The future of clowning about is no laughing matter

A clown at the event. Pic: Hannah Boland

A clown at the event. Pic: Hannah Boland

On a frosty Sunday in February the Holy Trinity was overflowing with churchgoers. But these weren’t the normal crowd. A large sunflower bobbed about in the pews. A jolly purple-faced fellow stared blankly at a hymnbook. And amidst the clamour sat a teenager, dressed in spotty red and blue dungarees. His name was ‘Joey the Clown’ and he was here, like his colourful colleagues, for the Clowns International 69th Annual Service.

Since 1946, clowns have descended upon the Haggerston church every first Sunday of February to celebrate the life of Joseph Grimaldi, founder of the modern clown, sporting puppets and red noses. Poems are read, hymns are sung and wigs are adorned.

“We are clowns, we make you smile, we often come for miles and miles”, recites ‘Mattie the Clown’, struggling to make himself heard over the wails of children. But the racket doesn’t seem to bother ‘Joey’, bright and fresh-faced in a sea of washed-out harlequin print.

“I just love the atmosphere on stage performing. I’m really passionate about being a clown. I make all the costumes and balloon bags myself”, he says after the service, gesturing to his outfit, the hair standing up on his pale exposed arms.

The 16-year-old, whose real name he later admits is Jonathan, has been a clown since he was eight years old. He now works as an entertainer when he’s not at school. “I’m doing this part time, so at the weekends and at events like today – oh look they’re banana-ing around over there”. A large inflated banana is flung through the air to cheers from the crowds mingling outside the church. “So anyway, I do go to school still, but clowning takes over my life. You can’t do this job part time.”

However Jonathan is in a minority. Fewer people are choosing clowning as a career path, with the World Clown Association recording a drop in membership from 3,500 in 2004 to 2,500 in 2014. Emma Citron, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in children, sees this as indicative of changing attitudes.

“Children have always been scared of clowns”, she reasons. “When clowns try to engage with children behind this admittedly rather scary made-up white face with big red lips and big red eyes, many kids don’t like it and why should they. I think we’re just beginning to listen to children more.”

“Cover up is something that we’re trying to move away from in the aftermath of the 1970’s and beyond. There is a real worry there that infiltrates down to the children about people dressed up and hiding behind masks and guise.”

Phobias of clowns are not uncommon among children. A survey conducted by the University of Sheffield in 2008 found that almost all of the 250 children asked shared this fear.

‘Jolly Dizzy’ is quick to admit that clowning has been impacted in recent years. “We used to do three shows on Saturday. Now it might be one”, she says, glancing down at the jester-hatted puppet perched on her arm.

Companies specialising in children’s parties are being inundated with requests for themed events. “A very popular party at the moment is [Disney’s] Frozen”, says Tom, director of Lewisham-based party planners Dinky Parties. “We’ve only had a couple that have said they’re looking for a magician or a clown. Actually, thinking about it, we’ve not had any requests for a clown since we opened in September.”

Yet, in the face of waning popularity, Jonathan isn’t concerned. Pulling a balloon out of his bag and twisting it into the shape of a dog, he puts it into the clutching hands of a nearby toddler. “It’s not a dying profession at all”, he chuckles, shaking his head. “I started clowning at eight years old. I’m now sixteen and I’m still doing it. So, no, I don’t think it’s a dying art. I think it’s up and coming. In fact, y’know what, I want to do it for the rest of my life.”

As Jonathan turns away a seasoned clown passes, the white of his face thick and cracked. It’s hard not to notice the roll of his eyes and the knowing look he casts the teenager before tugging off his wig and disappearing through the dressing room doors.

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