By Lydia Veljanovski, MA Newspaper Journalism
I’m sat in the church pews with a plate of curried fish on my lap, bubbles are floating in the air above and everyone around me is intent on finding Geoffrey: an invisible man who is accused of kicking a dog. As a custard pie is carried down the aisle, the band plays an off-key version of Radiohead’s Creep. I sing along to the lyrics, while waving at someone with a pizza fastened to their head: “what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here…”
No, I hadn’t taken a bunch of hallucinogenic drugs and no this wasn’t a dream. I was at the Annual Clowns Service at All Saints Church in Haggerston, where clowns come from far and wide to honour Joseph Grimaldi – ‘The Father of the British Clown.’
The red noses, big shoes and painted smiles that pack out the church are a testament to Grimaldi’s legacy. Born in 1778, he transformed the role of the clown in the harlequinade with his antics. He pioneered the comic face paint we recognise today and his slapstick style pathed the way for modern performers.
Andrew Davis, President Elect of the World Clown Association, says: “If there wasn’t Grimaldi we simply wouldn’t be here, we have to celebrate him.” And celebrate him we do. The front of the congregation is awash with every style of clown. Some ride tricycles, some are dressed as silly servicemen, some have puppets or balloons, and others are accompanied by little clown children. “There are all different clowns,” says organiser Bibbledy Bob of Clowns International, “you only have to look at parliament to see that there are many ways to be a clown.”
The service, which has been held annually since 1947, is also a way for clowns across the country to catch up with old friends, share knowledge and remember those that passed the previous year. The clowning community lost eight valued members last year, including Happi, Raindrop and Spidi. The only mirthless segment of the ceremony is when lit candles are carried, one by one, up to the altar; the last burning for The Unknown Clown.
However, despite this brief sombre note the event is all the fun of the fair, which is a relief to me as a hungover atheist. It’s my first time in a church since the days of 7am school chapel, where I would frequently sleep through the sermon. But there is no chance of that here. As the vicar reaches the pulpit my neighbour passes me his bubble gun and suddenly I’m shooting soapy spheres at the ceiling.
After the address, we sing happy hymns at the top of our lungs then Jester Jim and Hazy-Dazy entertain us with ‘The Story of the Pencil’. On the end of Jim’s arm a grinning pencil-puppet tells us that “We all make a mark and Jesus can rub out our sins.” They are followed by Susi Oddball and Piccol, playing the ballad ‘Send in the Clowns’ and leaving a ripple of confusion as the to whether their bum notes are intentional. Then Frosty does a biblical reading and Mattie the Clown recites a poem.
But perhaps the most powerful moment of the service comes when all the clowns stand for The Clown’s Prayer. “Dear Lord, I thank you for calling me to share with others your most precious gift of laughter. May I never forget that it is your gift and my privilege…” say the rows of colourful characters in unison. If there is one thing I can take away from the event it is how seriously these jokers take their job.
In modern popular culture clowns seem to have been given a bad name. The many murders committed in the 1970s by John Wayne Gacey, who worked as a clown, prompted the profession to become a classic horror film trope. From Stephen King’s Pennywise to Batman’s The Joker, the big screen is obsessed with casting these merry-makers as villains. There is even a word for it: coulrophobia – the severe phobia of clowns. Yet, as I stand in the church, with children’s laughter ringing in my ears, the men and woman of Clowns International are anything but scary.
Instead, I am struck by the kindness and camaraderie they share with one another, something so rare in most professions. Simon Thompson, who goes by the name of Clown Noir, explains that this is because of “the nature of the business. We are caring human beings. We are people who want to interact with other humans and make them smile.”
Written on the order of service are the words of another famed clown, Sir Charlie Chaplin. “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” And as I leave the church with a smile, ready to head back into the February rain, I can’t help but think that he must be right.