Published: 4 February 2010
by JOSH LOEB
EVERY year, on the first Sunday in February, men wearing painted-on smiles crowd into a church a short bus ride from Joseph Grimaldi’s grave in King’s Cross.
They are professional clowns, who have come to honour their “forebear”, the king of Georgian theatre who entertained thousands in the playhouse at Sadler’s Wells and whose multicoloured clothes, wigs and make-up inspired the uniform of modern clowns.
The son of a deranged Italian immigrant, Grimaldi was born in Holborn in 1778 and lived most of his life in Clerkenwell. From the moment he could walk, his father, also a comic actor, violently drilled him in the ways of the harlequinades – slapstick productions in which dance and buffoonery enlivened folk tales.
These epic, hugely extravagant productions were a far cry from the clown shows of today, thrilling everyone from street urchins to grown aristocrats with their displays of wit and agility. But beneath the slap and silliness, Grimaldi was the prototype sad clown, a man the public knew as “Joey” “Old Joe” or “Iron Legs Grimaldi” but who the satirists named “Grim-All-Day”.
The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott is a new biography of this conflicted actor. Stott, himself a former stand-up comic on the London circuit who appeared on bills with Stewart Lee,
Al Murray and Daniel Kitson before moving to America to become a professor of English, psychoanalyses his subject and examines why it is that so much comedy is born out of depression.
He concludes that Grimaldi was haunted by an abused childhood and disasters in his personal life and could find happiness only through clowning and the joy it brought others. But tragedy was piled on tragedy as the exertion of performing and the impossible physical demands Grimaldi placed on himself took their toll.
Georgian theatreland was a Hogarthian kaleidoscope of eccentric actors, performing dogs, elephant troupes and sundry auxiliaries – the lowly “mop-squeezers” and “fart-catchers” – not to mention the audiences (spikes were erected across the orchestra pit in some theatres as a defence against them). Though predominantly about Grimaldi, Stott’s book describes wider developments in British entertainment in the 18th and early 19th centuries and traces the rivalry between the two great playhouses of the day – Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells.
The latter had existed “on the edges of town and the margins of respectability” ever since a stage was first erected there in 1685. It was here that Grimaldi cut his teeth. Too ill to stand, he held a farewell benefit gig at the venue shortly before his death in 1837.
Today, more than 170 years later, his followers still meet to remember his life. This Sunday will be the highlight of their calendar. The Clown Service used to be held in St James’s Church in Pentonville Road which stood beside Grimaldi’s grave. When this building was demolished and replaced with the offices of Veolia Environmental Services several years ago, the congregation transferred to the Holy Trinity church in Dalston.
Stott describes an incident during one Clown Service when a man playing Grimaldi was violently poked in the eye shortly before he was due to perform in front of the congregation. He went ahead with the performance but was rushed to hospital as soon as he had finished and sat in his costume in A&E for several hours, his make-up running because of the constant watering from his bloody eyeball.
As Scott concludes: “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect tribute.”
• The memorial service for Joseph Grimaldi is at 3pm on Sunday, February 7,
at Holy Trinity Church, Beechwood Road, Dalston, E8.
• The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi. By Andrew McConnell Stott. Canongate £20