An East London church is set to be taken over by clowns this weekend to honour and celebrate the life of the UK’s father of modern clowning and the lives of the clowns who’ve since past.
After two years of virtual services, All Saints Church, in Haggerston, is opening its doors and inviting entertainers, locals, family, and friends to pay tribute, joke around and laugh while singing at the Annual Grimaldi Clown Service - unless you suffer from coulrophobia.
Dedicated to “clowning” and Joseph “Joey” Grimaldi, the UK’s first ever clown and the unofficial ‘Clerkenwell King of Clowns’, the service enters its 77th year to put a smile back on people’s faces and laughter in their hearts. “We should be searching out things to laugh about all the time,” said Mattie Faint, aka Mattie the Clown and organiser of the Annual Grimaldi Clown Service.
READ MORE: No Trousers Tube Ride founder insists infamous event is to 'make people laugh, not offend' as it returns to London Underground
“It’s an escape from your own life if you like. You literally put on the character to make people laugh. What a wonderful job that is,” he told MyLondon. Clowning since 1971, Mattie serves as the archivist for Clowns International, keeping the spirit of Joey Grimaldi alive and kicking.
One of the everlasting traditions Grimaldi left for his future disciples was an invitation to dance on his grave. Across the border in the Borough of Islington, located off Pentonville Road, visitors will find his burial site that lies kitted out with bronze floor tiles.
Henry Krokatsis, the artist responsible for the installation, tuned the two coffin-shaped tiles to play the tune ‘Hot Codlins’ as people waltz over the top. The second grave was created to honour Charles Dibdin, who was Grimaldi’s mentor, composer, and dramatist.
According to Art UK , Krokatsis explained the impetus was that he “wanted to create a joyous interlude from the silence of death”. Much like Grimaldi’s grave, the annual get-together isn’t what you’d typically expect from a Sunday service.
Think the ‘Clown’s Prayer', puppetry, balloon-animal-making and circus songs played on the organ, as well as instrumental performances by trained comedians. The clowns and “congregation of unusual people” who love clown events are invited to don their best bowler hats, iconic white face paint and clown motley to join along like any other church service.
A lot of what the public recognize as clown dress or make-up, began with Grimaldi’s pantomime creation, molding a character who is a rascal and simpleton, a criminal and innocent fool all into one. Mattie told MyLondon Grimaldi’s influence within the pantomime sphere as a “clown in management position” brought us iconic roles like the first pantomime dame, lines such as “Oh no, it isn’t", and “Oh yes it is!."
Mattie explained Grimaldi’s influence for the pantomime clown took it from being a “country yokel” and elevated to a character with a very “stylized costume with a very stylized face” and had the ability to talk the audience, or “break the third wall”.
Grimaldi’s influence on clowning and its aesthetic lingered around for decades after his death in 1837. Currently Clowns International has an exhibition (DRÔLE: An Exhibition of Rare Clown Costume & Ephemera) running at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, where visitors can discover the evolution of clown dress.
It wasn’t until decades later in the 1920s when other characters of clowns entered the ring, such as the Auguste Clown who introduced the iconic red nose and high eye makeup to the world, the type Mattie claims we would most associate with the idea of a clown today. “Clowning goes off in all different directions,” Mattie said.
“In America, you’ve got the tramp clown, which originated from hobos who went from town to town on railway tracks.”
Mattie scorned the use of clowns for horror and fear, like the character Pennywise in Stephen King’s ‘IT’. He also credited social media for the rise into different subcultures surrounding the identity and character of the clown.
“Horrible, horrible!” Mattie quipped before I could finish asking what he really thought about clown characters like Pennywise. He added: “How dare they use the clown in that way, how dare they use it. The big saving grace is that all the children on social media, they don’t know anything about ‘IT’ and all of those horrible expressions of clowning.”
Matt believes young children would take a clown at face value, but it’s the older generation who always have to find “something different” - he never specified what difference he meant. He also explained not every clown needed to don the traditional motley, such as Rowan Atkinson’s altar ego Mr. Bean, who Mattie claimed you could put a red nose on and he’d be the “perfect clown”.
Mattie reiterated the need to find fun and laughter in everyday life, pointing to a particularly traumatic incident during lockdown which involved a “spoonful of organic peanut butter” and BBC’s Mock The Week.
“During lockdown, I was laying on my bed watching the TV on the wall at the end of my bed. I’ve just had a spoonful of organic peanut butter, and I’m sucking it like a soft sweet, watching Mock The Week,” he began. “Hugh Dennis made me laugh and I choked. This peanut butter went down my windpipe, and I couldn’t breathe and I’m all alone in the house.”
Mattie explained how he stumbled off his bed before “bashing” into a duvet cover drying on a heater, breaking his glasses, and ending up dislodging the peanut butter. He said: “I thought, ‘my goodness I almost died laughing’.”
The Annual Grimaldi Clown Service is back in person after a two years absence, hoping to bring a giant smile to the attendee's and locals' faces. It’s a celebration of life and laughter - just not quite like we know. They concluded their service in 2017 with, “Clowns are the catalyst to laughter, And as Charlie Chaplin said: "A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
For anyone interested in attending the service, it takes place at All Saints Church in Haggerston on Sunday, 5 February at 3pm.
Is there a story you think we should be covering? If so, please email [email protected] or at [email protected]