Thursday, 14 June 2007

CLOWNING AROUND!

A funny thing to be scared of ---- CLOWNS! And yet, several regular readers commented on my recent blog about ventriloquists, puppets and toys and how they seem to want to come alive!, that they found clowns scary…

This I completely understand!

The first clown face I saw was when I was about four years old: it was a cut-out mask from the back of a cereal box and it was worn by the boy living in the house behind ours who kept looking out of an upstairs’ window at me until I was scared to the point of tears. The white face with its criss-crossed-out eyes, red nose and watermelon mouth was made all the more terrifying by having the fixed expression of a mask.

The only solution to my abject terror was for my mum to go and buy a packet of the said cereal and make up another mask for me from the same series ("Collect all six and scare the s*** out your friends!"); this done I was then able to stand in the garden and leer back at my tormentor!

I was taken to Olympia, maybe a year later, to see Bertram Mills' Circus and was again scared to death, this time by genuine clowns who leapt out of the ring and came clambering about amongst the audience in their oversized shoes and voluminous checked suits with water-pistol button-holes in their jackets.

They lurched along carrying what looked like heavy buckets of water and everyone - except me! - screamed with laughter when it was discovered that they only contained confetti. I just screamed - and had to be taken out...

I remember seeing Walt Disney's Dumbo for the first time and hating the sadistic clowns with their slasher smiles who were so cruelly vicious to that sweet little elephant!

(An interesting side note here: Dumbo was completed during the final days of the animators' strike that almost crippled the Disney Studio in 1941 and the silhouettes of the clowns, seen through the circus tent, are said to be caricatures of the strike leaders! Confirmation of our belief that all clowns are dubious subversives...)

The first time I felt comfortable in a clown's presence was when Coco the Clown - who, strictly speaking, was not a ‘clown’ but an ‘Auguste’ - visited my school one day to talk to us about road safety. Coco (Nicolai Poliakoff, 1900-1974) completely charmed me with his size 58 boots, his funny stand-up hair and his belisha beacon walking stick.


Of course, it is not necessary to like or enjoy clowns to appreciate their fascinating role in the history of theatre and entertainment being, in fact, part of a tradition that predates even Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), whose his name became, for years, the generic term for a clown - ‘Joey’ - and who was the subject of a biography by no less a scribe than Charles Dickens…


Later, another famous clown legend would emerge: the great Grock (Charles Adrien Wettach, 1880-1959; below left), who made audiences laugh when the strings on his fiddle disappeared - because he was holding the instrument upside down! - but who was a consummate musician and highly educated man, being able to play no less than 24 instruments as well as speaking many languages. America, meanwhile had its own classic clown, Emmett Kelly (1898-1979) who created the sorrowful-looking Weary Willie (below right), inspired by the hobos of the American depression.



Kelly, Grock, Coco and Grimaldi were - like many clowns, I'm sure - genial, kindly fools but the painted face that hides the real face has led to any number of less salubrious characters donning the white pallor and the greasepaint grin from James Stewart as a wanted criminal masquerading as Buttons the Clown in the 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth (in which Emmett Kelly made a cameo appearance), via Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, to the demonic Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King’s It.

Aside from meeting the avuncular Coco, the only clown by whom I have felt utterly unthreatened - and whose brilliant comedy moved me to both laughter and tears - is the Russian genius, Slava (Vyacheslav Ivanovich Polunin), creator of the unforgettable Slava’s Snowshow: a tour de force of theatrical magic that is filled with wonder and delight, beauty, sadness and a resigned appreciation of the absurdity of life…


Grock used to be called “The King of Clowns”; today, Slava is known simply as “The Best Clown in the World”. He is, apart from anything else, a much needed antidote to all those sinister, scary, menacing clowns about whom some us still have nightmares - and what more nightmarish creature could one conceive than this unlikely act from a vintage performance of Bertram Mills' Circus...?

10 comments:

David Weeks said...

Time to add a piece about the place of Marcel Marceau, I think. :o)

Ryan Rasmussen said...

Vintage? Oh, no, my friend, that "Bertram" is alive and well, haunting the highways of New England.

True story: my friend Eric and I are driving through Vermont on the way to the White Mountains. The gas gauge reads "E." We crest a hill. Ahead, a playfully colorful minivan. That's interesting, we think.

We pull closer. The bright colors take on a more sinister aspect. This is no soccer-mom-mobile. No, this is a circus carriage of doom. We brace ourselves. And then, as we pass, IT slowly turns its awful visage towards us, a maniacal grin stretched across its loathsome painted face.

It is a thing of terror, and it knows! We scream and shudder and shout, and it delights in our horror.

We pull ahead . . . and pray for a the refuge of a gas station.

Boll Weavil said...

Dickens was a staunch defender of clowns and all things humourous in 'Hard Times' when he brings them to the rescue of young Thomas Gradgrind. Circus master Sleary's epithet in defence of their entertainment might serve us well to redress the balance."Think the best of us, not the worst squire.People muth be amuthed !"

Brian Sibley said...

DAVID - Yes, one day I really should blog about my encounter with that great exponent of the mime, Marcel Marceau.

RYAN - You are right! They ARE out there, travelling the open road, waiting for the unwary!!

BOLL WEAVIL - Thank you for reminding us of Mr Sleary and his clowns... Like any phobia, fear of clowns is, I suppose, totally irrational. It is, however, real enough to those who experience it...

Brian Sibley said...

GILL writes...

I really don't know whether there is any truth in this and I am far to busy [for which read 'lazy'] to do any research, but is it possible that the atavistic fear of clowns goes back a long way?

I am thinking of Puck-type figures, Pan perhaps; the unpredictable, the illogically malevolent; creatures that operate outside normal human rules?
Probably a flight of fancy but just a thought.

Brian Sibley said...

GILL - Yes, I'm sure you are right... The examples you mention - to which might be added jesters and the characters in mummers plays, pantomimes and the commedia dell'arte (the origins of Punch & Judy) - are all true servants of the Lord of Misrule and therefore subversive and therefore threatening...

If you then give such beings the mysterious power of the fixed face that hides another identity (the mask, the make-up or the vent's doll) the recipe for fear is probably pretty much complete...

Anne said...

Thank you, that was very interesting. I don't care for clowns at all, except for one neighbor who was one. I knew him as a regular person before I saw him in costume, so I liked him. One day he had just bought a pink gorilla costume and went about the neighborhood showing it off to people. One little girl opened the door to see that and wet her pants. Now she won't be afraid of clowns, but heaven help her if she should ever see another pink gorilla! heh heh.

Brian Sibley said...

ANNE - Of course the worst scenario would be a clown leading a pink gorilla on a leash...

Qenny said...

I found the whole of Dumbo quite disturbing and trippy.

I really liked the sad clown (Pierrot?) who performed every year at the circus we went to as children. It was one of the few perks given to the production line staff at the factory where my dad worked.

Sad clowns are okay. It's the ones with the maniacal grins that are frightening, because we are less inclined to trust their smiles.

Steven Hartley said...

I don't ever recall of being scared of a clown - and I always thought the clowns in Dumbo were amusing - even though they weren't nice to Dumbo.

The clowns in Dumbo were animated by Grant Simmons and Ray Patterson, and the clowns in silhouette were animated by Berny Wolf and (suprising) Art Babbitt.