When I was a boy. an annual treat was the Christmas visit to Belle Vue Circus and of all the acts – the lions and tigers, the trapeze artists and horse riders – my favourite was Nickolai Poliakov, also known as Coco the Clown.
Poliakov was born in Latvia in 1900 when it was part of the Russian Empire. His parents worked in the theatre and Poliakov began earning a living by busking from the age of five.
In 1908, he ran away to join the circus, travelling three hundred miles by train to Vitebsk in Belorussia where he persuaded a circus owner to give him a job by spinning a tale that he was an orphan with no-one to care for him.
Poliakov was apprenticed and learned the basics of acrobatics, trapeze, horse riding and other circus disciplines. He earned the nickname Kokoschka, a diminutive of koshka, the Russian word for cat. This became shortened to Koko and so Coco the Clown was born.
He enlisted in the Imperial Army in 1915 and during the Russian civil war that followed he was conscripted by both the Red and White Army before escaping disguised as a girl in a troupe of Mongolian travelling entertainers.
As the political situation settled, Poliakov returned and in 1920 joined the Soviet State Circus. Before World War Two, Soviet performers were still allowed to work in the West and while appearing in Berlin in 1929 he was talent-spotted by the performance director of Bertram Mills Circus and signed to appear in the Christmas circus in Manchester that Christmas.
It was the start of a long association with Bertram Mills and in 1930 he brought his wife and children to live in the UK. Poliakov proved to be a popular performer, especially with children, with his loud oversize suit, size 58 shoes and trick red wig which was hinged so that it would flip up at the sides whenever he was surprised, which was often.
The circus was forced to close at the outbreak of World War Two and Poliakov worked as a hotel porter, labourer, and pantomime performer before enlisting in the Pioneer Corps. He was invalided out of the army with a damaged lung and arthritis on in 1941 and then worked for ENSA, performing for the troops with his son Michael.
The Bertram Mills Circus reopened in 1946 and Poliakov returned as Coco and appeared on tour for every summer season until the closure of the touring show in October 1964.
In 1953 he was adjudged to be bankrupt due to tax arrears and such was his popularity that news appeared in the press children across the country sent sixpences and shillings to alleviate his perceived poverty.
Poliakov became involved in road safety work in 1947 after the son of a circus electrician was knocked down by a truck while he played on the street. This inspired him to visit schools across the country while on tour to entertain the children and lecture them on the importance of road safety.
He was the subject of Eamonn Andrews’ TV programme This is Your Life in 1962 and in 1963 Poliakov was honoured with the Order of the British Empire ‘for services to road safety among children.’
Poliakov devoted himself to his road safety work until his death in 1974.