At the 65th Annual Grimaldi Service
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.