The extraordinary career of novelty strongman John Evans.
It’s somehow reassuring to know that in this world of sophisticated pleasures, a man can still earn a living from balancing things on his head. But that’s precisely what Nottingham legend John Evans has done for nearly forty years.
If you don’t live in Nottingham and are not a connoisseur of head balancing – a rather niche subject for anyone to develop more than a passing fascination with, I suspect – then you might not know who John Evans is. Despite various TV appearances across the world, it’s unlikely that Evans will have impacted your consciousness to the extent that you remember his name. In Nottingham, though, he is something of a local legend, as I found during my time there. I first came across him as a name bandied about by a video producer I knew, and initially assumed that he was some sort of local hard man. But I quickly discovered that he was actually some sort of old-school sideshow strong man act, famous for balancing heavy things on his head, a skill that had accrued several pointless World Records for him.
In the mid-2000s, a friend of mine was hired by Evans to put together his website, and as one thing led to another, found himself somehow or other unwillingly becoming his agent for a brief and unsuccessful time – this was very much a Broadway Danny Rose situation, with my friend (who had no experience in promotion whatsoever) trying and failing to find work for Evans and the equally niche performers that he worked with, while John would put forward all manner of TV shows and unlikely events as suggestions for places that he might appear. It was a doomed endeavour all around, and the pair eventually went their separate ways. Before then, I somehow managed to obtain a John Evans T-shirt, which funnily enough did not become a sartorial item of choice, and the keyring that seemingly everyone who ever met the big man was given. The plans for an entire line of Headbalancer merchandise seems to have come to nought, however.
The John Evans story begins in 1981 when the 35-year-old labourer saw Geoff Capes lifting twenty-four bricks on a TV show, and realised that this was the exact number that he would routinely balance on his head while delivering them to bricklayers on building sites. Having a eureka moment, he decided to see if he was still up to the task, and after managing to balance some thirty-six bricks, alerted the media – and the rest is history.
As Evans never tired of telling people, he appeared on the Jay Leno show on a couple of occasions, balancing everything from 235 pints of beer to Steve Allen on his head. He’s also been on the BBC’s Children in Need, Record Breakers, The Big Breakfast and lots of other shows that have fizzled into memory, as well as TV programmes in South Korea and Japan. But John’s meat and potatoes is turning up at public events, from supermarket openings to fetes and charity events, where he will balance everything from bricks to cars to Doctor Who‘s TARDIS. Along the way, he has collected some thirty-three Guinness World Records, and forty-four from obscure rival organisation Record Holders Republic.
Despite hanging around with John a few times, I never managed to catch his show, and so I can’t attest to the entertainment value. But he has a show that lasts between thirty and forty minutes, and that is something I suppose. A glance at his website – seemingly untouched since my friend initially put it together – suggests all manner of excitement, though the cynic in me wonders how quickly the novelty would wear off – half an hour of head balancing seems something of a stretch, and potentially rather padded. But who knows?
I do wonder how much general public fascination there is for a man balancing things on his head in this day and age, but then I remember the crowds of slack-jawed gawpers surrounding street entertainers doing much less spectacular performances. Whether seeing a man with 200 pints of fake beer, a Mini Cooper or a knocked-off TARDIS on his head is something that you’d want to watch on more than one occasion is up for debate – but the fact that John is now in his Seventies and still out there doing it is definitely something to admire. He was – and presumably still is – a lovely, unpretentious chap who had a good heart. His honest belief in the wide appeal of his niche act was rather sweet, I felt.
As we all look forward to emerging, blinking and wary, into the sun after months of confinement, maybe there will be a renewed need for the simple pleasures. You can book Evans for as little as £515 plus expenses a day, and what better way to announce that your business is back up and running than the sight of a sturdy old man with a ridiculous amount of tires balanced on his head?
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