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Polyakov, Nikolai Petrovich, 1900 - 1974 (Coco the Clown)



  • Existence: October 1900 - 25 September 1974


Nikolai Petrovich Polyakov, was a Jewish performer born in October 1900 to Piort and Rachel Polyakov in Dvinsk (today Daugavpils), Latvia, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. His childhood was marked by poverty as his father struggled to make ends meet as a cobbler. To supplement their income, the family worked at the local theatre; his father as a property master and his mother as a wardrobe mistress.

At the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, in 1904, Piort was conscripted in to the Imperial Army, which further increased the strain on the family’s finances. In order to avoid starvation, Nikolai, who by this time was five years old, started to sing for food around cafes and bars. Although in all effect, Nikolai was begging for food, it was from this early experience that he developed a liking for the limelight.

In 1908 set on being a professional performer, Nikolai run away to Vitebsk in Belarus to the join the circus. Upon arrival, he convinced a circus owner that he was an orphan in need of a job. Nikolai was taken on and placed under the mentorship of Vitaly Lazarenko (1890-1939), the renowned Soviet Union clown and acrobat, famous for his political satire and acrobatic skills.

Lazarenko, who had lost both his wife and son in tragic circumstances, developed a strong bond with Nikolai, to the extreme that he became determined to adopt him. Nikolai, realising that he couldn't go through with the adoption panicked and returned home. This didn't hinder his desire to become a circus performer, which remained as strong as ever. His parents however, struggled with the idea of their son becoming an itinerant performer and their relationship became very tense. Eventually, his resolve convinced them to give in to his pleads as Nikolai reached his teen years.

Nikolai completed some of his early training under Rudolfo Truzzi (1860-1936), who nicknamed him ‘Koshka’ or ‘Kokishka’ (cat in Russian), which eventually evolved into his stage name ‘Coco’. Truzzi taught Nikolai an array of universal circus disciplines, including acrobatics, trapeze and horse riding.

In 1914 WWI broke out in Europe, and Russia joined the allied powers. Nicolai tried to join the Russian army immediately but was turned down due to his young age. A year later, still only fifteen years old, Nicolai was accepted into the 11th Siberian Infantry as a member of the cavalry, thanks to his ability to ride horses, which was a direct result of his circus training. Nicolai naively thought the war was going to be an exciting adventure, but soon experienced the horrors of a new type of war like no other. In later years he described how he crouched at the bottom of a trench fearing for his life while the earth was dissolving into smoke and fire around him. The Russian armies were badly prepared and were heavily punished by the Germans. By the end of October 1916 they had suffered catastrophic losses, around 1.8 million soldiers had fallen in battle, 2 million were made prisoners of war and 1 million were missing.

In the meantime, the Russian Empire was collapsing back home and in 1917 the Bolshevik revolution started. Russians from across the Empire found themselves fighting against Germany and its allies while at the same time their motherland descended into a violent civil war. Liberal and monarchist forces organised into the White Army whereas the Bolsheviks' formed the Red Army. During this time, Nikolai was successively captured and conscripted by both sides, first by the Red Army, which he escaped to re-join his infantry battalion and secondly by the White Army, which he also escaped, this time disguised as a girl in a troupe of Mongolian travelling entertainers.

At the end of the war Nikolai returned to the circus and married Valentina Novikova (1901–1983). They had six children: Helen, Michael (1923-2009), Nadia, Sascha (1929-2004), Olga, and Tamara (1927-1988), most of who became circus performers.

In the early 1920’s, he was working for the newly created Soviet State Circus and travelling around the Soviet Union with great success. By the mid-1920s, Nikolai had left Russia for Germany where he soon established himself as one of Europe’s leading clowns. While in Germany, he came to the attention of Bertram Mills who brought him to England in 1929 to appear in his Christmas circus at Manchester. Nikolai was an instant success and spent the next 37 years of his career working with Bertram Mill Circus as one of its iconic resident clowns. The Polyakov family settled in the UK and became naturalised British citizens in 1949.

At the outbreak of WWII, Bertram Mills Circus was forced to stop operating. Nikolai by now in his late thirties, took on any jobs he could find including physical labour and seasonal pantomime, until he enlisted in the Royal Pioneer Corps. In the early part of World War II, the Pioneer Corps was one of the only British military units in which enemy aliens and foreign nationals could serve. Thousands of German and Austrian nationals joined the Corps to assist Allied war efforts, they were typically Jewish or political opponents of the Nazi regime who had fled to Britain. The Pioneer Corps was a combatant corps in charge of light engineering tasks such as; stretcher-bearing, handling of stores, laying tracks on beaches and other logistical operations. Nikolai served until he was released in 1941 suffering with a damaged lung and arthritis. He continued serving through the war with the Entertainment National Service Association (E.N.S.A), performing for the troops with his son Michael.

His services during War World II were recornised through an Honorary membership of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, awarded by AJEX - the UK Jewish war veterans Association.

In 1946, Bertram Mills Circus reopened and Nikolai was re-engaged as one of the resident clowns until 1967.

Nikolai spent much of his spare time performing at children’s hospitals and homes and created a campaign to educate children on road safety, for which he was awarded an O.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1974 Nikolai came out of retirement to tour with the Roberts Brothers Circus. During his engagement he fell ill with emphysema and bronchitis and died on 25th September aged 73. Nikolai became one of the most famous clowns in history and left behind a remarkable career marked by a stark contrast of suffering and laughter.

Found in 15 Collections and/or Records:

Bertram Mills Circus and Fun Fair Olympia Gouache, c1920 - 1967

Reference code: 178V11.40
Scope and Contents Gouche on card, paper covering on top poster design. Olympia, 17 December to 1 February. Senorita Mara aerialist, Phyllis Allen's poodles, The Johns trampoline comedy, Rudi Lenz's chimpanzees, The Schumanns present grand carousel, Hermané balacing, fiesta in Valencia by the Schumann family liberty spectacle, Jarz trapeze, Danion's sea lions, Leonardo juggler, Tonito,wire walker, Coco and a host of clowns, Laribles springboard, here comes Robin Hood by the Schumanns high school act, Bertram...
Dates: c1920 - 1967

Bertram Mills Circus Photographs, c1900 - 1950

Reference code: 178C108.436-488
Scope and Contents

Black and white photographs of circus performers and animals including Coco the clown, Nicolia the animal tamer, Mills' horses and circus scenes.

Dates: c1900 - 1950

Blackpool Tower Circus Poster, 1949

Reference code: 178R47.147
Scope and Contents

Felix with his tigers and lions, The Cairolis musical clowns, Bertram Mills' Liberty horses, Coco the clown with Michael and Tamara, Victor Barna v Alec Brook table tennis champions, Rassana queen of the air, Jon high school act, The Circusettes, Dood.

Dates: 1949

Blackpool Tower Circus Posters, c1930 - 1990

Reference code: 178R47.141-212
Scope and Contents

Posters for Blackpool Tower Circus including shows by Knie's Circus, Circus Krone, Circus Schumann, Bertram Mills Circus, Robert Brothers Circus and performances by Charlie Cairoli, Doddles, Coco the Clown, The Rosaires, Lilly Yokoi, Alfred Court, Vojtek Trubka, The Great Wallendas and Mary Chipperfield among others.

Dates: c1930 - 1990

Circus Friends Association Collection

Reference code: NFA0122
Scope and Contents

This collection consists of a large library of books and journals, as well as archival material including posters, programmes, photographs, films, handbills, research material, scrapbooks, original artwork and many other items of ephemera relating to British, Irish and European circuses

Dates: 1795 - 2020

Circus Life No. 3, Whirlings, Circus and Vintage Thrill Makers 'Circus Edition' Films, c1927 - 1989

Reference code: 178D13.5
Scope and Contents Vintage Video Productions, Peak Film Productions. Colour and black and white, sound and background music. DVD 1 'I Want to be a Lion Tamer', documentary narrated in English by Zac Radcliffe who talk about life in Whirlings circus, shows the circus travelling, setting up, acts in the ring and back stage scenes c1980s, 'Here's the Circus' documentary, scenes in black and white, narrated in English, c1950s-c1960s, 'American Circus Life Vol 2', black and white scenes of circus performers,...
Dates: c1927 - 1989

Circus Photographs, 1910 - 1964

Reference code: 178C108.5141-5337
Scope and Contents Black and white and some colour photographs of circus scenes, animals, people and personalities including; Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Dame Laura Knight, Bertram Mills, Cyril Mills, Winston Churchill, Coco, Whimsical Walker, A. Pearson equestrian director at Bertram Mills Circus, Percy Huxter, Lulu Adams, Cissie Rosaire, Aubry Rosaire and Zena Rosaire, also Rosaire Circus, Bertam Mills Circus, Tom Arnold's Circus, Ginnett's and Fossett's Circus and a large Barnum shows...
Dates: 1910 - 1964

Clown Prints, c1900 - 1999

Reference code: 178V11.54
Scope and Contents

Colour digital prints of famous clowns including Charlie Cairoli, Grock, Coco and Popov, by Royston Knipe.

Dates: c1900 - 1999

Films, 1927 - 2007

Reference code: 178D13
Scope and Contents

Compilation of circus films showing acts on the ring as well as interviews with performers and proprietors, mainly produced by tv companies in the UK and Europe. Many of them narrated in German.

Dates: 1927 - 2007

George Dawson Collection

Reference code: NFA0018
Scope and Contents

The collection contains numerous photographs, newspaper cuttings relating to traction engines and 40 rally programmes.

Dates: 1902 - 1983

Newspaper Cuttings and Scapbooks, 1838 - 2007

Reference code: 178G21
Scope and Contents

A collection of newspaper cuttings on circus, circus proprietors and performers and scrapbooks containing newspaper cuttings, posters, programmes and other items of ephemera, covering mainly British circuses and venues such as Belle Vue and also some international circuses.

Dates: 1838 - 2007

Original Artwork, c1800 - 2000

Reference code: 178V11
Scope and Contents

Original works of art including artists' prints, drawings, watercolours and paintings, and designs for circus posters.

Dates: c1800 - 2000

Photographs and Postcards, c1800 - 1999

Reference code: 178C108
Scope and Contents

Black and white and colour photographs, negatives and photographic albums mainly containing images of British circus, circus performers, animals and circus personalities but also some menageries such as Bostock and Wombwell and other associated entertainments and non-British circuses taken by David Jamieson, Lindsay Temple, Den Curtis, Capt. Middleton, Jack Niblett and other photographers.

Dates: c1800 - 1999

Posters, c1800 - 2011

Reference code: 178R47
Scope and Contents

A wide range of British and international circus and menagerie posters ranging from the 19th to the 21st century including Astley's Amphitheatre, Pablo Fanque, Polito, Bostock and Wombwell, Ducrow, Cooke, Hengler, Sanger, Smart, Gerry Cottle, Bertram Mills, Chipperfield's, Robert Brothers, Fossett, Blackpool Tower, Billy Russell, Belle Vue, Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, Austen Brothers and many more.

Dates: c1800 - 2011

Various Newspapers and Newspaper Cuttings, 1927 - 2007

Reference code: 178G21.1
Scope and Contents Newspapers and newspaper cuttings relating to circus news and performers, including the Sunday Mercury Special, The Evening Mail, Circus News Illustrated, Late Circus News Flashes, Leisure Life, The World's Fair, Danmark Kina, Soviet Weekly,The Advertiser, The Yorkshire Herald, The Yorkshire Post, The Sun, The Guardian and other main stream newspapers, including articles on Norman Barrett, Boswell Circus, Coco, Bertram Mills Circus, Belle Vue, Barrett's Circus, Robert Gandey's Circus Chinese...
Dates: 1927 - 2007