page of the Daily Record at the time – 11 July, 1960. It was two-and-a-half pence.”
He’s been back to Arbroath twice since – once when he was ten and again when he was on tour with the Skating Willers in 1984 – but while his entry into the world wasn’t perhaps the most auspicious, some of that stage glitter rubbed off on real life. “My great-grandfather was great with PR and a lot of the people he knew became personal friends,” says Poissonnet. “There was a party at the house in Windsor [Billy Smart’s one-time home, now part of the Legoland theme park] and, of course, he invited the Beatles.” Of course he did.
“John Lennon and Ringo Starr turned up and I have a wonderful photo of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, my grandmother, grandfather, and my father and mother, as well as a few other members of the family, with them there, and it was just a party. It’s not as if it was some special do.”
Then there was the time Josephine Baker asked to adopt him. “My mother only told me this about five or six years ago,” says Poissonnet. “They were working in the early 1960s in a place called the Ancienne Belgique, a club which still exists, in Brussels. The star of the show was Josephine Baker. She was the lady who used to hold me at the side of the stage while my parents were working. I’d be watching them and fascinated, about six months old, and she actually asked my parents if she could adopt me. She was at the end of her career at the time – she was singing but not dancing any more – and I think she adopted about 14 children in all. She didn’t have any of her own.” He adds: “My parents said no.”
He grew up in the glory days of the circus, when Billy Smart was the most celebrated of all the ringmasters. There were enormous, sold-out tours with a 5,000-seater big top and television specials – the most notable of which was their appearance on Christmas Day, with the Queen’s Speech as the warm-up act. “I presented ponies one year, horses another, and on and on,” says Poissonnet. But, at that stage, he wasn’t interested in skating. “What happens is that, when you’re growing up on the show, you think everyone else is great and what your parents do is pretty run of the mill.”
He had only been training to join the family troupe for about two years when he met Azzario. “I’d just got my BA and was saving up, so I was working as a cocktail waitress,” she says. “Jean-Pierre had come in for an audition and I saw him at the bar one day ordering an orange juice. An orange juice was £1 – that was a lot of money in those days – so I said, ‘Look, don’t waste your money, I’ll get you the orange juice, I know the barmen.’ The next day he got another free orange juice. This went on for three or four days, and then he said, ‘I could maybe offer to take you to see my show.’
That show was the Big Top Variety Show in Windsor, and the pair bicker genially for a few minutes about what headlining act was performing that night. Was it Gladys Knight? Maybe the Four Tops or Elton John. Either way, it’s clear that, in the day, circus was a big deal. “I went and kind of fell in love with the whole thing,” says Azzario.
She began training – gruelling two, three-hour sessions in a freezing-cold aircraft hangar in the middle of winter – for about eight months before she was allowed to get anywhere near that teeny-tiny kitchen table stage. “We were picking up little jobs here and there,” says Poissonnet. “I didn’t think we were very good at the time, but we were passable and aspiring to be better. Then we got a call saying a film needed roller-skaters but they just wanted girls, so we went down there with Wanda and another one of the girls, Felicity.
“This lady came up to me and said, ‘Can you skate?’ I said yes. She said, ‘Well, did you bring your skates?’ and I said no, because they said they only needed girls. She went off again, then came back and said, ‘Can you borrow someone else’s?’”
Poissonnet ended up squeezing into a pair of skates a size too small and spinning the women around, as he does in the show. The woman he was talking to was Barbara Broccoli and the end result was a starring role in the opening title sequence for the James Bond film Octopussy.
They have appeared on stage at the Folies Bergère and La Sorbonne. And in 2005, following their appearance in Edinburgh, they were asked to do the Royal Variety Performance. “It was marvellous to meet the Queen,” says Azzario. “ She can come across as cold but, actually, she’s really warm and friendly. She was lovely. And he was lovely. “She said ‘Splendid’ to me. Twice.”
“And the duke said, ‘How do your eyeballs not come out their sockets?’” adds Poissonnet, doing a very passable impression.
But somewhere along the line, circuses fell out of favour. “It was greed,” says Azzario. But Poissonnet thinks it just became financially impossible to continue with the ambitious, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas of the 1960s and 1970s. “It was becoming more and more expensive to take the big top around the country,” he says.
And, not surprisingly for a man who was raised working with chimps and elephants, he rejects the PC argument that circuses should not keep wild animals. “I grew up with animals. There was a whole menagerie that travelled with us, so having elephants and horses and ponies was just the way it was. Now it’s like, horses are OK and dogs are OK because they’re classed as domesticated, but there’s a massive debate about using wild animals. It’s a shame. I know lots of people who look after their animals so well – better than their own children actually. There are exceptions where that doesn’t occur and that’s not so good.”
Poissonnet and Azzario have a son, Pierre, now 24, who is also working in showbusiness. “He’s a very good singer,” says Azzario – and is now learning the ropes as a Skating Willer. “He’s really quite close to knowing and understanding what we do,” says his protective father. “We could let him out now but we won’t. At the moment the business is so cut-throat.”
But when the couple’s relationship broke up in 1997, after 11 years of marriage, they didn’t consider for a second breaking up the act. Instead, they focused on work and Pierre. “We were living in a caravan at the time,” says Poissonnet. “I was sleeping on the settee and Wanda was in the bedroom, and that was how it was for a year or so. Every time we started to think about our own stuff and get angry, we’d stop and think about Pierre.”
“You just have to get over yourself,” adds Wanda.
Poissonnet now lives in Sweden with his girlfriend, while Azzario is based in Hawaii, where she lives with her shark-whisperer husband, Alan Goldberg. “We actually met 23 years ago,” she says. “He was working as a circus performer in Germany, we were working in Munich and he wanted to see our show. He was sitting there waiting patiently and we picked him out of the crowd to spin him. He said he fell in love at first spin.” Both were married to different people at the time so it was several years before they got together. They now live on a luxury yacht and are planning an ambitious La Clique-style show at the Hawaii Hilton, “but a little more comedy-oriented”, she says.
At every performance the Skating Willers pull an unsuspecting punter out of the audience, like Goldberg all those years ago, and spin them around in their arms. They’ve done it with Bradley Walsh, and Paul O’Grady and probably tens of thousands of others foolish or brave enough to sit in the front row. Has anyone ever been sick? “No, not really,” they both say, shaking their heads. “No accidents.” Then Poissonnet adds: “When we spin ladies, if they are wearing boob tubes sometimes they pop out. The other problem is sometimes they’re wearing a skirt and they turn to Wanda when they’re up there and whisper, ‘I’ve got no underwear on.’”
Wanda nods in agreement. “One woman, we plopped her down at the end and all of a sudden – pshh,” he says. “She’d peed on the table. Only a little gush, but we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to slip on it. And Wanda was full of adrenaline so she took her hand – we have powder on top of the table to stop us slipping – and rubbed it in.” Azzario screws up her face at the memory. What troupers. No matter what happens, says Poissonnet, the show must go on.
MORE INFO: The Skating Willers perform as part of La Clique, every night at the Famous Spiegeltent, George Street, Edinburgh, until 25 August, 10pm
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday