from Bath Chronicle 9th September 2002

Emma Gypps talks to Michael Taylor, a man who ran off to Germany and joined the circus — where he learnt the arts of juggling, walking on stilts, and tent making.

MANY small boys dream of running off and joining the circus, but one Bath man’s traditional marquee. making skills enabled him to do just that.

In addition, not many people can claim to have stayed in Berlin’s UFA film studio, where Hitler’s Nazi propaganda was filmed in the 1930s, but, again, Bath man Michael Taylor can.

Now in his 40s and with more than 20 years’ experience in designing and making traditional marquees behind him, Michael remembers the summer of 1981 as the moment when his enduring love for juggling and stilt-walking was born.

“I was with the UFA Circus and its commune, where the UFA film studios were. The film set was incredible, full of beautiful and opulent Art Deco pieces and I was fascinated to know that Hitler and Marlene Dietrich had been there.”

The studios were home in the early‘ 30s to Marlene Dietrich, who starred in the classic film Blue Angel, but they took on a more sinister role under the Nazi regime when propaganda films were made there.

“Some parts of the studio were converted into accommodation,” Michael says. “It was an incredible experience to visit those rooms.”

Michael’s training with the Guildford firm, Bull’s, in traditional marquee making was a catalyst for his Busman’s holiday with the UFA Circus.

“I had taken on the role of supervisor in Bull’s after two years. For the first five months they wouldn’t let me do anything but sew hems, to make sure I could handle a needle before I was allowed to start sewing pieces of canvas together.

“In my second year with the company a visitor from the circus asked me if I would like to teach people there to make their own marquee. I leapt at the opportunity”

Michael, who spent most of his time teaching people to sew, remembers the commune and circus with great affection,

“It was an amazing place, full of wacky characters from around the world. I made friends with people from India to Guatemala. It was different from anything I had experienced before. And it was totally self-sufficient; it even had its own bakery shops and cafe."

“Experiencing life in a commune was great. Some of the people I met then are still living there today.”

It wasn’t long after his arrival in Berlin—which was at that time still segregated into East and West — that the smell of the greasepaint and sawdust of the travelling circus, got under Michael's skin.

“Because my role was supervisory, I could wander off and was often to be found chatting with the performers. I found them great fun, and they taught me how to stilt-walk and juggle.

“Sometimes they let me join in as a side attraction during an actual performance, which was great.”

Despite the fun side of his adventure in Berlin, Michael reflects seriously on how life in the city was affected by the Berlin Wall.

“I remember crossing the border into East Berlin and just thinking ‘where’s all the paint?’ The buildings were all so grey It was such a contrast to the west of the city I’ll never forget the guards — obviously there to keep their own people in, rather than me as a visitor out.

“I remember a journey to Hamburg, when the train stopped at the border to the east where the carriage was unhitched and replaced by a train from East Germany We carried on until we got to the West and repeated the process with a western train, It was ridiculous."

“I hated the Wall. People I met had gone to school on the day it was erected and been separated from their parents, and ended up Living with aunts or grandparents, because they couldn’t go home,”

If life was greyer on the other side of the wall, the availability of food was also far removed from the freedom of the commune.

“It was like a third world country. I remember walking past shops and not even realising they were there, I went into a supermarket and found stacks of something called a ‘soup package’. In it was a potato, part of a turnip, an onion and a bit of swede.

“Everybody there wanted Wranglers and Levi jeans.”

He also remembers the difficulty the East German people had taking a vacation outside the country

“It was a bureaucratic nightmare for East Germans. The authorities didn’t want them experiencing western countries. I think they feared people wouldn’t return.”

During that summer, Michael made his first Sioux-style teepee tent while staying at a traditional German farm in Hamburg.

“It was a great experience — one half of the farmhouse was occupied by the farmers, and the animals took the other,

“The Sioux only use natural materials, and so did I. I took the wood for the poles from trees on the farm and threaded wood through the material to close the entrance.”

“The only thing I didn’t stick to was the Sioux tradition of using an animal hide for the walls. Since then I’ve made 22 teepees in all.”

Michael’s unwillingness to endure the cold German winter signalled the end of his stay at the UFA commune and circus and his relocation to Bath in the early 1980s.

"After being with the circus, Bath and its collection of performers and artists was the ideal place to move to. My childhood was spent moving from Singapore to Gibraltar because my dad was an environmental specialist with the forces, so I was used to moving around,”

As well as performing at Walcot National Day, Michael has also travelled around Britain with his stilts giving occasional performances. And, of course, he makes his own costumes.

“I love being on stilts,” he says. “There is something about being so much higher than everyone else at an event. You get a great view I often appear at student balls. I make my own hats, using a top hat as a base and some bright felt material.

“And I’ve got making stilt trousers down to a fine art,” he jokes.

But his first love, he admits, is designing and making marquees.

“I have continued to make marquees on my own and have really got it into a polished process. I have made marquees for other circuses in Britain, as well as customers wanting a change from the gazebo for their gardens. You can put up a marquee in May and leave it until September. One of my customers has just had her first replacement roof after 18 years.”

A trained industrial tailor, Michael can make a marquee tent with a diameter of 11 feet in about seven days, and has made 50 and 70ft diameter marquees alone, which can take weeks of sewing.

“People ask how I can do that, but it’s my profession. Canvas tents are so much more comfortable - the material breathes.”

Marquee making may be something of a dying art, but Michael is not quite ready to pack up the sewing machine.

“I was trained in all the traditional methods, including Dutch-lacing the tent loops for the poles and splicing old fashioned tent ropes.

“My marquees have been used at the Glastonbury Festival, the Green Gathering and many private parties and circuses,” he says with pride.

His trademark colours are green and white stripe and he usually builds a higher roof than many marquee makers, to give a tent a majestic feel.

“I have learnt through trial and error,” Michael says simply “to create patterns which are spot on.” He smiles and shrugs. “I just enjoy putting together original and unique designs.”

back to top