Being a clown is no laughing matter during the “creepy clown” craze.
Several incidents involving “killer clowns” have been reported across London, including a teen brandishing a chainsaw in Uxbridge and a pair of schoolgirls being chased by a clown with a knife in Hither Green.
The profession has mounted a fight back of sorts, with representatives from the clown trade associations taking to the airwaves to defend what they see as a noble and ancient profession. But there is something intrinsically comic about a man or woman with a red nose and baggy trousers talking about workplace safety issues, and the temptation is to play the story for laughs. The hashtag #Clownlivesmatter is still trending on Twitter and The clowning profession is a long and honourable one and I think that they will bounce back. Nowhere is that profession more honoured than in Old London Town which even has a Clown Museum and is associated with the most famous clown of all, Joseph Grimaldi, who gave us the slang word for a clown “Joey.”
After the Banking Crisis many would say the City of London is full of Clowns, without realising it is the literal truth. London has many traditions which are preserved in East London which regards itself as the home of real Londoners, the Cockneys, who are traditionally regarded as those born within the sound of the Bow Bells, the bells of the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow, an historic church off Cheapside in the City of London. However the label Cockney was original a countryman’s derogatory term for the city dwellers, literally meaning a “Cocks egg”, or an effeminate city dweller. Two of the great folk traditions of the City are the Pearly Kings and Queens who were elected for each Borough as part of a tradition of mutual assistance by the Costermongers or street produce sellers and who support many causes such as erecting a memorial to the victims of The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster.
The other tradition preserved in this city with its rich theatrical history is clowning which is commemorated each year on the first Sunday in February, when clowns from across the UK gather in Dalston (East London) and attend a church service in memory of the clown Jospeh Grimaldi. This has been an annual tradition since 1946. The service moved to Holy Trinity Church in 1959, and in 1967 permission was given for the clowns to attend in their costumes. It is a reminder to all of the rich tradition of clowning which has been part of Theatre, Pantomime, Commedia D’Arte, Cabaret, Variety and movies, not to mention Circus.
This service to commemorate Grimaldi and all clowns normally takes place in Holy Trinity Church on Beechwood Road in Dalston, London E8 3DY. (Tube: Liverpool Street, then bus 149 or 242; nearest train station: Dalston Kingsland) Occasionally it is held in another nearby church: All Saints Church, Haggerston Road. There is no charge to attend, but you may want to make a donation at the collection after the service. It is traditional after the service for the clowns to put on a free show in the adjoining hall so many families attend with excited children and as “clowning” forms part of the service it is anything but solemn.
The website for both churches is: http://www.trinitysaintsunited.co.uk
All clowns are nicknamed Joey, after the father of modern clowning, Joseph Grimaldi and we get the slang word “Slap” from their theatrical makeup. We get a number of phrases in common usage from the clown tradition. “Slapstick” was when they threw water and pies at each other at the end of their show (which washed off makeup), “Sending in the Clowns” meant the show was over as they were the finale, a jam session was when they met to swap jokes and routines ending with an “exchange” of jam tarts and Clown Alley was the part of the circus tent where they hung their outfits.
Clowns, or fools, were seen in their child-like natures as representing the purity and simplicity of saints like St Francis of Assisi and St Basil, the Russian saint. The early Catholic Church used the Holy Fool to comically, and sometimes frighteningly, simplify and illustrate the church’s doctrine to an illiterate audience. As society became more complex and urbanised, particularly with the Reformation, clowns in the theatre became agents questioning how the individual should live life, rather than how the mass of the common people could understand the Biblical teachings. In Shakespeare’s plays one of the reasons religious and political arguments were put amusingly into the mouths of clowns was to avoid problems over censorship.
Clowns were an important part of London’s theatrical tradition in Shakespeare and Marlowe’s time for as The Bard observed “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool; …” Shakespeare’s clowns weren’t anything like modern day clowns. On the old English stage a clown was a privileged laugh provoker. He usually had no real part in the drama, but carried on his jokes and tricks, sometimes addressing himself to the delighted audience instead of confining himself to the stage action.
Early clowns were portrayed as simple-minded, ignorant fools. In reality, many were quite witty with enough wisdom to speak profound truths in the guise of humour. An example of this would be Touchstone in “As You Like It” and Feste in “Twelfth Night.” The Bard elevated the clown as none before had done, giving him a speaking part, often using him as a “comic relief” to ease the tension in his tragedies. This blending of comedy and tragedy played well to both the seated audience and those who could afford only to stand on the ground at the foot of the stage. The grave diggers in “Hamlet” are clowns. “Othello” had his clown, although he wasn’t very humorous! Launcelot Gobbo was Shylock’s famous clown in “The Merchant of Venice.”
The son of Italian Immigrants, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was one of the most celebrated of English clowns. He created the ‘Joey’ look associated with clowns ever since, and completely transformed the role of the Clown in the Harlequinade. Joseph Grimaldi was the man who gave us the notion of the sad clown. He was particularly famous for his role in the Christmas Pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He had been an idol since he first came to prominence in 1806, having been thrust into the highest sphere of celebrity with a virtuoso comic performance in the original production of Mother Goose, a show that took record profits and ran for longer than any other pantomime in history. Its success brought him national recognition, enormous fees, and a social circle that included Lord Byron, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis and the entire Kemble family. The critics Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt sang his praises and the young Charles Dickens edited his Memoirs.
Grimaldi built on the original concept of naiveté and foolishness by mocking his audiences and encouraging their participation. He is said to have been the inspiration behind the invention of the pantomime dame. He introduced the concept of the sad clown, the happy mask that hides a tragic soul. Grimaldi raised the profile of the clown by placing him centre stage. The clown in one form or another is still seen as an absolutely vital element of entertainment culture worldwide. The Grimaldi Memorial Service is a tribute to that great tradition as well as a thanksgiving for the gift of laughter.
Joseph Grimaldi (“Joey”) is regarded as the greatest British clown. He was born in London in 1778 and died in 1837. His performances at the Sadler’s Wells and Drury Lane theatres were extremely popular and helped to establish the British clowning traditions which continue to this day. His tomb is in the park named after him in Islington, the Joseph Grimaldi Park (next to 154a Pentonville Road, between Rodney Street and Cumming Street; nearest Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras or Angel ;). The plaque in front of the tomb reads as follows:
Joseph Grimaldi was 3 years old when he first went on the stage of Sadler’s Wells with his father and worked there for 45 years as performer and part-proprietor. From his debut in 1806 at Covent Garden in Mother Goose he was adored by all and could fill a theatre anywhere. The name Joey has passed into our language to mean a clown. He lived all his life among the people of Clerkenwell and died at 33 Southampton Street, now called Calshot Street. Islington Council has called the park in which he lies buried the Joseph Grimaldi Park to commemorate a great artist and a great man.
Following the clown’s show after the church service visitors are invited to a special opening of the Clowns Gallery – Museum. This is the UK’s only museum dedicated to clowns and their history. It is normally open just once a month – on the first Friday (from 12 noon to 5pm) (special arrangements can be made for group visits at other times).
The address is: All Saints Centre, Haggerston Road, Hackney, London E8 4HT (Tube: Liverpool Street, then bus 149 or 242)
It is just a few minutes’ walk from Holy Trinity Church to the Clowns Gallery. One of the things to see inside the museum is the egg register. This shows the make-up (known as “slap”) used by clowns both past and present. It is an unwritten rule that a clown never copies the make-up of another clown – each one is unique and is designed to suit the individual’s face.
For more on Clowns International (the organisers of this event):
You may want to combine a visit to the Clowns Gallery with a visit to two other nearby museums which appeal to children of all ages and anybody interested in London’s history:
– Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA:
– Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA:
For more on Joseph Grimaldi see;
Incidents in the Life of Joseph Grimaldi
Author: Giles Neville, Patricia Neville (Illustrator)
Publisher: Jonathan Cape – October 1980
Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi
Andrew McConnell Stott
Cannongate Books – ISBN: 9781847672957