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At the 65th Annual Grimaldi Service

February 7, 2011
by the gentle author

The first Sunday in February is when all the clowns arrive in East London for the annual service to honour Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the greatest British clown – held since 1946 at this time of year, when the clowns traditionally gathered in the capital prior to the start of the Circus touring season. Originally celebrated at St James’ Pentonville Rd, where Grimaldi is buried, the service transferred to Holy Trinity, Dalston in 1959 where the event has grown and grown, and where there is now a shrine to Grimaldi graced with a commemorative stained glass window.

By mistake, I walked into the church hall which served as the changing room to discover myself surrounded with painted faces and multicoloured suits. Seeing my disorientation, Mr Woo (in a red wig and clutching a balloon dog) kindly stepped over to greet me, explaining that he was veteran of forty years clowning including a stint at Bertram Mills Circus with the legendary Coco the clown – before revealing it was cut short when he fell over and fractured his leg, illustrating the anecdote by lifting his trouser to reveal a savagely scarred shin bone. “He’s never going to win a knobbly knees contest now!” declared Uncle Colin with alarming levity, Mr Woo’s performing partner in the double act known as The Custard Clowns. “But what did you do?” I enquired, still alarmed by Mr Woo’s injury. “I got a comedy car!” was Mr Woo’s response, accompanied by an unnerving chuckle.

Reeling from the tragic ambiguity of this conversation, I walked around to the church where fans were gathering for the service and there in the quiet corner church dedicated to Joseph Grimaldi, I had the good fortune to shake hands with Streaky the clown, a skinny veteran of sixty-three years clowning. There is a poignant dignity to old clowns such as Streaky with face paint applied to wrinkled skin, because the disparity between the harsh make-up and the infinite nuance of the indelibly lined face beneath cannot fail to make a soulful impression.

At first, the presence of the clowns doing their sideshows to warm up the congregation changed the meaning of the sacred space, as if the vaulted arches were tent poles and we had come to a show rather than a church service, but both were reconciled in the atmosphere of celebration that prevailed. Yet although the children delighted in the comedy and the audience laughed at the gags, I must admit that (as I always have) I found the clowns more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha. But it is precisely this contradiction that draws me to them, because I believe that through wholeheartedly embracing such grotesque self-humilation they expose an essential quality of humanity – that of our innate foolishness, underscored by our propensity to take ourselves too seriously. We need to be startled, or even alarmed by their extreme appearances, their gurning and their dopey japes, in order to recognise our true selves. This is the corrective that clowns deliver with a cheesey grin, confronting us with a necessary sense of the ridiculous in life.

“This is the best job I ever had – to make people smile and get them to laugh,” declared Conk the clown, once he had demonstrated blowing bubbles from his saxophone. “How did you start?” I asked. “I got divorced,” he replied. And everyone within earshot laughed, except me. “I had depression,” Conk continued with a helpless smirk, “so I joined the amateur dramatics, but I was no good at it, so I thought, ‘I’ll be a clown!’” Twelve years later, Conk has no apparent cause to regret his decision, as his mirthful demeanour confirmed. “It’s something inside, a feeling you know – everyone’s got laughter inside them.” he informed me with a wink, before he disappeared up the aisle in a cloud of bubbles pursued by laughing children.

Turning around, I found myself greeted by Glory B., an elegant lady dressed in tones of turquoise and blue, and ¬†sporting a huge butterfly upon her hat. Significantly, her face was not painted and she described herself as a “Children’s Entertainer” rather than a “Clown.” “Sometimes children are scared of clowns, “ she admitted, articulating my own thoughts with a gentle smile, “so I work with Mr Woo as a go-between, to comfort them if they are distressed.”

Once the clown organist began to play, everyone took their seats and the parade of clowns commenced, old troupers and young goons, buffoons and funsters, jokers and jesters, enough to delight the most weary eyes, and lift the spirits of the most down-hearted February day. An army of clowns filled the church with their pranking and japes, and their high wattage personalities. The intensity of an army of clowns is a presence that defies description, because even at rest there is such bristling potential for misrule which might be unleashed at any moment.

In their primary coloured parodic suits, I could recognise the styles of many periods, from the twentieth century, the nineteenth century and when a clown stood up to carry the wreath to lay in honour of “Joey Grimaldi,” I saw he was wearing an eighteenth century clown suit. At the climax of the service, the names of those clowns who had died in the year were read out and, for each one, a child carried a candle down the nave. After the announcements of “Sir Norman Wisdom,” “Buddi,” “Bilbo,” and “Frosty,” I saw a feint light travel through the crowd to be lost at the rear of the church and it made tangible the brave purpose of clowning – that of laughing in the face of the darkness which surrounds us.

Mr Woo once worked with Coco the clown at Bertram Mills Circus until he fractured his leg.

Conk the clown once suffered from depression.

Arriving at Holy Trinity, Dalston.

Streaky at Grimaldi’s shrine with the case of eggs recording the distinctive make-up of ¬†famous clowns.

Streaky the clown, a veteran of sixty-three years clowning.

Glory B., Children’s Entertainer.

The commemorative window for Joseph Grimaldi.

A wreath for Joseph Grimaldi.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011

    I attended the 6th Feb 2011 Clown Service at Holy Trinity and found it good fun as well as very moving (I always cry when I have to sing hyms, they make me blub my eyes out). I am glad that people care so much about Joe Grimaldi (as I do) to attend this service, it is lovely that people remember him. I wish I could have met the man, I wish I’d lived in his time, that would have been fascinating.

    It was so busy at the service that I did not have the opportunity to ask the Vicar some questions that I would have loved to know the answer to. Joseph Grimaldi was born illegitimately, so if someone was illegitimate in the Regency/Victorian era, would they have been christened? and also, when Grimaldi married, was he allowed to marry in a church? and if not, where would he have got married? I would love to know.

  2. February 7, 2011

    Hi there,

    Although I had the pleasure of attending this unique service since 1973, I am always surprised and I’m never let down on how it gets better year after year. Long may it continue to be the high light of my year :-)

    Yours in Service.

    Salvo.

  3. February 7, 2011

    Although I have been a clown for 3 years this was my first year at the clowns service. As a Christian I attend church regularly but never have I seen anything quite like this. I felt carried away by the sheer joy and fun of the day. My monkey Charlie bananas was quite well behaved although he did mess about a bit during the hyms. The service was packed and the joy on the faces of children and adults alike made it well worth a 200 mile round trip. I couldnt help but wonder what Joseph himself would have made of it all. I learnt a lot from the more seasoned clowns and left feeling refreshed and happy. As I drove away radio 2 was playing Scott Joplins Entertainer and it felt just the perfect end to the day.
    keep smiling – Crazy bananas

  4. Gary permalink
    February 7, 2011

    I still remember the words of a clown that I heard about 74 years ago
    “father bring the hammer there’s a flea on baby’s eye”.
    Gary

  5. sheila theobald permalink
    February 7, 2011

    I have loved clowns since i was a tiny child and remember my 5th birthday at a circus being allowed the privalige of going in the clowns broken car, if i close my eyes tight i can see me there it was wonderful.God bless grimaldi and all clowns that follow him may the art never die xx

  6. melbournegirl permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens mentions that he travelled to London as a child with his family to see Grimaldi performing – the image of a young Charles clapping his hands with ‘great precocity’ charms me. He later, Slater adds, edited Grimaldi’s memoirs.

  7. Zeph permalink
    February 9, 2011

    Rafiqa, Grimaldi’s father was notoriously anti-religious but his mother might have had him christened. I don’t think being illegitimate was any barrier to being baptised, only to legal things like inheritance. I believe Grimaldi was married in church, twice.

    He is a fascinating character and had lots of other talents besides being a clown. The best book about him is the one by Richard Findlater, which is out of print but can be found second-hand.

  8. February 20, 2011

    super!!!

  9. February 20, 2011

    What a wonderful day we all had. It is so wonderful for us to all get together and celebrate clowns past and present once a year. We are all SO different – educational clowns like me, retired clowns, colourful clowns, caring clowns, part time clowns, retired clowns, hobby clowns and clowns for just a day. Dance dance, wherever we may be!!!!

  10. JerryWh permalink
    May 9, 2011

    I was taken to see the Bertram Mills Circus aged 11 in the early 1960s, in the Wirral I think, and I remember Coco the Clown very well. I enjoyed the whole event but it is the elephants I remember more than anything, now.
    I used to work in Pentonville Road and I remember finding Grimaldi Park and discovering that Joseph Grimaldi lived and worked in the area.. I am pleased that such a great entertainer is still remembered and celebrated – keep up the good work!

  11. Ron Pummell permalink
    October 10, 2011

    Can anybody help me please? Have any of these special clown servives been celebrated at the former church in Dalston Lane at the corner of Graham Road, known locally as ‘Lebons Corner’ ? Ron

  12. Jean Taylor permalink
    October 11, 2011

    See Hackney Society website for photo of St Bartholemews Vicarage. See their publication ‘Spaces’ Winter/Spring 2011 for article about Clowns Church. In short, I think the answer to your question is ‘no’.

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