Writing the other day about CLOWNS, reminded me of a meeting I once had with the master comic (a contemporary clown, indeed) Max Wall - who, I recently discovered from a blue plaque, was born just round the corner from me in Mowll Street, Kennington.
I had been to see Max - whose stage persona, as Professor Wallofski owed something to the Great Grock - in his one-man show, Aspects of Wall, and, after the show, I went backstage with a radio producer with whom I was working at the time who was planning to cast Max in a seemingly unlikely role as Charon, the Ferryman working the River Styx in Orpheus' Underworld.
As I might have expected, without the characteristic tights, tailcoat and wig, this was a very different Wall to the buffoon who held court on stage. True, the tombstone teeth were very much in evidence whenever his face cracked into a lopsided smile, but he was a small, weary man with sorrowful eyes and a voice that fell away in a sadly dying cadence. And, as he wiped away the sweat and the graesepaint, it was impossible not to notice how his hands were clawed by the crippling effects of arthritis: I could only guess at the pain that he had to break through every night simply to complete his show...
Like all great comics, Max Wall was intensely serious about the business of being funny which is undoubtedly why he was also able to plumb the dark depths of Beckett in both Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape as well give as a stuning portrayal of Osborne’s grotesque entertainer, Archie Rice.
I realised then - as I did again, on a later occasion, when encountering Frankie Howerd - that the old clichés about the melancholy man behind the clown's smile are all too true.
Which reminds me of a much quoted, and doubtless apocryphal story, about Grock and one which, apparently, had also been told a century earlier about Grimaldi.
This is how I tell it...
A man goes to see his doctor, wracked by depression and feelings of despair.
The doctor examines the patient and can find nothing wrong other than the all too obvious sickness of the soul.
“You are perfectly fit,” says the doctor, “you just need to lighten your spirits! Why not go and see the Great Grock? No one can see Grock and remain depressed and unhappy! Yes, my friend, a performance by Grock is the only medicine you require!”
“But you do not understand,” replies the patient with a sigh, “I am the Great Grock!”