Kids’ entertainers on the tricks of their trade: ‘My years in the police were very useful’

Life and style

From the DJs hosting mini raves to a Viking battle master – it takes a special talent to contain a room full of rowdy children

‘My husband booked a masterclass with Paul Daniels. I thought, I should be doing this’: Mrs Bubbles

When Mandy Holliday’s then husband booked himself a masterclass with the magician Paul Daniels, two decades ago, Holliday couldn’t stop thinking about it. Her husband was a children’s entertainer, and Holliday was a West End actor with little prior interest in magic, but she couldn’t resist. “It was so inspirational. You know those days where you feel: my life has changed? He told us, ‘If you want to be a magician, the first thing to do is amateur dramatics: you can learn all the magic tricks in the world, but if you’re not comfortable in front of an audience, you’re not entertaining; if you don’t have a good routine, it’s boring.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, God, I should be doing this myself.’”

She also noticed that, of the 100 people there, only two others were women. “That got my attention. By the end of that day, I was absolutely sure that the next time my husband was asked to do a gig, and couldn’t, I would take it.” Within 24 hours, that call came in, giving Holliday two weeks to come up with an act. “I went straight to a lovely magic shop, and that was the beginning of Mrs Bubbles. Twenty-three years later, I’ve done events of every size, from rich families who have splashed out, to three children in a living room, to being part of the 2012 Olympic torch relay.”

Holliday, who lives in Cambridge, has scaled back the number of parties she does in person in favour of online tarot and astrology readings. Her son, Roman, a magician who joined the family business as a dancing teddy bear aged 12, hosts most of their events.

“If I’m honest, I don’t know whether any of this would have happened if I’d married a different person who hadn’t been so natural with kids. I used to copy what he did and get an amazing reaction. It starts to get into your soul. I grew as a human and as a performer because of working with children.” On a visit to a psychic, Holliday was told her work meant she was a healer. “I thought: no, I’m a children’s entertainer. But she said, ‘That’s very healing.’ I never thought of it that way.”

Years later, at a party, a child scrambled to the front to join Holliday in singing the Frozen anthem Let It Go. “Afterwards, her parents told me she had selective mutism; she hardly ever spoke. They were in pieces. And the words of the psychic flew back to me. Children’s entertainment, done well, with the right thing at the right moment, can make breakthroughs without us even knowing we’re doing it.”

‘Sometimes a parent will say, Thank you, she hasn’t smiled all week’: Giggle Doctor

David Deanie as Doctor Bungee. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

If you spot Doctor Bungee (AKA David Deanie) clanking down a hospital corridor, bucket round one leg, red guitar on his back, wearing a fez and a mock doctor’s uniform stuffed with magic tricks, you might not anticipate how seriously he takes his work. “It’s a very, very, very demanding job,” he says of his role as a bedside entertainer.

In the UK, there are 25 giggle doctors who visit and perform for sick children in 21 hospitals, three hospices and two specialist care centres, as well as virtual visits at home. It’s not just about juggling or card tricks – although as a jobbing magician, Deanie can do both – but also involves lengthy training in things such as infection control, bereavement and grief. Hundreds of performers apply to the Theodora Children’s Charity, which administers the UK’s giggle doctor programme, but only a handful make it through selection and the year-long training – during which you’re known, of course, as a junior giggle doctor.

Entertaining children who are unwell is unlike any other gig, explains Deanie, who is based in Manchester. “Some people say, ‘I could do your job. Anyone can make a balloon animal.’ But there’s a bit more depth to it. It’s improvisation – there are endless scenarios you could come across. You walk into a room – where is the child at? Are they about to have a medical procedure? Are they asleep? Are their siblings there? Are the parents there? Are they three months old, 13 years old or 18 years old? Are there police officers outside the door because the child is a mental health patient who needs monitoring? Does the patient want a visit? What do you do if the parents say yes and the child says no? Or if the child won’t speak? And all of that is before you even begin to think about performing.”

Although his bespoke white coat has secret pockets with miniature puppet theatres and gumball machines, sometimes it’s not about performing, but, rather, about giving a vulnerable child back some agency. “We are there to empower the child. Sometimes a parent will say afterwards, ‘Thank you – she hadn’t smiled all week’, which is lovely. But also, children can swear at me or tell me to go away, and I can do that for them, whereas they can’t with the doctors. Sometimes it’s about being comfortable doing nothing – sometimes they don’t want a performance, they just want someone to be there with them.” With teenagers – who often aren’t particularly responsive when a fez-wearing comedy doctor appears – Deanie tries to find common ground by scouting the room for things such as board games, or, if all else fails: “I’ll do a trick that totally floors them. After that, they don’t care what I look like.”

Because he works in several hospitals, Deanie doesn’t always see the same children again. “There was one boy I worked with for a long time. I visited him in the high-dependency unit and in intensive care and back on the ward, then I didn’t see him again, which isn’t always a bad thing – it can mean they’ve gone home.” But when Deanie bumped into the boy’s father, he learned the boy had died. “A few minutes later, he came into the cafe where I was sitting, and gave me a photograph of me with his son, in the rooftop hospital garden, playing guitar. It had a handwritten note on the back: ‘Thanks for all the laughs.’”;

‘Children need to see representation – including at parties’: A Princess Like Me

Gemma Risden as Princess Gem (centre), Chevone Wilcox as Princess Louisiana ( left), and Shabaneh Razvand as Princess Motu nui (right). Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

Gemma Risden’s daughter Soraya turned five in the summer of 2020. Like many Moana and Tiana-loving youngsters, Soraya requested a princess birthday party, so Risden decided to find an entertainer. “I thought, this will be great – this is my moment to shine with party planning. So I went online … and found nothing: just white princesses.”

This was around the time of George Floyd’s murder, which triggered conversations in Risden’s extended family about their experiences of racism. “It opened up a door for us to be quite vulnerable about things that we had never felt brave enough to speak about. It was really tough.”

The family decided to throw their own princess party: “We all dressed up and made it special. It was amazing.” But Risden remained deeply troubled that she wasn’t able to find a princess her daughter would identify with. After the party, Risden kept looking for princesses of colour, extending her search to the US, where she found things were slightly – but not radically – better. “So I sat down with my sisters and said, ‘I need to do something about this, because I’m waking at night and getting my laptop out, frantically searching.’” A Princess Like Me, a party agency for princess entertainers of colour, was the result.

Risden is a singing teacher in a school and had no experience of running her own business. “I thought, I’m scared, but I’m going to do it anyway. Because I need to pave the way, especially for little black girls, but also for children in general: they need to be able to see representation in every sphere of life, including at parties.”

Risden used her entertainment contacts to seek out singers who might be interested in joining her as party entertainers. “Eighty-five per cent said yes straight away.” Taking inspiration from Disney’s more ethnically diverse female leads, Risden ordered costumes, organised storytelling training, and provided accent, vocal and singing coaching – “They had to understand that this isn’t doing a show at Wembley, this is singing to little children” – as well as makeup tuition and even lessons in signing autographs.

Although Covid means the business, which covers north-west London and Hertfordshire, is still small, the response has been overwhelming. “I get messages all the time from parents who say they wish we’d existed when they were a child. I get emotional about it. I never had a doll, even, that was my colour. To finally see ourselves is quite something.”

‘My years in the police were useful. If there’s a little argument, I know how to disperse’: Glamavan

Toni Cassidy, who runs Glamavan. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

“A lot of what I learned in the police is useful for parties,” says Toni Cassidy, who runs Glamavan, providing glitter and pamper parties for children in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Is it like crowd control on a much smaller scale? “It’s more that I’m confident and organised and know how to talk to people. If there’s a little argument, I’m like: right, come on – I know how to disperse.”

Cassidy joined the Met when she was 19 and was stationed at Brixton police station in south London, working in the robbery squad and policing cabs. “My first five years were great fun: I was learning a lot, I had a close-knit team. But then it started getting really political. Morale changed.” She was moved into a team working on police radios, which she didn’t enjoy. “But loads of the girls working there also did nails or hair or makeup – and I loved it.”

After completing a two-week beauty course, she was hooked. “I did all my qualifications around my shifts. After day shifts, I came home at night and did people’s eyebrows, and on my nights I’d fit in a customer in the morning. I was so tired.” Clients at weddings and events asked if she did children’s parties, and she was soon so busy giving 10-year-olds foot spas and manicures that she had to go part-time; at the end of 2018, she quit the police for good.

“We do chocolate face masks, nail varnish, pamper bingo and making flower crowns,” Cassidy says. If a child wants a sleepover, she provides indoor tipi tents and mattresses, decked out in pink or gold, which she delivers in a bright-pink transit van.

When Covid arrived, Glamavan went online. “I designed pamper packs I could send to children’s houses then hosted the parties on Zoom.” As a limited company, she was barely entitled to any government support. But because there was no travel, she could do parties back to back, “which was really handy, because I had just found out I was pregnant and I was so nauseous”. Her twins were born early, and are now eight months old, so Cassidy is back to throwing real-life parties – a long, long way from Brixton’s robbery squad, and involving a lot more biodegradable glitter.

‘One rule is: everyone raves – no pushing the kids in then standing back with a drink: Junior Jungle

Dickie Nutter (right) and Nick Rutherford. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

“Nick and I met working as vicars in an inflatable church at a festival in 2014,” says Dickie Nutter (AKA MC Rocky Patch), of his Junior Jungle other half, Nick Rutherford (AKA Nick Terrific). “We were performing weddings. We’d both been actors, and moving into festivals was a way to use our stagecraft experience in a different way.”

Rutherford had just moved to Bristol. “A friend emailed me about an art project in the city, turning a church into an arts venue, running 24 days of 24-hour sound installations and performance. I had a toddler, Willow, who would come into my studio while I was mixing and say, ‘Daddy, can I have a drum’n’bass rave?’ We’d been going to baby raves but had always left largely unsatisfied.” Rutherford came up with a plan to play drum’n’bass for parents and their children as part of the art project. “But I needed someone at the front, who could be more ridiculous than you would feel as a parent, dancing at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. Having worked with Dickie and knowing his supreme talent, I said, ‘I can pay you in eelskin cowboy boots and a zebra-print jacket.’ The rest is history.”

“I had been developing, in my mind, the idea of an MC, a presenter,” says Nutter, who also works for a charity as a support worker for adults with learning difficulties. “I had no idea what he would become, but he had the name Rocky Patch; that first morning Rocky Patch was born into the world fully formed, with a moustache, cowboy boots and Superman underpants over gold leggings.

“We had such a great response that we booked a community centre six weeks later. About 30 people came. Then we did it again, and those 30 people brought friends. Then we did it again, and filled the place out and had to find a new venue, and it just grew.” They did – and still do – kids’ parties, too.

“Because we’d done the inflatable church at Camp Bestival, I knew that’s where I wanted the show to go,” Rutherford says. “The first time I wrote to a booker there, they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got kids’ discos.’ They stuck us on a little stage next to the queue for the bouncy castle, and we had a captive audience because the queue was an hour long. We did three shows and they invited us back for the next year straight away, on one of the biggest stages. The third time, they put us on the main stage.” Junior Jungle play countrywide and at less family-oriented festivals, too, such as Boomtown, and have just converted a vintage fire engine into a mobile DJ booth called On Fire and Rescued.

“We’ve never said we are a children’s show – we are a complete family show,” Rutherford says. “We want kids to come away thinking they’ve had the best time, but actually it’s a reward for the parents, for bringing their kids to something – the parents are going to have the best time.

“We’ve got two rules. The first is, everyone dances together: no pushing the kids in then standing with a warm wine at the back. And the second is, no hands in pockets: you’ve got to put your hands in the air and wave them around like you actually care.”

“We allow a bit of controlled stage invasion,” Nutter says. “One of the unexpected joys of this – and there have been many – is when a parent seeks you out at the end of the show, with a look of sheer incredulity, because they’ve never seen their child do that before, dancing on a stage – properly raving. And for that I’m truly grateful.”

‘Dressing up as a Viking gives them permission to let themselves go’: Young Titans

Miles Ley of Young Titans. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

If you want someone to throw your kids a warrior party, it’s hard to imagine a better entertainer than Miles Ley, a part-time stuntman and actor who has worked for Marvel and is currently filming the Game of Thrones prequel. Ley is a skilled swordsman and historical martial artist who has been obsessed with myths and legends since he was a child. In his 20s, he taught children kickboxing and fencing but felt hemmed in by the constraints of teaching to a syllabus. “I wanted to teach things that inspired me, because when children see that you’re really into something it affects how you teach and interact with them. And I like kids to push themselves.”

Ley founded Young Titans in 2018, and throws battle-play and storytelling parties for children over five. “We offer four different warriors of history: the Viking, the knight, the Greek hoplite, and the gladiator. But the way things are trending at the moment, Vikings seem to be the number one party that kids want – possibly more the parents than the kids sometimes,” he grins.

Parties start with the children being given a temporary tattoo. “I teach them about the Norse runes, so I give them the rune of protection, or of wisdom, strength or justice, and we paint the kids up so they look like Celtic or Norse warriors. That gives them a kind of uniform to let themselves go.” Next come games such as tug of war. “And then they are introduced to the sword and shield, with foam swords and shields. I teach the different parts of the sword and how to hold the shield, how to use the sword and how to block. I’m also assessing how safe they are – of course, they can’t really hurt each other – and if they’re switched on, we move on to duelling or battles. If not, we build a shield wall or play raid the village.”

Next it’s shield painting, then lunch. After that comes javelin throwing and “an extreme game of dodgeball”, which Ley calls Spears of Beowulf. At his longer workshops and holiday camps, children get more intensive training, often themed on movies such as The Lord of the Rings or Troy, with rough-and-tumble obstacle-course races and re-enactments.

Although Ley loves it when children who know even more than he does about ancient history attend, he says: “I really like it when a kid who doesn’t know anything about it comes along, someone who’s a bit nervous or shy, or someone who doesn’t want to get muddy, but by the end they’re just as filthy as everyone else and have had a truly epic day.”

‘After trying hula-hooping, children radiate with happiness’: Spinsonic

Spinsonic’s Rachel Conlisk. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

If you passed Devonshire junior school in the West Midlands town of Smethwick on any sunny lunchtime in 2014, you might have spotted Rachel Conlisk – at that point, the school’s data manager – hula-hooping on the roof. “The fire escape led to a suntrap, so on my lunch breaks I’d take my hula hoop and my music out there.”

Conlisk had picked up a hula hoop that year at a festival and couldn’t put it down. Why did she love it so much? “It was hard work! So hard that it felt almost impossible – which is what I say to children now, when they’re struggling: everything is hard until you can do it. I kept dropping the hoop, and it took me days and days to keep it up. Then suddenly it clicked. It gives you that challenge-reward satisfaction and makes you feel alive: you feel healthier, more confident, plus there’s the pleasure of listening to music. Putting that all together is a powerful combination.”

Conlisk quickly started teaching others, fitting her new work around life as a single parent to her son, while the school allowed her to gradually reduce her hours as hula-hooping took off. “I had to pinch myself that people were paying me to hula-hoop,” she says. “I was doing hula-hoop parties, Brownies, teaching at schools – it was fantastic.” It felt joyful. “I noticed that it didn’t matter how old they were, or whether they found it easy or difficult, everyone I taught always got the biggest smile on their face while they did it. Students might come in, shoulders hunched, feeling tired or anxious, and they’d leave the class, head up, shoulders back, radiating happiness.”

In 2017, Conlisk turned the business into a circus-skills social enterprise, Spinsonic, now a non-profit based in Birmingham with 60 performers specialising in everything from giant bubbles to stilt-walking. They run inclusive events for children, especially those with additional needs.

“Everything was created with people with mixed abilities in mind, so we have versions of circus equipment that are specially designed for people who might have impaired motor skills or balance disorders, or any kind of disabilities. And we always make sure we have quiet areas, circus tents filled with sensory sequined cushions, blankets and fidget toys for children who might need to be away from everything.”

These days, Conlisk spends more time behind a desk organising events than throwing them but, although she claims that desk life and Covid have left her out of shape, she can still hula with 40 hoops at once.

‘We have an animatronic elephant, a unicorn, dragons … Some kids are in awe’: Valerian Entertainment

Lawrence Moon and Gemma Williams. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

“If I tell people that I was a bricklayer before, they’re like, what?” says Lawrence Moon, the founder of Valerian Entertainment. “When I was very young, I did have a creative side, but I was told to get a trade under my belt – anything arty wasn’t seen as a proper career path. I did bricklaying for 10 years, until I met my partner, Gemma [Williams].” She was working as a nightclub makeup artist, creating theatrical looks for carnival performers. “Then someone in charge of an event told her they needed a stilt-walker and made her get up on a pair of stilts, which is definitely not sensible, and that was her introduction to entertainment.”

After seeing an LED-wearing robotic dance troupe while helping Williams run a makeup booth at the Fusion festival in Germany, Moon decided he wanted in, too, and the couple created their first LED-lit robot performance. They started working in nightclubs, doing fire shows and stilt-walking, until bigger clients came calling. “One of the first big ones was the Natural History Museum. I was laying bricks on a building site, trying to take a phone call and act like I was in an office. I carried on bricklaying for two years. Events were a hobby at first, and only became profitable in 2017. I left my tools on a job one Friday and on the Monday, I thought, I can’t do this any more.”

They’ve since performed with the Libertines and in the background on The X-Factor, and work with 300 freelance performers across the UK and all over the world.

“For kids’ events with councils, we do animatronic animals,” Moon says. “We have an elephant, two polar bears, a unicorn and two dragons.” The couple built most of the full-sized creatures themselves, in their garden workshop. How do you get an elephant from Bristol, where they live, to a country fair three counties away? “When we design them, we make sure they pack down into a standard transit van and the parts can fit through disabled access doors.” The animals roam around events, operated by one or two people on the inside, with a handler outside. “It’s a chance for them to get up close with a large animal, without any cruelty. During Covid, we took the unicorn to our families, and gave our nieces and nephews rides on it. I was inside and, my God, I had a sore back afterwards.” Moon revels in seeing kids’ reactions. “If I’d seen animatronic animals when I was their age, my mind would have been blown. Some of them are just, mouths open, in awe.”












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