Mattie Faint, Clown & Giggle Doctor
With his sunny disposition and indefatigable good humour, Mattie Faint, the clown, maintains the resilient smile that is his customary expression, irrespective of any dark clouds that gather.
This picture was taken on the roof of Mattie’s house in Clerkenwell, the area of London associated with the most famous clown of all – a connection which Mattie cherishes. “Joseph Grimaldi always lived in Islington, he was the Clerkenwell clown and now I am the Clerkenwell clown – I tend his grave.” he admitted to me proudly. Mattie is the archivist of Clowns International, preserving the history of his chosen profession, and this afternoon he is hosting a festival honouring the celebrated performer at Joseph Grimaldi Park in Pentonville Rd.
Yet the life of a twenty-first century clown is very different from that of his predecessors. The Annual Grimaldi Service held each year in February once marked the gathering of clowns in London to seek employment before the Circuses set out on tour, but the decline of touring circuits meant clowns had to find alternative employment doing advertising, promotions and entertaining at corporate events. After the crash and recession, this work no longer exists but, with characteristic ingenuity, clowns have discovered a new arena for their singular talents as ‘giggle doctors.’
“I’ve been in Clerkenwell about thirty years, but I’m from Plymouth originally. I came up on a scholarship with the National Youth Theatre at seventeen. I worked with props and scenery and stage management, and did twenty shows in eight weeks and decided I didn’t want to go back to Plymouth. Instead I found a job as a junior electrician at the Saville Theatre and worked my way up to sound operator. I did Cameron Mackintosh’s first show and it only lasted two weeks. Then I worked on ‘Hair’ as sound operator for three and a half years, and became stage manager at twenty-one and, after the nine-hundredth-and-ninety-ninetieth performance, three-and-a-half tons of plaster fell from the ceiling into the auditorium and closed the show down. It happened at five thirty in the morning, but there had been a full house the night before and it could have been a national disaster killing two hundred people.
Then I took ‘Hair’ to Africa as company manager and we didn’t get an audience in Lesoto, but I was invited to stay on at the hotel as PR manager and clown.What I liked about being a clown was that I could have a second personality. It allows you to be naughty and do things that you wouldn’t do in normal life and get away with it. I had a double existence – whenever they wanted entertainment, I’d go to my office and change into a clown. People didn’t know if I was a PR officer dressed as a clown or whether I was a clown dressed as a PR officer. I remember a little boy said to his mother, ‘Who’s he?’ and she said, ‘That’s Mattie the clown dressed up as a man.’ And I thought I’d like to put that on my tombstone.
It’s one of the most difficult kinds of acting because you are working without a stage and surrounded by your audience. Quite often it can be hard from the security point of view. Teenagers and sometimes adults can ridicule you and try to destroy what you are. I’ve found myself in dangerous situations more than once where I’ve had to run. But forty-three years I’ve worked as a clown and it’s a great thing to be.
After Africa, I came back and did ‘Cinderella’ with Jim Davidson in Bristol, and I realised I didn’t want to do that any more. So, in 1980, I channelled all my energies into being a clown full-time and made a good living out of children’s parties and doing promotional work in shopping centres. But the world has changed because of the recession and the work dried up. I used to work alongside Santa at Canary Wharf for three weeks each year but now they just make do with Santa and a few elves.
Eighteen years ago, I started working an entertainer for the Theodore Children’s Trust, a charity that sends clowns into hospitals as ‘giggle doctors.’ At first, there were just two of us but now there are thirty-two working in twenty-one hospitals, all professionally trained entertainers who go into wards and visit children at their bedsides to bring laughter when they are suffering traumatic things. I’ve worked this week at Great Ormond St Hospital, visiting two to three hundred children and covering the entire hospital in two days.
So the business has changed a lot for clowns but I am lucky to work a couple of days each week as a giggle doctor, and I like the work because you really get a chance to make a difference. It’s so nice when people laugh. Laughter is a difficult thing for many people to find in their lives. As Chaplin said, ‘A day without laughter is a day wasted.’”
Mattie’s first day as a clown, June 1971
Mattie with Britain’s tallest man, Chris Greener
Mattie as the Kia-ora Kid.
Mattie as Leco, the refridgerator clown.
Mattie pays homage at the grave of Joseph Grimaldi
Mattie puts his feet up.
Mattie with his pal Ginger Nuts
Mattie as a Giggle Doctor
A record of Mattie’s distinctive make-up.
At the clowns’ convention.
Matty Faint, Clown & Giggle Doctor
Joseph Grimaldi Park Community Festival runs from 2pm-5pm this afternoon at Joseph Grimaldi Park, Collier St, N1 9QZ, with clowns, cheerleaders, latin dancers, stalls, face-painting and more. Admission is free.
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